Auburn tree poisoning at Toomer's Corner...

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Kenny Wilder
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Sun Feb 20, 2011 11:58 am

... leaves Alabama-Auburn rivalry at toxic crossroads

Published: Sunday, February 20, 2011, 6:00 AM
By Hannah Wolfson -- The Birmingham News


Image Enlarge Joe Songer -- The Birmingham News
Hundreds gathered at Toomers Corner in Auburn Alabama Saturday February 19, 2011 for the Toomer's Tree Hug event at the base of the two poisoned oak trees near the Auburn Campus. The event was organized by Auburn student Erin St. John. People brought flowers and rolls of toilet paper with messages written on them, took pictures and viewed the trees. (Joe Songer-The Birmingham News)

Also contributing: Izzy Gould -- News Tuscaloosa Bureau
and Evan Woodbery -- News Auburn Bureau


Hate is a strong word, especially when it comes to college football.

But there's hate in the hearts of many fans of Auburn University and the University of Alabama, even if many deny that part of the historic rivalry between the two schools.

Since the news broke that someone -- allegedly an Alabama fan named Harvey Almorn Updyke -- had poured a lethal dose of herbicide on the iconic oaks at Toomer's Corner in Auburn, some students say the passion that drives supporters has gone too far.

And as horticulturists struggle to keep the trees alive, others are asking whether the rivalry itself has gotten too poisonous.

"I sometimes do hate the University of Alabama. I hate when they win and I hate when they beat us. But I respect them," said Auburn junior Ben Price. "We need to work toward making this rivalry better and stop how ridiculous some of these fans have gotten."

While fans have joined together in solidarity and both universities have been quick to disavow the poisoning -- and to note that Updyke, 62, of Dadeville, didn't attend UA and wasn't a season ticketholder -- some insist it's a crucial moment for the two schools.

"You look at what Alabama accomplished in 2009 and what Auburn accomplished in 2010 -- I think this is the rivalry at its best," said David Housel, an Auburn graduate and former athletic director. "But there are some people who begrudge the other school having any success. It is that element of fans that cause trouble.

"I think this is a time when the good fans and good people on both sides need to step forward and say, 'let's not let this affect our rivalry.'"

Even if Alabamians understand that poisoning the Toomer's oaks was going too far, outside observers may not understand that all fans don't feel as strongly, said Stewart Mandel, a Sports Illustrated writer who called the rivalry a double-edged sword.

"Maybe this was the tipping-point incident that's going to make people step back a bit and bring sanity back to the rivalry," Mandel said. "A lot of teams say they hate the other team, but it just doesn't resonate with quite as nasty a tone as you've seen in the last year."

A long history

The rivalry between Auburn and Alabama has long been intense, so much so that the series between them wasn't played for most of the first four decades of the 20th century. But in 1948, student body presidents from both schools literally buried the hatchet, sinking an ax into the ground in a Birmingham park.

During that hiatus, Alabama took a role on the national football stage by playing in -- and winning -- the 1926 Rose Bowl. At a time when the state was better known for its crushing poverty and racism, said retired Auburn history professor Wayne Flynt, football became one of residents' few sources of pride.

"All of a sudden, Alabama rallied around the team -- not just Alabama fans but Auburn fans as well," Flynt said. "There was once a time when our concern about being good transcended our state of being for Auburn or Alabama. We just wanted the state to be successful at something."

That same feeling brought both schools fans with no formal affiliation, Flynt said, and he believes many of them are still the ones most likely to feel what he called a "poisonous, toxic animosity."

He and others said the close competition of the last two years -- when first Alabama and then Auburn dominated college football so totally, winning both the Heisman Trophy and the national championship -- have made the usually intense rivalry even more bitter.

And in the anonymity of the Internet, that anger can take a vicious turn, with unidentified commenters hurling profanity-laced insults, stating outrageous fictions as fact and sometimes making threats.

"In the best of worlds, this is a bit of a wake-up call," said Warren St. John, a Birmingham native and Alabama fan who wrote "Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer," a book about the passions behind the game. "Football is a game, and if you can't see it that way, maybe you should get some help. ... This is someone who couldn't step away from the game and it had come to define his entire life," he said.

While most Alabamians understand the passions behind college football, it's harder to explain to the outside world, said St. John, who lives and works in New York City. This event hasn't made it easier.

"Most people from outside Alabama don't say, 'That's an Auburn fan or a UA fan.' They just say, 'That's another Southern football fan or another crazy-seeming fan from Alabama,'" St. John said. "That's why I think it's important for everyone to collectively condemn that kind of behavior."

The condemnations have come fast and furious from supporters of both schools.

"The poisoning of the trees had nothing to do with the rivalry," said John McMahon Jr., chairman of the athletics committee of the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees. "It was the act of a stupid criminal who is using it to explain a disgusting, malicious act. ... Real Alabama fans are as shocked and disgusted as anyone."

Auburn President Jay Gogue insisted UA bears no blame in the incident and that any school can have a fan take things too far.

"I know them and they're good people. I'm sure they're disappointed," he said. "We're going to move on and make the best we can out of this."

His counterpart at UA called the rivalry one of the state's long-standing traditions.

"Like many fans, I enjoy the friendly competition," UA President Robert Witt said in an e-mail.

"There is a great deal of respect between the two universities," Alabama Coach Nick Saban agreed, adding that "it is important that we continue to respect one another in the spirit of good sportsmanship for many years to come."

That respect has often been demonstrated as a closeness between the colleges' coaches, said Clem Gryska, a former UA player and coach who also served as an administrator at the museum dedicated to the memory of the late coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.

Longtime Auburn coach Ralph "Shug" Jordan and Bryant "were the best of friends," Gryska said. "They were very copacetic all the time. I just can't understand how something like this could go on."

Taking action

But others say there's more to be done than decry the event or call for the vandal's head. Mandel, for one, said Saban and Auburn Coach Gene Chizik, who made a joint statement Friday, should take the lead.

"Saban and Chizik are the guys the fans are going to listen to the most," the sportswriter said.

Their statement read: "This is an isolated incident by one individual that is not representative of what the greatest rivalry in college football is all about. The players and coaches at both schools have a tremendous amount of respect for each other on and off the field, and we encourage our fans to show that same amount of respect now and in the future. We will move beyond this regrettable incident and continue to enjoy this great rivalry."

Some fans have called for a return to the decades when the Iron Bowl -- the annual Auburn-Alabama football game -- didn't happen. But that's almost impossible to imagine in an era when Forbes Magazine calculates each team's worth as being more than $70 million and the economic impact of that one game is tallied in the millions.

The 2010 game drew more than 12.5 million viewers on CBS, making it the most-watched up to that point in the season.

Some UA alumni have taken matters into their own hands, setting up a Facebook group called Tide for Toomer's, which has so far raised more than $32,000 toward either saving or replacing the ailing trees. Gina Smith, a 2003 Alabama graduate who's working on the effort, said the poisoning hurts both schools.

"I think people are questioning why people in Alabama are acting so crazy, why has this has gotten so out of hand, and we're just trying to bring some sanity to the situation," said Smith, who calls herself one of the world's biggest Alabama fans. "I can occasionally rib friends and family; I know people who play pranks on one another. This is completely unacceptable."

The presidents of both student bodies issued a joint statement calling for unity.

Toomers Tree Hug

Hundreds gathered at Toomers Corner in Auburn Alabama Saturday February 19, 2011 for the Toomer's Tree Hug event at the base of the two poisoned oak trees near the Auburn Campus. The event was organized by Auburn student Erin St. John. People brought flowers and rolls of toilet paper with messages written on them, took pictures and viewed the trees. (Joe Songer-The Birmingham News)

"Now more than ever is a time to reflect on what this rivalry means to all the people associated with these two universities," Kurt Sasser of Auburn and James Fowler of Alabama wrote. "We must ensure that the values our universities have imbued in us -- values of respect, fairness, empathy and honesty -- live on for future generations. Part of that responsibility is to make certain that the greatest rivalry in college sports goes forward in an atmosphere of honor and mutual respect."

The two schools' leaders already meet up once a year on Better Relations Day, which includes the signing of a pledge to uphold the rivalry's legacy.

"I hope these kinds of events continue," said Ian Sams, a spokesman for UA's student government association. "I trust that they will, and I know they'll foster the kind of deep respect that this rivalry needs to continue on into the future."

Price, the Auburn student, agreed that things have to start with the students currently on each campus. A Kentucky native who chose Auburn in part because of its football traditions, he said he's saddened that he won't someday be able to bring his own children to Toomer's Corner as it is today. But he hopes something good will come of the event.

"I think maybe something like this needed to happen," Price said. "The current students are the ones that are going to need to set the tone and take the lead. .¤.¤. It all begins with the students.

"It's up to us."
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Sun Feb 20, 2011 12:02 pm

The act of an Alabama fan poisoning the 130 year old Live Oak Trees at Auburn University is totally unacceptable.
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Mon Feb 21, 2011 8:35 am

This act, as horrible as it was, is NOT indicative of Alamaba graduates, the students, the University or anything other than what it was, a single, malicious, act by an inbreed idiot, who in my humble opinion should be fined heavily and imprisoned.

There is not a pattern of this type of behavior, as heated a rivalry as this is and has been over the past decades. Being from Alabama and having family members graduates of both, I enjoy and relish in the rivalry. There is NO rivalry like this one.

I hope he meets the strong end of the law and I hope Auburn rises to the occasion and takes the high road on this. I am quite sure Alabama fans and grads alike, do not endorse this type of behavior and feel as badly about this as Auburn fans.

WAR EAGLE!
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Thu Feb 24, 2011 7:55 am

Toomer's Corner trees: Alabama, Auburn SGAs to announce 'expression of unity'

Published: Wednesday, February 23, 2011, 12:21 PM
By Press-Register staff


AUBURN, Alabama -- The Student Government Associations and student leaders of the University of Alabama and Auburn University announced that they will hold a joint news conference today on the Auburn campus to "announce a joint venture that will be an expression of renewed unity."

The event is to take place at 1 p.m. in front of Auburn's Samford Hall.

SGA Presidents Kurt Sasser of Auburn and James Fowler of Alabama are to describe a project planned for both campuses. In the wake of the poisoning of the Toomer's Corner trees, which has created ill will between some Auburn and Alabama fans, the student leaders say they hope the project "will create a permanent and visible representation of a mutual respect for our age-old rivalry."

"We will make a public announcement regarding an exciting joint venture initiated by students leaders at both our universities," Auburn SGA President Kurt Sasser said in a news release. "We want to capitalize on this opportunity to renew the sense of respect in this rivalry. Moving forward, I can't think of a better way to do so than a joint project between our university and Alabama."

James Fowler, president of the University of Alabama student government, said UA students "were terribly disappointed by the vandalism," but are "excited about working with Auburn to underscore the honor of the Iron Bowl.

"I know this joint venture will be a lasting monument to our rivalry for generations of students, alumni, and fans to come."

A self-proclaimed University of Alabama Crimson Tide fan, Harvey Updyke, has been charged with poisoning the famed Toomer's Corner trees, which Auburn Tigers fans traditionally festoon with toilet paper after a bit sports win. Upset about the negative image that the event cast upon Tide fans, a group of fans set up a "Tide for Toomer's" web page, which has raised at least $40,000 to date. Last week, Sasser and Fowler both called for "mutual respect" between the 2 fan bases.

WAR EAGLE!

ROLL TIDE!
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