Football rivals like Alabama-Auburn can learn from tree tragedy

An attempt to ruin a football tradition by poisoning famous oaks illustrates the dangers of extreme fan behavior.

Dave Martin/AP/File
The trees at Toomer's Corner in Auburn, Ala., are adorned with thousands of rolls of toilet paper Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010, following Auburn's 56-17 win over South Carolina in the Southeastern Conference Championship NCAA college football game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

As Alabama and Auburn prepare to take the field Saturday in their annual 'Iron Bowl' rivalry, the state’s focus will be on trees as well as football.

The connection between the two was made painfully obvious to the fans of both teams last January when a diehard Alabama fan professed to a mean-spirited act that went far beyond mere mischief and angered and embarrassed each school’s supporters.   

Harvey Updyke, a retired Texas state trooper, has been charged with poisoning the famous oak trees at the main entrance to the Auburn campus. The trees, which have played an integral role in the university’s football tradition, have grown for many year’s at Toomer’s Corner, named for Sheldon Toomer, a halfback on Auburn’s first football team in 1892. Toomer opened a drugstore across the street after graduating and the oaks have become a rallying area for fans after big Auburn victories. The celebrations have evolved to include draping the trees in toilet paper. 

Against his lawyer’s advice, Mr. Updyke has apologized on a popular Birmingham sports-talk radio show for criminal mischief involving the trees while pleading he’s not guilty(He faces multiple charges, including two counts of desecrating a venerable object. The case is scheduled to go to trial in March.). 

The vengeful prank first came to light two months after last year’s dramatic 28-27 Auburn victory over Alabama, when a caller identifying himself as “Al from Dadeville” boasted of poisoning the trees with Spike 80DF, a herbicide which is used to killed vegetation along highways among other uses. Prosecutors say 'Al' is Updyke, whose passion for Alabama football inspired him to name a daughter Crimson Tide and a son Bear Bryant, in honor of the school’s legendary coach from 1958 to 1982.

Heroic efforts have been made to save the trees, but their leafless branches paint an ominous picture.

The outcome of last year’s Auburn-Alabama game was especially hard for Alabama fans to swallow. National champions in 2009, the 2010 squad led Auburn at one point in the first half, 24-0. But the Tigers stormed back to secure a stunning come-from-behind victory that helped quarterback Cam Newton lock up the Heisman Trophy and Auburn land a spot in the BCS national championship game, which it won by beating Oregon, 22-19.

The news of the tree poisoning that followed came as a shocker to the entire football-crazed state. Alabama coach Nick Saban was quick to distance his team, the university, and Crimson Tide fans from the incident, saying the perpetrator in no way represents any of them. Alabama backers even generously raised $50,000 to donate to efforts to save the oaks.

The gesture no doubt has helped to calm the waters and lend perspective to one of the fiercest rivalries in college sports. Still, there is plenty of room for more efforts to keep rivalries from taking on a mean edge and using them to promote good sportsmanship. 

Here are several ways that major rivals, be they Auburn and Alabama, Michigan and Ohio State, or Florida and Florida State – all of whom face off this weekend – could possibly put a friendlier face on what are sometimes touted as grudge matches.

-       Hold a joint pre-game dinner for the rival teams at which the players are seated alternately at the table to ensure that they mix and converse with one another. This has long been a tradition for the neighboring high school teams in Watertown and Belmont, Mass., before their big Thanksgiving Day game.

-       Have the rival teams run onto the field together.

-       Introduce the parents of the team captains at halftime, escorted by the opposing team’s cheerleaders.

-       Have the marching bands play the alma mater of the rival school.

-       Play a message on the in-stadium video board recorded by the opposing coaches that encourages sporting behavior by the fans.

-       And certainly in the case of Alabama and Auburn, start a tree-planting tradition in which senior players from the visiting team plant a tree on the rival’s campus each year.

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