Auburn's poisoned trees: When good college rivalries go bad

By Tracee Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 12:40 AM

Fans gathered this past weekend to mourn two trees, and anyone who really loves college sports doesn't find that at all strange.

The oaks had stood at Toomer's Corner in Auburn for 130 years and the scenic spot was the site of countless celebrations by fans celebrating big victories, including the night of Jan. 10, when the Tigers beat Oregon for the national title.

That night, while Auburn fans celebrated around them, those trees were already doomed. An Alabama fan named Harvey Updyke Jr. poured tree-destroying pesticide on the oaks after last November's Iron Bowl, the annual football game between Alabama and Auburn, won last year by the Tigers.

This was not the act of some drunken teenager. Updyke, who has been charged with first-degree criminal mischief, is 62, and his crime came to light because he called a radio show to brag about what he'd done. "Mischief" somehow doesn't cover it.

There have been rivalries in sports since two cavemen decided to see who could chuck the most rocks in a hole to impress some cavewoman, I suppose. There are great rivalries in all sports, but college rivalries are special. (We know this because they get their own week on ESPN.) Michigan-Ohio State. Duke-North Carolina. UCLA-USC. Florida-Georgia.


Crimson Tide fans are unhappy about losing to Auburn last fall, especially after blowing a 24-point lead to the eventual national champions, and they don't like Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton one bit. Fair enough.

But Alabama was the national champion one year ago, and its star, Mark Ingram, was the Heisman winner. Apparently a one-year drought was too much for Updyke's delicate psyche.

And let's be clear about one thing: This is one man. This is not all of Alabama's students, alums, fans and players. One man. One angry man.

I wonder what it would be like to get that angry about losing a football game less than a year after winning the national championship. To understand, my alma mater would first have to win a national championship in football. I'm guessing I'll go to my grave without knowing what that's like. By Updyke's standards, I should single-handedly destroy a forest in Nebraska. Or at least a corn crop.

That would, of course, be crazy. Because we're talking about a sporting event. And when a football game - or basketball game, or whatever - causes fans to inflict harm on people or property, that goes deeper than a love of your alma mater or your favorite school. In the vernacular, you've got issues.

I take a back seat to no one in my love of the University of Kansas. I grew up in a room with KU wallpaper; I was the Baby Jay mascot for a year; I have a Jayhawk tattoo and a red and blue woman cave. My cats are named Phog Allen and Doc Naismith, for Pete's sake. But how love turns to hate in these situations, I don't understand. Maybe, unlike Updyke, I'm maturing with age. Last year, when Kansas made its semi-annual early exit from the NCAA tournament, I admit a part of me began pulling for K-State. I have friends and family who went to school there, after all, and the Wildcats do wear the name "Kansas" on their chests. Last week, when K-State knocked off my No. 1 Jayhawks, I shrugged. I wasn't surprised, and we didn't deserve to win, playing as badly as we did.

My own example aside, rivalries seem more intense in 2011 than they did, say, 40 years ago. Students seem to go on rampages now at the drop of a hat, win or lose. And vandalism is a lot more appealing, apparently, when you can post the results on Facebook or YouTube.

Maybe that's what turns me off about all the "hate" talk. College sports should be joyful. Its traditions, such as Toomer's Corner and cries of "Roll Tide," are among the few things that can bind generations of fans. Its rivalries, such as Auburn-Alabama, should be a reminder of being respectful of our differences, not an excuse to behave like idiots.

Alabama asked for and got police protection for the statue of Bear Bryant outside its football stadium after the news of Updyke's actions came out last week. The Bryant statue has been the subject of Auburn pranks before, but Alabama officials were worried those pranks would escalate in the wake of the tree poisonings.

Some Alabama fans were quick to point out the wrongs inflicted by Auburn fans, and I know there have been some. But at some point, shouldn't "He started it!" be left on the playground where it belongs?

Happily, there were Alabama fans scattered among the mourners gathered at Toomer's Corner this weekend. And Alabama and Auburn fans have together pledged $80,000 to save - or replace - the oaks. Perhaps Updyke's senseless and idiotic act will lead to one positive result: more respect and less vandalism between two of college football's great programs.

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