Crews work to remove toilet paper from the two poisoned oak trees before spraying the leaves with a coating at Toomer's Corner in Auburn, Ala., on Thursday. Harvey Almorn Updyke Jr. has been charged for poisoning the landmark live oak trees on the Auburn University campus. (AP Photo/ The Birmingham News, Michelle Campbell)
The poisoning of two famed oak trees at Auburn by an Alabama fan has cast a negative light on college football's most passionate in-state rivalry, but representatives of both schools do not believe the rivalry should have to suffer.
"I look at it as an individual thing, and the guy needs to go to jail," former Auburn coach Pat Dye said Thursday. "A man who will do that will poison your dog, your cat and your children. People can spin this any way they want to, but this was a guy who was off his medicine."
Harvey Almorn Updyke Jr. from Dadeville, Ala., was arrested early Thursday morning in connection with pouring lethal amounts of herbicide around the 130-year-old trees at Toomer's Corner. The 62-year-old was charged with first-degree criminal mischief, a Class C felony that could carry a sentence of up to 10 years if he's convicted.
Auburn fans since the early 1980s have celebrated victories by rolling the two trees at Toomer's Corner, and it had a mammoth gathering Jan. 10 after the Tigers toppled Oregon to win their first national title since 1957. The trees will try to be saved, university experts said Thursday, even though the poison could be in the soil as long as five years.
"Beano Cook once said the state of Alabama is the Mideast of college football, and this is one of those times that makes Beano right," said former Auburn athletic director David Housel, who attended 50 Iron Bowls in a row. "I don't know that this incident will have a great effect on the rivalry, but it certainly could. There have always been fraternity-type pranks, but killing those trees takes it a step further. It's never been this bad.
"This is a time for good people on both sides to step forward and say that we're not going to let something like this affect our rivalry. The good people have to step forward, and I think they have."
Alabama athletic director Mal Moore was among the first to address the poisoning Wednesday, calling it an "awful act." Thursday, Alabama revealed that Updyke never attended the university, nor has he ever been a season-ticket holder.
Tim Miller, a longtime officer of the Chattanooga chapter of the Alabama Alumni & Friends Association and a past president of the club, said incidents such as this are making the rivalry far more ugly than fun. Miller said he sat behind two Auburn fans this past November at Bryant-Denny Stadium and had a great time, even though his Crimson Tide couldn't hold a 24-0 lead and succumbed 28-27.
"We talked back and forth the whole game, and we even walked out of there together, but some of those people in that state are just crazy," Miller said. "There are idiots on both sides. I just do not get why you would kill an old oak tree over a ballgame.
"Some guy called me and said we've already got so many kids committed for 2012, and I was like 'Who cares?' I hate that somebody did this. It may be the ugliest rivalry around now."
An individual referring to himself as "Al from Dadeville" called the Paul Finebaum Radio Show late last month and said he poisoned the trees several days after Auburn's win in Tuscaloosa. He ended the call by saying, "Roll [expletive] Tide."
"I don't see this as an Auburn-Alabama thing at all," Housel said. "I see this as an act of one guy who a lot of people might say is deranged. I would hate to think I have to go to bed with all that bitterness and anger and resentment and jealousy and then wake up with it again the next morning.
"And Auburn is far more than those oak trees. Auburn's greatest asset is its spirit, and it's a spirit that can never be defeated and can never be subdued."
Alabama and Auburn have taken turns going 14-0 and winning the BCS national championship the last two seasons, and Crimson Tide tailback Mark Ingram and Tigers quarterback Cam Newton have won the last two Heisman trophies. The schools also played the most-watched game of the 2010 regular season.
The Tide hold a 40-34-1 series edge, but the Tigers are 17-12 since their 23-22 victory in 1982, which was the final regular-season game for legendary Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.
"Our fans get treated a whole lot worse when we go to Gainesville or Athens than we do in Tuscaloosa," Dye said. "This is an unfortunate situation, and we just need to find a way to make something positive out of something negative. All of the Alabama fans don't feel the way this guy did, and I would bet most of them are sick about it.
"Alabama loses here just as much as Auburn does."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...