Saturday, February 19, 2011

Toomer's trees and a rivalry long out of control

After this year's Iron Bowl, when Auburn left me near comatose with the greatest and most painful comeback I have ever seen, I received a consoling note from my best friend, George.

George is from Toledo, Nick Saban's first head coaching stop, and George despises Alabama. Yet being an Ohio State fan, he long ago earned his merit badge for crushing defeats. He, as much as anyone, knew what I was going through, and he told me this story.

George, it seems, has a friend in Toledo who has a friend who has kept in touch with Saban. Which meant that George's bud was invited to Tuscaloosa to watch the Auburn-Alabama game from a pretty cushy seat, so cushy, in fact, that his neighbors for the evening were Greg McElroy's parents. Afterward, the Tide quarterback and some of his teammates caught up with the group, and George's friend was struck at how even-tempered the players seemed to be, even after what had to be the most crushing loss of their lives.

It just goes to show, George wrote me afterward, that players react to the outcome of a game a lot differently than the fans.

I thought about that point this week when the poisoning of the oaks at Toomer's Corner in Auburn became national news. A former Texas state trooper, who moved to Alabama in 1983 and quickly chose sides in the state's civil war, was charged with dumping pesticide on the most famous trees in college football.

In Auburn, those live oaks are the pillars of sacred ground. For decades, Tiger fans had descended on the site to celebrate victories by rolling the trees with toilet paper. It's a distinctive tradition, and not one I particularly like, given the damage done to the oaks by the pressure washers used to blow the TP out of the boughs. But that's not my call. It's Auburn's ceremony, not mine, certainly not Alabama's.

The suspect in the case, now an Alabama fan so fervent that he named his children Bear and Crimson, told a syndicated radio talk-show host that he poisoned the trees because he heard that Auburn fans, in 1983, went to the Charmin to celebrate Paul Bryant's death. No one can verify that the macabre party ever took place. Suffice to say, however, that Auburn and Alabama fans frequently have taken great glee in the other's misfortune. In the late 1960s, for example, the state's newspapers carried a photo of the Auburn dean of students leading a giant snake dance around campus to celebrate Alabama's loss to SEC doormat Vanderbilt.

In the time since, this most bitter of rivalries has turned increasingly toxic. Each side has been accused of going to greater lengths to bring down the house of the other. Auburn boosters have launched several plots to draw an NCAA investigation of its hated rival. Tiger Nation howled when an Alabama coach was interviewed during the SEC/NCAA probe into the eligibility of AU quarterback Cameron Newton. Alabama fans laughed off talk of any conspiracies, even as significant numbers of them get down on their knees every night praying that AU is found guilty of cheating its way to a national championship.

None of this, however, approaches the level of the attack on the trees at Toomer's Corner. A relationship as heated as this one will always attract extremists. Given enough room to operate, however, the sickos can define the rivalry -- if the so-called normal segments of the fan base stay silent. And that's one of the most troubling aspects of this sordid and ridiculous affair.

My favorite Bama board has the reputation of being one of the most sensible sites on the Web, and early on, the responses to the tree poisonings ranged from disbelief to anger to disgust.

And then the hard-liners took over. The trees were already dying because of the repeated pressure cleanings. Auburn officials knew about the poisoning for weeks but released the news to deflect attention from reports of the NCAA's questioning of AU recruits. And then there was this: Auburn deserves anything they get because of its past actions -- from the spray-painting of Saban's lake house to, allegedly, the vandalism of Bryant's grave -- and, because, well ... Auburn is Auburn. Yes, UA's sense of superiority transcends even this nationwide embarrassment.

Both sides talk openly of retaliation, which may have led Saban and Auburn head coach Gene Chizik to step in Friday and ask for calm, to speak about treating the country's best gridiron rivalry as something even more valuable than Toomer's oaks. But rivalries can be poisoned just as easily as trees, and in Alabama the contamination between the state's two major universities has been profound. As the coarseness of the Internet bleeds more and more into everyday life, the flow of poison has increased and deepened.

That leaves the rivalry at a crossroads. What are the schools and the coaches and the fans and the media that fan the fires prepared to do? If the answer is to blame all of this on a sad figure whose love for a football team led him off the path of a normal life, then we should all prepare for the worst.

The last two national championships live in the state of Alabama. This should be the zenith of a rivalry. Instead, for the moment, we are at its nadir.

It's clearer now than ever before that what brings life to the Auburn-Alabama rivalry can kill it, too. If cooler heads still exist, it's well past time for them to step forward and prove it.

Michael Gordon


Skylark Thibedeau said...

God. What next a Maroon and White crop duster filled with Agent Orange over the Grove?

I hate state on Turkey Day but the rest of the year I hope they win. I'd like to see the Egg Bowl be for a trip to Atlanta every year.

Anonymous said...

Skylark - your viewpoint is valid but it also serves to prove MG's points, and mine as well, as I have been saying for 20 years that no other rivalry in any aspect of sports can match AU-UA. I particularly scoff at the Duke-UNC-CH folks that think they have the greatest rivalry. AU-UA makes Duke-UNC-CH look like a school playground argument over who gets to go down the slide first. In rivalries all over the country you see stories of one side defacing the other side's iconic things or people. Very rarely to you read about one side doing permanent, irreversable damage to something on the other side. MG is right; the lunatic fringe has injected its insanity into this rivalry, and we need to restore some order here. I couldn't care less if Crimson-clad people literally pray for Auburn to be stripped of everything they accomplished this past season. I do care that someone destroys a historical landmark. And I don't want AU fanatics doing anything to any monument to Bear Bryant, Nick Saban or any other 'Bama icon. It's enough to sit back and make fun of Joe Namath for his drunken "I wanna kiss you!" babbling toward Suzie Kolver and say, "hey, there's that 'Bama education on display again!"

I have thoroughly enjoyed trading barbs with MG on this blog the last 2 years. I sincerely hope that that this rivalry can get back to the point where we just talk trash to each other and leave it at that.

Anonymous said...

Another thought on the alleged event that started this whole tree thing... I have no idea if there was a rolling to celebrate Bear's death, but it wouldn't make any sense for there to have been one. He had already retired (albeit only for a month), and Pat Dye had started beating the crap out of Bear on the recruiting trail. But then again, we're talking UA-AU, so it's entirely possible some really sick people decided to throw a party to celebrate a football rival dying.

And if I'm a betting man, I'll bet the farm that the reason dude decided to kill the trees is that he read about this alleged death party on the internet. And of course, if it's on the internet, it must be undisputed gospel truth, so he had to seek revenge, right???????

Michael said...

The 'Net, as we all know, is our modern day Bible. Everything that is said there must be taken as The Word.

That goes double for the Expats.