And then something really crazy happened.
The bitter rivalry between Alabama and Auburn became less bitter.
|Auburn fans gather to commemorate the historic trees that were allegedly poisoned by an Alabama fan. (AP)|
And that's what many are saying now about Alabama and Auburn fans: They're wacko. Nuts. Delusional about the importance of a college football rivalry in a world with much bigger issues. That's the spin from the crime at Toomer's Corner, spun most entertainingly by AOL FanHouse writer Clay Travis when he asked, "How crazy are football fans in Alabama? Everyone in the rest of the SEC even thinks they're crazy."
This, from a fan of Tennessee -- whose fans rioted last year outside the building where Lane Kiffin was saying goodbye to his team after taking the job at Southern California. Spurned Tennessee fans burned mattresses and Kiffin shirts, they tried to get inside the building to do Lord knows what, and they loomed menacingly over any car leaving the area, just in case Kiffin was inside. And a writer from Tennessee is making jokes about Alabama and Auburn fans being the craziest of all? Well, sure. Because in a way, he's right.
The Alabama-Auburn rivalry is the most intense rivalry in sports. That debate comes up when some other big rivalry reignites -- Duke-North Carolina, Oregon-Oregon State, Yankees-Red Sox -- but it shouldn't. The Iron Bowl features two schools who share a state with no other BCS team or professional franchise, and they compete not only for local bragging rights but also for conference and national championships.
There's nothing like it, which is why Auburn-Alabama is the most passionate, most intense, most 365-days-a-year rivalry in American sports. I'm like Nashville native Clay Travis. I'm a son of the SEC -- I grew up in Oxford, Miss., and attended the University of Florida -- and I'm here to tell you: Nothing compares to Auburn-Alabama.
And along comes this alleged psycho, this Harvey Updyke, to give the rivalry a face.
And fans from both sides recoiled. Because this is not who they are.
I mean, this is not who most of them are. Some of them could well be wacky. Every fan base has a lunatic fringe, like those losers at Tennessee who raised such a ruckus that police officers were sent to Kiffin's house. Just in case.
And the Alabama-Auburn rivalry has had its share of low moments. Before the 2005 Iron Bowl, an Alabama fan yelled "Roll Tide" and a fight ensued. Three Auburn fraternity members were stabbed.
Crazy things happen, and they happen everywhere, and they usually serve to widen the divide between Us and Them. But the poisoning of two 130-year-old oaks at Toomer's Corner, where Auburn fans roll the trees with toilet paper after big victories, didn't divide the fan bases of Auburn and Alabama. It brought them together -- not merely in defiance of one deranged fan's evil act, but in defiance of the national reaction that the Alabama-Auburn rivalry was personified by such evil.
Five Alabama fans created a Facebook site called Tide for Toomer's. Those five fans, who told me in emails that they're all former Alabama students, wrote that they made the website for "fans of the Crimson Tide [to] contribute money to Auburn University's efforts to rehabilitate or replace the poisoned trees. ... We want you to know that we do not accept what [the perpetrator] has done ... and although he claims to support the University of Alabama, in no way does he represent us or our alma mater."
By itself, that's a wonderful gesture. Classy. Dignified.
|More on tree poisoning|
With one act of 'Treeson' the Alabama-Auburn rivalry is back on. I shudder to think what could possibly come next. Read >>
But then it went viral.
Within days, Tide for Toomer's had been "friended" by more than 57,000 people and had raised close to $40,000. Most of those folks are Alabama fans, of course, but organizers estimate that more than 10,000 Auburn people have backed the movement, too.
Inside the rivalry, the coaches of the football teams that generate such friction -- 2010 national champion Gene Chizik of Auburn, 2009 national champion Nick Saban of Alabama -- issued a soothing joint statement that called the tree poisoning "an isolated incident by one individual that is not representative of what the greatest rivalry in college football is all about. ... We will move beyond this regrettable incident and continue to enjoy this great rivalry."
Check out the URL of the press release. Ever think you'd see the day when Nick Saban put his name on a joint statement with the coach at Auburn? On a statement released on the Auburn.edu website? That day is here. And it feels right.
Meanwhile, the rest of the country will make wrong jokes about Alabama-Auburn fans -- as if some scumbag trying to kill 130-year-old trees represents those fans. That scumbag does not, but national reports like this one from NBC don't help. NBC reported, as fact, the urban legend that Auburn fans toilet-papered Toomer's Corner on the January 1983 day when Bear Bryant died.
It never happened. Auburn fans in 1983 weren't so classless as to celebrate a great man's death -- just like Alabama fans today aren't so classless as to celebrate a much lesser man's tree poison.
And that's the final irony of the crime at Toomer's Corner. A fanatic didn't succeed in tearing asunder Alabama and Auburn. Just the opposite -- he united them. This isn't permanent, obviously. They won't watch the 2011 Iron Bowl with hands clasped.
But Alabama and Auburn fans have seen the face of true hatred.
And they want no part of it.