You can debate all you want about which college football rivalry is the biggest. The truth is, it's whichever one your team is involved in. But the higher the stakes in a given game, the bigger the rivalry becomes to the rest of us, and for the past two years, none has loomed larger than Alabama-Auburn.
The in-state foes have claimed the sport's past two national championships. Last year's Iron Bowl, in which the Cam Newton-led Tigers rallied from a 24-0 deficit to win 28-27, was the most scintillating game of the 2010 season. As a result, folks from all over the country are getting a window into the bitter Southern rivalry.
Unfortunately, that might not be a good thing.
The disturbing news this week that an Alabama fan intentionally poisoned the 130-year-old oak trees at Auburn's landmark Toomer's Corner has cast a pall over one of the sport's most celebrated rivalries. To be clear, the alleged culprit appears to be a particularly deranged man who acted alone, and Crimson Tide fans far and wide have denounced 62-year-old Harvey Almorn Updyke's crime. This isn't the kind of prank that results in high-fives from fellow fans, and it might land Updyke behind bars.
But it only takes one nut-job to give all the one-level-below-nut-jobs a bad name.
"What this guy did is horrible and disgusting and an embarrassment -- not just to all Alabama fans but everyone in Alabama -- because it reinforces the view that we're a group of people that have completely lost perspective of the meaning of college sports," said New York Times writer Warren St. John, a Birmingham native and Crimson Tide fan who authored an acclaimed book about Alabama fanhood, Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer. "In my opinion, while that's occasionally the case, most people can step back from the insanity and when the game is over, go back to their normal lives, but there's a handful of people that can't do that, and it ruins it for everyone."
That's because fans in most of the country don't get to spend fall Saturdays among the sundresses and picnic blankets on The Quad in Tuscaloosa or The Loveliest Village on the Plains. They don't get to enjoy the pregame pageantry of The March of Champions before a 'Bama game or the Tiger Walk before an Auburn game. They've never heard the thunderous roar before kickoff at Bryant-Denny Stadium or when The War Eagle takes flight over Jordan-Hare.
They only know what they read and what they hear, and over the past year, stories like the Newton pay-for-play scandal and the Toomer's Corner poisoning have garnered as much attention as the teams' respective championships. The bile-spilling fans who post comments on the Birmingham News website or the over-the-top callers who help fill five hours a day on the Paul Finebaum radio show may represent an inordinately rabid minority of the two fan bases, but they're the ones who are seen and heard.
"We're from Alabama -- you can't make this s--- up," Auburn alum Charles Barkley told ESPN.com after the Toomer's Corner poisoning. "Some things just happen there, and people want to know why we rank 48th in education. It's just sad. I would have felt better about it if it was a young kid. But an old man who has nothing better to do? That's just sad."
The motive behind Updyke's alleged act is a level of hatred toward a rival football team that probably seems incomprehensible to the average fan but is hardly unique among those who live in Alabama. Ohio State fans may claim to hate Michigan, Stanford fans may claim to hate Cal, etc., but for the most part those feelings are closer to dislike. Many Alabama and Auburn fans really do hate the other team, sometimes to an unhealthy extent. Football allegiance is often a core part of the identity of those who grow up in Alabama. They don't all go around poisoning trees, but the poison tongue or poison pen can be ugly in its own right.
The nastiness between the two sides quite clearly intensified during Auburn's unanticipated rise to prominence this past year. Many Alabama fans were beside themselves that Auburn stole their Heisman and championship thunder so quickly. Then the Newton allegations surfaced. To this day, Tide fans are indignant that Auburn "cheated" its way to a championship. Tiger fans in turn are resentful over the continued attacks. It all spilled over into the recent recruiting season, when hyped recruit Cyrus Kouandjio's decision between the two elicited all sorts of mudslinging on his Facebook page. Visit a message board for either team today and you'll find all sorts of unfounded allegations about recruits in this recent class being paid or given cars.
"To me, words matter, and the dialogue has gotten a lot worse -- you could see it this past year," said Jon Solomon, who covers college sports for the Birmingham News. "Going back to the Iron Bowl, when Alabama officials played the [pregame] music [Take the Money and Run and Son of a Preacher Man] for Cam Newton. Yeah, it sounds stupid, it's just a little part of the rivalry, but you keep doing that, it inflames people. Now it's trees. What's next?"
The scary thing is, the bitterness figures to intensify if both programs remain national contenders.
In the aftermath of Updyke's Thursday morning arrest, Solomon's paper asked readers: "Has the Alabama-Auburn rivalry gone too far?" The Iron Bowl was suspended from 1907-1948, and a poll asked readers whether it should be suspended again. Remarkably, more than 40 percent said "yes."
Obviously, that's not going to happen; the SEC and CBS would make sure of it. Plus, most would agree that one mad man's actions shouldn't bring down such an important event. Still, the mere thought of next year's Iron Bowl -- still nine months away -- conjures frightening possibilities.
The state's governor, Robert Bentley, has asked that fans be "controlled in their response," but even he can't bring about a détente. For one thing, the fans aren't going to suddenly start caring less, and that's really what this is about: some care far too much. As long as Finebaum remains on the air and the Internet still functions in Alabama, there will be more than enough forums in which the two fan bases can keep riling up one another. As St. John noted, it only takes one lunatic acting on that hatred to ruin things for everyone else.
The rise of Alabama and Auburn may be good for the state, but it's a double-edged sword for college football. In a sport already plagued by a host of ills right now -- from last year's agent scandals to investigations into corruption at the Fiesta Bowl -- the national game of the year next season could again feature a rivalry that's becoming increasingly squeam-inducing.
"I hope this [incident] will serve people to examine the cultural importance that sports fans put on the games to begin with," said St. John. "College football has gotten so far away from anything that should be associated with higher learning; that's a bit alarming. We see that all the time, with players getting paid, coaches making so much money, and now this guy at Auburn -- all of that paints a picture of something that's out of control, that gives me an uneasy feeling as a fan."
Unfortunately, the ship has sailed on most of those issues. College football fans have long since grown to accept their pseudo-amateurish pastime for all its warts. The one thing they can control is their own behavior.
More than any other sport, college football prides itself on passion. Its fans are as integral to the experience as the helmets and the spread offense. But apparently there's a finer line than we could have imagined between passion and poison.
In an ideal world, it wouldn't take dying trees to figure this out. But if the end result is a bunch of Alabama and Auburn fans backing away from the keyboard, or thinking twice before hitting "submit," maybe something good can come out of this after all. An Iron Bowl without all the vitriol would be soothing not just for the state of Alabama, but for the sport it represents.