Commentary

Toomer's Corner poisoning a new low

Originally Published: February 17, 2011
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

The Stanford Tree has gone into witness protection.

Uga's owners are using Gators to taste test their English bulldog's Alpo.

Bevo is even masquerading as a buffalo.

Apparently, it's open season on college football's greatest traditions.

[+] EnlargeToomer's Corner Trees
AP Photo/Dave MartinThousands showed up at Toomer's Corner after Auburn won the BCS title.

In one of the strangest twists in college football's fiercest rivalry, Auburn police on Thursday morning arrested a 62-year-old man for intentionally poisoning the 130-year-old oak trees at Toomer's Corner, which for generations have been rolled with toilet paper by Auburn fans after sports victories.

Harvey Almorn Updyke Jr. of Dadeville, Ala., was arrested and charged with felony criminal mischief. Updyke, a supposed Alabama football fan, is accused of applying a lethal dose of herbicide into the soil surrounding the trees.

Apparently, Updyke was even dumb enough to call Paul Finebaum's nationally syndicated radio show and brag about it.

Updyke's bond was set at $50,000, and he was still being held by authorities early Thursday. If convicted, Updyke faces one to 10 years in prison. Auburn police chief Tommy Dawson said Updyke might face additional charges.

Updyke -- who might be forever known as "Toomer's Coroner" -- is a retired former Texas state trooper. He has a daughter named Crimson and a son named Bear, according to one of his ex-wives. His Facebook page includes a photo of him wearing a Crimson Tide hat and T-shirt. Allegedly, he even owns dogs named "Bammer" and "Bear."

Talk about being "All In."

"We're from Alabama -- you can't make this s--- up," said former Auburn basketball star Charles Barkley. "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."

Auburn officials are working feverously to save one of college football's greatest traditions. The soil surrounding the trees has reportedly been saturated with liquid charcoal in an attempt to absorb the herbicide, but Auburn officials say the trees likely can't be saved. Experts say the poison could remain in the soil for as long as five years.

If there's any real justice in the SEC, Updyke will spend his time in prison watching replays of last season's Iron Bowl, in which his beloved Crimson Tide blew a 24-0 lead in a 28-27 loss to Auburn. Or, even worse, he'll be required to watch an endless marathon of the Mike DuBose era.

All joking aside, what Updyke is accused of doing is despicable, especially for a grown man. A playful fraternity prank is one thing, but attempting to eliminate a school's most sacred tradition is indeed criminal.

Since the early 1960s, Auburn fans have gathered at the intersection of Magnolia Avenue and College Street to drape the branches of trees across the street from Toomer's Drugs with rolls and rolls of TP.

Auburn police began investigating whether the trees were poisoned shortly after a man claiming to be "Al from Dadeville" phoned Finebaum's radio show on Jan. 27 to brag about dumping Spike 80DF, also known as tebuthiuron, on the trees.

"The weekend after the Iron Bowl, I went to Auburn, Alabama, because I live 30 miles away, and I poisoned the two Toomer's trees," the caller said. "I put Spike 80DF in them."

We're from Alabama -- you can't make this s--- up.

-- Former Auburn basketball star Charles Barkley

Finebaum, a longtime Alabama sports personality, asked the caller if the trees had died.

"They're not dead yet," the caller said, "but they definitely will die."

The caller signed off with, "Roll Damn Tide."

On Thursday, Finebaum said the caller bragged to one of his producers about poisoning the trees before going on the air. Finebaum wasn't sure if the caller was serious.

"When it came in, it was like any other call," Finebaum said. "You take it with a grain of salt."

Finebaum said Auburn police contacted him the next day. After soil samples confirmed the trees had indeed been poisoned, police began searching for "Al from Dadeville."

Early Thursday morning, Updyke was arrested.

"I almost hate to say what I should say -- that perhaps I'm surprised we haven't seen anything worse," Finebaum said. "I think it will get worse. I really do."

Former Auburn football coach Pat Dye said he doesn't blame the schools' fierce in-state rivalry for Updyke's boorish act. Dawson said Auburn police believe Updyke acted alone and they aren't actively searching for additional suspects.

"Anyone who would do that would poison your children or poison your dog," Dye said. "He needs to pay a price. I believe most of the Alabama people would agree with me. The smart and intelligent Alabama people are embarrassed and ashamed. This isn't a cultural thing; it's an individual act."

Finebaum said he fears Auburn fans will retaliate. He said the Toomer's Corner incident will only further fuel what is already an ugly rivalry.

Finebaum said the Alabama-Auburn rivalry has intensified since the Tigers defeated Oregon 22-19 in the Jan. 10 Tostitos BCS National Championship Game. Heisman Trophy winner Cameron Newton guided the Tigers to a 14-0 record after his father was investigated by the NCAA for allegedly shopping his son to Mississippi State for $180,000.

"Most people seemed very celebratory after [Alabama won a BCS title in 2009]," Finebaum said. "It was really a special time to be in the state. This time it's different. Most Alabama fans are angry because they don't believe [Auburn's championship] is legitimate. They don't believe Cam Newton should have been eligible."

At a time when Alabama should be celebrating its largest schools winning the last two BCS national championships, a misguided fan has instead fired the first salvo of a potential civil war.

"The rivalry has gotten out of hand," Barkley said. "To have two great teams like we do, you should be proud of it. But Auburn people have an inferiority complex, and Alabama people have a superiority complex. It's always been that way."

Both schools can only hope their fans behave.

On Wednesday night, Tuscaloosa police stood guard over the Paul "Bear" Bryant statue outside Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium.

"Bryant is one thing," Finebaum said. "In two months, the Nick Saban statue is going to be unveiled. You don't think Auburn fans are chomping at the bit for that one?"

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. The book is available in stores and can be ordered here. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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