Auburn Football: Remembering Toomer's Oaks Legacy on the Plains
Toomer's oaks no longer grace the intersection of College Street and Magnolia Avenue in downtown Auburn. It's a loss for Auburn, the SEC and the college football world.
Tuesday, April 23, was a day that Auburn Tigers fans had hoped would never come. Yet, for the past two years, the removal of the trees was inevitable. Fighting a long, hard fight, the trees could not overcome the poison that was given to them by a deranged man.
Because of a football game.
At 1:17 p.m EST on Tuesday, both of the legendary oaks no longer stood upright where they have called home for close a century. Seeing pictures, it still feels surreal.
Although they are now gone, the two oaks had one heck of a going away party. After the A-Day game last Saturday, thousands of Auburn fans flocked to their usual meeting place to give the trees a final roll. The Auburn family sent a message to the rest of the college football world. The message was simply this: "You can't keep a strong family down."
Future generations of Auburn fans will only hear of the two trees through stories told by those lucky enough to have been able to experience the tradition of joyfully tossing toilet paper into the air and creating a winter wonderland on a warm Alabama fall day.
Before closing the chapter on the two oaks, and sending them off into Auburn lore, let's remember the legacy they leave behind.
Photo credit: Jeremy Henderson/The War Eagle Reader
Depending on which Auburn fan you ask, you will probably get mixed results (and likely a pretty good story) about when the rolling of the trees actually started.
There was quite the party on December 2, 1972, when Auburn won the infamous "Punt, Bama, Punt" game against Alabama. Most stories point to that day being the first throwing of toilet paper at Toomer's Corner. Former Auburn RB Terry Henley, "the mouth of the South," proclaimed that Auburn was going to go up to Birmingham and beat the "No. 2" out of Alabama, who was ranked second at the time.
Auburn fans responded to the upset by throwing toilet paper. Makes sense, right? Of course it does.
However, thanks to the hard work done by the good people at The War Eagle Reader, there is photo evidence of utility wires at the intersection being rolled as early as October 21, 1972, after a win against Georgia Tech. Those utility wires now sit underground, so Auburn fans moved the rolling of the wires to the trees.
But why did Auburn fans decide to congregate at the intersection of College and Magnolia?
Well, the intersection is where downtown Auburn connects with the Auburn University campus. Also, legend has it that in the days of the telegraph employees of Toomer's Drugs would throw out ticker tape over the wires to let the locals know that the Tigers won.
Top 5 Rollings of Toomer's Oaks
Making this list was extremely hard and this will be sure to bring up debate. Auburn fans will have different opinions about which rolling of the oaks was the best, but here are my top five.
*This does not include the massive rolling that took place last weekend for "the final roll."
No. 5—Punt 'Bama Punt, 1972
This was well before my time, but it is impossible to leave out the rolling that gets a lot of the credit for starting what was one of the best traditions in all of college football.
Auburn went up to Legion Field and shocked No. 2 Alabama, 17-16. The upset ruined any chances that the Tide had at a national championship.
With the Tide leading 16-3 late in the fourth quarter, two blocked punts by Auburn put the Tigers on top, 17-16.
I'm sure all of the toilet paper in Auburn was used that night to adorn the intersection.
No. 4—1989 Iron Bowl
Alabama visited Auburn for the very first time in 1989. After years of playing at the old Legion Field in Birmingham, which might as well have been a home game every year for the Tide, No. 11 Auburn welcomed No. 2 Alabama to Jordan-Hare Stadium for the first time.
As you can imagine, the atmosphere was unlike any other.
Auburn was no longer held down by Alabama and stood as the Tide's equal. Former Auburn coach Pat Dye likened it to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Toomer's oaks were embellished with toilet paper on that monumental day.
No.3—2006 upset of the Florida Gators
In the modern era of Auburn football, some of the best games have come against the Florida Gators. In 2006, it was no different. The eventual national champions, led by Urban Meyer, visited the Plains to take on former head coach Tommy Tuberville and the Tigers.
The Auburn defense stiffened up in the second half and a Tre Smith blocked punt put Auburn up for good. The Tigers won 27-17. What ensued at Toomer's Corner afterwards was pure chaos.
No. 2—2010 Iron Bowl
After trailing 24-0 at one point during the first half, the second-ranked Auburn Tigers stormed back to defeat the Crimson Tide inside the walls of Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Led by Cam Newton and a stingy run defense, the Alabama offense never got going in the second half, scoring only a field goal. The game came to be known simply as, "28-27."
With many students away from campus the week prior for Thanksgiving break, those who didn't go to Tuscaloosa joined Auburn fans in downtown Auburn to watch the game. When the clock ticked down to zero, a "reverse Rammer Jammer" echoed through Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Back home on the Plains, Auburn fans flooded the streets.
No one knew it at the time, but it was this game that created the fanatical actions of an Alabama fan to seek redemption by killing the oaks.
No. 1—BCS National Championship
Even though the 2010 BCS National Championship Game was held in Glendale, Ariz., it might as well have been a home game weekend in Auburn.
RV's and thousands of fans made the trip to the Plains just so they could be at Toomer's Corner to celebrate should the Tigers win.
The Tigers won, and until last weekend, the oaks had never been rolled so heavily.
Photo via The War Eagle Reader
Unfortunately, Harvey Updyke forced himself to be a part of the legacy of Toomer's oaks.
Where do I begin?
Updyke is a former state trooper from Texas. He has children named "Bear Bryant Updyke" and "Crimson Tyde" (via Wright Thompson, espn.com)
Updyke was so upset at the fact that Auburn beat his beloved Crimson Tide that he felt the need to drive 30 miles from his Dadeville, Ala., home to poison Toomer's oaks with Spike 80DF, an illegal herbicide. Days later, he calls into the nationally-broadcast Paul Finebaum Radio Network to tell the world what he had done.
Updyke blamed his act not only on the Auburn victory over Alabama, but also on the allegation that Auburn students rolled Toomer's oaks after Bear Bryant's death (which didn't happen) and that an Auburn fan put a Cam Newton jersey on Bryant's statue along the "Walk of Champions" at Alabama.
The next two years saw Updyke allegedly get beat up at an Auburn gas station, apologize to everyone except for Auburn (even his high school wrestling coach), be ejected from an Alabama softball game, lose numerous lawyers, become a celebrity on Bourbon Street for the 2012 BCS National Championship Game and finally plead guilty to the tree poisoning charges on March 22 of this year.
But, hey, at least he was able to see Alabama win two BCS championships since then, right?
Updyke will serve a total of 180 days in jail. He had credit for 104 days prior to the plea deal, which means he will serve 76 additional days.
The Trees Fought a Good Fight
Photo credit: Todd Van Emst / AU media relations
The efforts to keep the oaks alive began immediately after it was confirmed that Updyke's admission of his crime on Finebaum's radio show was true.
Barriers were put up around the tree as Dr. Gary Keever, a horticulture professor at Auburn, and other members of the task force thought of ways to keep the trees alive.
First, the soil around the trees was removed. Next, charcoal was used to soak up the remaining herbicide in the soil and slow the flow of the poison to the tree's roots and branches.
There was some hope for the trees as late as the summer of 2011, as the trees showed signs of photosynthesis and re-foliation. Still, the long-term prognosis remained poor.
There were very few updates from Auburn regarding the trees between the summer of 2011 and November of 2012. In November, the trees had been damaged by fire after Auburn's victory over Alabama A&M.
In February of this year, Auburn announced that the trees will be removed after the task force did everything possible to save the trees.
It was a fight to be proud of.
One Last Roll
After Saturday's A-Day game, the 83,401 people in attendance and the thousands more that did not attend the game marched to Toomer's Corner to give a goodbye that would have been suitable for royalty.
It was a party deep into the Auburn night that didn't stop until Monday. There was so much toilet paper being thrown that there was a visible cloud of dust from the paper.
Auburn fans young and old took part in the final roll of Toomer's Corner. Grown men and women cried. Future memories had been snatched from them and future generations of Auburn fans.
Auburn University and the City of Auburn made it quite a big party, but it didn't really need to be. Auburn fans would have still shown up to say goodbye to the trees. The trees are too important to the Auburn family to not give them the goodbye the deserve.
The show put on by the Auburn family on Saturday not only proved to the college football world how important the trees are to Auburn fans, but it also proved that despite a horrible 2012 athletic campaign, the Auburn family is as strong as it ever has been.
Former athletic director David Housel, who spoke at the event, put it best. "There's more to Auburn than two oak trees, revered and sturdy as they are," former athletic director David Housel said at the celebration. "These oak trees are but an outward visible symbol of the Auburn heart." (obtained first-hand)
Removal of the Trees
Photo credit: Todd Van Emst/AU media relations
It's been a long time coming, but Tuesday was still hard to take for Auburn fan as they watched a crew cut down the trees and remove them from the spot they've stood strong for nearly a century.
A crowd gathered just beyond the barriers to see the the trees they have come to love be torn apart, branch by branch. After nearly six hours of work on the trees, a much bigger crowd had formed.
Just after 1 p.m. EST, something that seemed impossible before November of 2010, became real. The corner that has been the sight of so much happiness for the Auburn family over the years....
Looked sad. And empty.
All because one team won a football game, that in the grand scheme of things, means very little.
Can the Auburn-Alabama rivalry ever be a respectful one? Can an Auburn fan ever look at another Alabama fan and not think of Harvey Updyke and what he took from the Auburn family?
On April 23, 2013, while the Auburn faithful stare at a bare corner where the Auburn University campus meets downtown Auburn, those days seem like a very long way away.