5 Years Later: Harvey Updyke and the Day a Rivalry Went Too Far

Greg CouchNational ColumnistNovember 25, 2015

Harvey Updyke, center, exits court with his Lee County Deputy Sheriff escorts and lawyers after the judge called a continuance in the case during jury selection in his  trial Thursday, June 21, 2012, at the Lee County Justice Center in Opelika, Ala. Judge Jacob Walker on Thursday delayed the trial of Dyker, an Alabama fan accused of poisoning Auburn's cherished Toomer's Corner oak trees. Walker cited increased media attention stemming from a report this week that the defendant, Harvey Updyke, confessed outside the courtroom. Defense attorneys have asked the judge to move the trial to a different location, saying that the jury pool has been tainted. (AP Photo/Opelika-Auburn News, Vasha Hunt, Pool)    (AP Photo/Opelika-Auburn News, Vasha Hunt, Pool)
VASHA HUNT/Associated Press

It has been five years now, and at Auburn, they're still hoping the new trees on Toomer's Corner will survive.

At this point, they feel that, having dug down eight feet below the old trees, they did get below the poison that killed them. They took all that dirt to the landfill, put in a drainage system, removed all the poisoned water nearby and made sure—as best they could—that other water in the area that would work its way over wasn't poisoned, too.

Still, one of the replacement trees died. And now they're nurturing the replacement for a replacement.

Dave Martin/Associated Press

"The tree went in in July," said Auburn horticulture professor Dr. Gary Keever, who has been used heavily as an adviser throughout the ordeal. "The above-ground portion hasn't changed, but the other tree put out a flush of growth in the spring. So we're optimistic.

"Unless another Harvey Updyke comes along."

Another Harvey Updyke. That's an interesting concept.

This Saturday is the Alabama-Auburn football game, the Iron Bowl. It might be the most passionate college football rivalry out there—one that has that special something that so many others lack. Passion that five years ago boiled over in such memorable fashion.

Auburn won the Iron Bowl that year, and Updyke, an Alabama fan, retaliated. So say the courts, anyway. Updyke has denied his role on some occasions and admitted it on others.

Either way, it was two months later when Updyke called into Paul Finebaum's radio show, described himself as Al from Dadeville and said he had poisoned the trees at Toomer's Corner.

"Keep in mind, we would get a lot of outrageous claims on the show," said Pat Smith, longtime producer of Finebaum's show and now in content development for Cross Digital Multimedia. "But when he started talking and saying what he'd done, I came running down the hall to the control room.

"You could sense something in his voice that he had done something completely unfathomable in this rivalry."

Of course, Smith said he wasn't positive. But then the Auburn police called after Al from Dadeville hung up. And a few days later, someone from a state senator's office called to say they should expect a call from the FBI or Homeland Security over "that phone call from that crazy guy," Smith said.

"I said, 'You mean, he really did that?' He said, 'Pat, the trees are dead.' The issue is they believed he put so much poison in the ground that it could affect the water supply. It elevated real quick from a crazy guy wanting to get back at something done to the Bear Bryant statue to a potential terrorist."

Updyke went to prison for what he did and was fined $800,000, an amount he'll never make a dent into.

There's a certain amount of sensitivity about Updyke. He went through several attorneys during his case and ended up with two of them. One told Bleacher Report to contact the other one for this story. The other one didn't respond to a request.

Rob Carr/Associated Press

The story catapulted Finebaum from a college football media star in the Southeast with growing national interest into a full-fleged national media star. What does he think about the whole thing? An ESPN spokesperson said that Finebaum told her he had already said everything he has to say about it.

Yes, someone who talks for a living said he didn't want to talk about it.

And Updyke? He politely wrote, via direct message: "I'm sorry I was advised not to do any more interviews. Finebaum has contacted multiple times and I've had to turn them down."

Yes, he was on Finebaum's show a handful of times over the years. And one time, Smith said, Updyke—a former Texas state trooper—came to the studio and just sat there, without a mic, and watched Finebaum do radio for a few hours while members of the show's staff stared through the big window at him.

In some ways, Southern football can cross the line at times, going from religion to near-cult. Smith talked about the culture of sports talk radio in the South, where regular, colorful callers can become celebrities themselves. Maybe that's enough to push someone who is already close to the line.

"There was absolutely zero remorse from him," Keever said.

Dave Martin/Associated Press

Case in point: Updyke's Twitter account. He tweets incessantly. He mostly brags about Alabama football, mixing in some caring personal messages and far-right-wing political comments. And then there are the ones like this:

Harvey Updyke @Harveyrolltide

I have been called a "horticultural terrorist" before

Or similar sentiments with less-safe-for-work language.

Surely, most Alabama fans don't claim Updyke. But he does have a level of fame and popularity, and he doesn't seem to feel the need to hide from it.

Back on the Auburn campus, Keever explained that the original trees carried emotional value. They were the backdrop of memories to the Auburn family for decades. They used to produce acorns, which were sold off for charity. Some of the acorns were planted off-campus and are growing into oak trees now.

Those trees are being moved near the site of the original ones. Meanwhile, it was tradition for Auburn fans to throw massive amounts of toilet paper on the trees—volunteers would clean it up—after big wins and big events. Auburn is a little unsure if the replacement replacement tree can handle that and has asked fans to hold off on doing that again until next year.

Keever suspects that, despite increased cameras and security around the trees, if Auburn wins the Iron Bowl Saturday, the fans won't be able to control themselves.

That might not be a problem, though: On Twitter, Updyke predicts Alabama by a blowout.

Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow Greg on Twitter @gregcouch