Kevin Price commentary: Poisoning of Toomer's Corner trees has changed Auburn-Alabama rivalry's tone

kprice@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 23, 2011 

HOOVER, Ala. -- The rivalry between Auburn and Alabama is always talked about as one of the great rivalries not just in college football, but in college sports in general.

Most anyone born in the state of Alabama will tell you that it is the greatest rivalry in all of college sports.

There are some around the country who might like to argue the point with Duke-North Carolina basketball or Ohio State-Michigan football. But wherever the Alabama-Auburn rivalry ranks in such a list, there is no denying the rivalry generates great passion for fans on both sides.

That passion crossed the line with the poisoning of the trees at Toomer’s Corner in Auburn late last year.

Alabama fan Harvey Updyke has been charged in that case with several felonies and is scheduled to stand trial starting Oct. 31, just in time for the Iron Bowl.

The poisoning of the trees was a sure sign that the passion in the rivalry boiled over and went far beyond what is acceptable. Many fans on both sides of the rivalry as well as the head coaches at both schools, Alabama’s Nick Saban and Auburn’s Gene Chizik, have said all the right things as a way to try and make sure that there is no retaliation and the tone of the rivalry is softened.

Whether the tone of the rivalry has changed at all for the better was put into question by a fan at SEC media days Friday. Eric Blackerby, 28, was in the crowd of Alabama fans who stood just inside the doors of the Wynfrey Hotel so they could watch Saban walk through the lobby.

Blackerby’s T-shirt with the words “I Hate Auburn” spelled out is what stood out.

Saban was asked what he would tell the man in the “I Hate Auburn” T-shirt.

“I would tell him it’s not personal, that it really isn’t personal,” Saban said. “That is not really the way that we should respect the opponents that we have. That’s what I was talking about before in terms of all of our fans sort of having a level and a standard of class in terms of how we represent our institution and our state.

“I think we all have a responsibility and obligation toward that. I think we can all be a little more respectful to each other and still have just as fierce competition on the field as we’ve ever had, and everybody can be very proud in whatever their accomplishments are.

“I guess that’s kind of how I would say it. But, you know, this kind of behavior sort of develops more of that kind of behavior. I don’t think that’s a good thing.”

Blackerby told Michael Casagrande of the Decatur (Ala.) Daily that he just wanted to make people laugh.

“As long as people aren’t poisoning trees or stabbing each other, I love the level of passion that creates the self-fulfilling prophecy,” Blackerby said. “People act crazier and then crazier. I don’t approve of crimes or destruction of property and landmarks and traditions. That’s crazy, you know?”

Probably before the poisoning of the trees at Toomer’s Corner, Blackerby’s T-shirt probably does draw a laugh or a roll of the eyes.

But times have changed, and the T-shirt now is not funny.

Kevin Price, kprice@ledger-enquirer.com, 706-320-4493

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