Auburn is in the midst of perhaps the most magical turnaround in college football history. And though it may seem obvious on the calendar, the surprising run to the SEC Championship and a berth in the BCS title game did not begin with the Tigers’ season-opener against Washington State. It didn’t begin when players showed up for fall camp or during the tough, hot days of summer.
The origins of this amazing ride go way back to April 2013. That month, Auburn’s spring game drew more than 83,400 people – the most ever. Though it was a telling sign of the excitement surrounding the start of the Gus Malzahn era, it was not the spark.
The turnaround began the following Tuesday, April 23, when chainsaws buzzed loudly after a funeral at the intersection of Magnolia Avenue and College Street. That day, thousands of people traveled to Auburn to say goodbye to a pair of old friends. Folks took pictures and paused to say a few words before offering a final gesture of love.
It was a touching farewell for two iconic members of Auburn football tradition, but these weren’t people. They were trees; live oaks, to be exact. And not just any old oaks — these were shrines to decades of seminal moments in Auburn football history. These were the Toomer’s Corner oak trees.
The trees were issued a death sentence after a misguided Alabama fan, Harvey Updyke, poisoned them following Auburn’s 28-27 comeback victory in the 2010 Iron Bowl. And the day the trees came down was Day 1 of Auburn’s turnaround.
At that point, the Tigers had hit rock bottom with so much force Updyke felt the tremors from his jail cell. After coming off its worst season in 60 years, 3-9 and 0-8 in SEC play, Auburn had to endure a living wake for the 130-year-old trees that marked the entrance to the university since its inception.
But despite the undercurrent of sadness gripping the program, few tears were shed. People hugged, smiled and soaked up the sunshine. After all, rolling Toomer’s Corner was always an act of joy, not sorrow. And so they rolled the trees one last time, with as much enthusiasm as in 1989 when Auburn won the first Iron Bowl played at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
It was that moment – when players, coaches and fans smiled in the face of sorrow – that Auburn’s climb to the top began.
That day, I crafted this tribute to the oaks – in iambic pentameter, no less, because it was also the 397th anniversary of Shakespeare’s (alleged) death:
Just at the meeting of campus and town,
Two legendary oak trees will come down.
All those who yell War Eagle will recall,
Their first trip to the Corner in the fall.
With eyes awide and hearts full of delight,
They tossed full rolls up and into the night.
To drape over branches in proud display,
To indicate AU had won that day.
Now that the trees will be forever gone,
A brand new custom is sure to catch on.
For the spirit and pride for school and squad,
Will surely persist through yell and applaud.
Not Updyke or his poison known as Spike,
Can kill Tiger pride or spirit alike.
Here’s to ol’ Harvey who rots in a cell,
He who has inspired a fan base to yell.
Louder than ever to rumble The Plains,
His dastardly act is drowned out in vain.
The orange and blue knows never to yield,
As wounds from trees absent will soon be healed.
Though we take ease from punishments legal,
Naught cures ills like a loud War Eagle!
No one can pin down exactly when the tradition began of celebrating big wins by rolling Toomer’s Corner, and we don’t know when it will end. Metal cables were erected in the trees’ place so the tradition has carried on. Just as this Auburn football team wins by any means necessary, Tigers fans have carried on celebrating those wins without concern for the fashion in which it’s done.
This magical run began with streams of toilet paper. And as Auburn prepares to play Florida State for the national title, Tigers fans can only hope it ends the same way.