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Are college football rivalries getting out of hand?
Updated 8/26/2011 12:55 AM ET
The suspected handiwork of college football's most notorious fan remains on full, inglorious display.

Leaves on the two historic oak trees that guard Auburn University's entrance are shriveled and a sickly yellow-green, a signature of the poison poured over the ground below. Harvey Updyke Jr. maintains now he didn't do it, that he called into a talk-radio show and claimed credit only to fire - on Alabama's behalf - the latest, loudest shot in one of sport's most vengeful rivalries.

What he incited, remarkably, was a measure of civility.

'Bama fans were scarcely less repulsed than their Auburn counterparts, and joined in condemnation of the act and efforts to save the two 30-foot trees. Three months later, the two sides found more common ground. Auburn fans joined the rest of a stunned state in rallying around Tuscaloosa - home to the University of Alabama - and other areas ravaged by a deadly outbreak of tornadoes.

"I think it's changed Alabama fans as much as it's changed Auburn people," says Holly Hart, a Birmingham interior designer and orange-and-blue-bleeding member of a three-generation Auburn family. "We may not love one another, but I think there's a new respect."

Is it real? If so, can it last?

More than a few people in the long-deeply divided state express doubts on both counts. The oaks poisoning nonetheless gave at least momentary pause in Alabama and beyond, underscoring the peril of a rivalry that crosses the line from from colorful to uncomfortable.

Historical rivalries will always be vital to a sport that clings more than any other to tradition. But there's concern that some, starting with Auburn-Alabama, bear too much malice. And too little restraint.

Clemson's and South Carolina's football teams brawled several years back, leading their embarrassed schools to pull them out of bowl consideration. Missouri and Kansas trace hostilities to the early days of the Civil War. Georgia and Florida removed the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party" moniker from their annual game in Jacksonville but not its alcohol-infused intensity.

Daniel Wann, a Murray State psychology professor who has researched and written about fan behavior, also points to Michigan-Ohio State and Texas-Texas A&M (where tensions and resentfulness have led the Aggies to explore a new conference home) as overwrought. In basketball, there's inarguably nothing like North Carolina-Duke.

Not quite four hours north of Auburn, Clemson's recently retired faculty athletics representative, Larry LaForge, calls the attack on the beloved Toomer's Corner trees "an over-the-top situation that makes you kind of stop and think a little bit. You realize it's almost out of control.

"Absolutely," he says, "I think everyone involved in a rivalry like Clemson-South Carolina or Georgia-Georgia Tech or Oregon-Oregon State, you look and wonder how things could get to that point."

The same thing has struck Alabama's star senior linebacker, Dont'a Hightower. "Sometimes," he says, "I'm just thinking, 'This is because of a football game?'"

Let Glennon Threatt Jr. explain - how there's no obsession in the football-obsessed South like Alabama's, that there is no professional franchise to siphon off loyalties, the way life essentially begins with choosing between the state's two preeminent major-college programs.

You're fer or agin' Auburn, fer or agin' Alabama.

Threatt grew up in three blocks from Birmingham's Legion Field, where the Auburn-Alabama Iron Bowl was played exclusively from 1948-88 and his father ran a concession stand. The son hawked peanuts and soda.

Iron Bowl weekends were almost surreal. "I have never been anywhere where the unreasonable behavior of fans was as pronounced and accepted," says Threatt, who moved on to college at Princeton and then law school at Howard. "That's the thing about the Auburn-Alabama rivalry. It's not just that people behave aberrantly, it's that it's OK. … We've tolerated so much that people who were just slightly aberrant are doing really crazy stuff."

Notably among his current clients: Harvey Updyke Jr.

Charged with four felonies and two misdemeanors in the trees poisoning, the 62-year-old former Texas trooper is set to go trial in Lee County (Ala.) Circuit Court on Oct. 31. Threatt, his fourth lawyer in the case, says he hopes to strike a plea agreement before then.

The win-or-else culture

While Updyke has pled not guilty, confessing only to the talk-radio call and not the actual lacing of the Toomer's trees with the herbicide Spike 80DF, Threatt says, "There's probably going to be some evidence out there that may tie him to something like the purchase of the product that was used or something like that." And so, "it's going to be very, very difficult to successfully argue it wasn't him."

Threatt won't fold this into Updyke's legal defense - it would be futile, he says - but he sees the issue of overheated fans and out-of-control rivalries as complicated by big-time college athletics, itself.

Schools, he says, have cultivated a win-or-else culture, spending heavily on salaries and facilities and discarding coaches who don't deliver a return on the field. They're charging more for tickets. And at those higher prices, some buyers feel entitled to let loose, to act as they darn well please. Non-buyers, too.

Breathless promotion further ramps up emotions. So do fan boards on the internet and talk radio. Alcohol drowns inhibition.

"People get lathered up," Threatt says, "and they start to identify with these players in a gladiatorial sense."

His suggestion: Dial down the spending and the hype.

He's not alone in decrying the infusion of money. Former Missouri chancellor Richard Wallace blames it for escalating the Tigers' already bitter border rivalry with Kansas.

Wallace attempted to tamp things down in 2004, telling a gathering of Big 12 Conference academics that Missouri and other rivals "need to find a way to gracefully bury the hatchet." He found few takers.

"There were others at the table who shared the concerns I was voicing. But there wasn't the level of interest in muting some of this (rancor) that I was expecting," Wallace says. "I was disappointed."

What he couldn't get across then, maybe two stricken trees can now.

'Tide for Toomer's'

The mid-February day that Updyke was arrested , five Alabama fans created the Facebook page "Tide for Toomer's" and started soliciting donations toward the trees care. Five weeks later, they presented a $50,000 check, and money continues to trickle in.

The tornadoes then swept through on April 27, killing 47 and taking out more than 7,200 homes and businesses in Tuscaloosa alone. Auburn fans - including Hart, the Birmingham interior designer - spearheaded a fund-raising drive and opened the Facebook web page "Toomer's for Tuscaloosa."

They've raised $55,000, and continue to coordinate truckloads of supplies to the devastated city. One contingent went to Tuscaloosa to assist in recovery efforts.

"Other schools can look this, to Alabama-Auburn, and maybe take away some working notes," says Murray State's Wann. "I'm not saying they need to have a disaster and that kind of stuff. But they can at least (understand) that maybe there are some things you can do that can bring these sides together."

When bad blood has coursed through a rivalry for decades and in some cases more than a century, that can be easier said than done.

"From a lot of research in psychology, anytime something hits home for you, it's going to play a bigger role in changing your behavior," Wann says. "I would be rather surprised if what happened in Alabama is going to make the Michigan football fan decide he's going to treat the Ohio State fan nicer. You can hope, but I have a feeling it's not going to carry over to quite that level."

Tommy Bowden, Clemson's football coach when his team and South Carolina's fought near the end of their regular-season finale in 2004, raises another reality.

"Football is a game of extreme emotion, intensity, enthusiasm," he says. "It's a contact sport, a collision sport. You put that together with a rivalry, and it can very easily go overboard. Like that fight. One guy takes a punch, and all of sudden, they were all on the field."

He suggests coaches and others work harder to set a conciliatory tone. Auburn's Gene Chizik and Alabama's Nick Saban did just that after Updyke's arrest was announced, releasing a joint statement that called the trees' poisoning an isolated incident "that is not representative of what the greatest rivalry in college football is all about."

What followed, in the wake of that and the disaster in Tuscaloosa, was something of an offseason truce . An uneasy one, perhaps. But détente nonetheless.

"I cheer for Auburn and anybody who's playing Alabama. I hope Alabama loses every game. I've hoped that all my life," says Hart, 39, who attended Auburn, whose husband graduated from Auburn and whose stepson and stepdaughter now go there. "But I will say if they (the Crimson Tide) have a chance to win the national championship this year, I think it would do wonders for that town and the morale. I've met some people there who are amazing people, and it's changed me. I don't know that I'll ever cheer against them again.

"I might not cheer for them, but I won't cheer against them."

Contributing: Jack Carey

Posted 8/25/2011 10:35 PM ET
Updated 8/26/2011 12:55 AM ET
Crews work to remove toilet paper from the two poisoned oak trees before spraying the leaves with a coating at Toomer's Corner in Auburn, Ala., on Feb. 17, 2011.
By Michelle Campbell, AP
Crews work to remove toilet paper from the two poisoned oak trees before spraying the leaves with a coating at Toomer's Corner in Auburn, Ala., on Feb. 17, 2011.