Harvey Updyke, the accused/confessed poisoner of Auburn’s iconic Toomer’s Corner oak trees is the exception. He doesn’t represent the true Alabama fan.
The numerous Alabama fans who have provided aid and comfort to Updyke, who have sought him out to make sure he had tickets to games, who went out of their way to be photographed with him as if he were some kind of celebrity, who bought t-shirts celebrating his depraved actions are all the exception.
The flocks of Alabama fans that follow Updyke and interact with him on Facebook are all exceptions. They don’t represent Alabama fans. The fact that this includes Mobile Press-Register reporter and University of Alabama beatwriter Izzy Gould (who recently posted a “nice to meet you” message to Updyke) should be of no consequence. Alabama beatwriters must also be exceptions.
The hundreds of fans who called the Paul Finebaum radio show and voted Updyke as the program’s Caller of the Year for 2011 are all exceptions. The fact that Finebaum eliminated reference to the award from his site doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Some dullard message boards devoted to the lower rung of fandom actively campaigned for its members to vote for Updyke. It’s often said that true Alabama fans disassociated themselves from Harvey so every single one of the voters and all those who encouraged them must have been exceptions.
Brian Downing, who turned himself in to police in Louisiana and lost his job after his sexually-charged debasement of an LSU fan was videotaped and posted online, is the exception. Even though Downing is a graduate of the University, he and his behavior are not representative of the Alabama fanbase.
The horde of Bama fans who surrounded the LSU fan in the Downing video, the ones who contemplated performing the same perverse act, the ones who cheered them on, the ones who took photos and videos and did nothing to prevent the act are the exceptions. None of them, collectively or individually, behaved as true Alabama fans would.
Birmingham News sports columnist John Archibald, an Alabama graduate and avowed Tide fan, characterized the LSU fan victimized by Downing as a “rube” in a published lamentation of Alabama fan behavior . Of course Archbald’s reference was accidental, he certainly didn’t mean to demean the victim, he just had too much Bama in him. Archibald is an exception.
When t-shirt company Smack Apparel reversed field and pulled “Updyke Tree Service” shirts from its catalog, apologizing to those who were offended, the Alabama fans who responded by calling the company “candyasses” and encouraging it to “grow a pair” were not representative of the Alabama fanbase.
Those who booed Auburn snapper Josh Harris at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes function during the 2012 Senior Bowl must not have been true Alabama fans. Only exceptions would boo someone at a Christian event. A true fan would never express himself in that manner in that forum.
The thousands of message board posters who poured their bizarre theories and outlandish speculation into hate-filled sites like As the Plains Burn, Wobbly Al, Capstone Report, Auburngate, Blue Tuna, I Bleed and others like them are all fringe lunatics and do not represent the thoughts and feelings of true Alabama fans. The legion of them who took their crackpot theories, all since debunked, and bombarded the NCAA with calls and emails aren’t the real Alabama fans. They are pariahs, exceptions to the rule.
Eric Blackerby, the forklift operator who showed up at SEC Media Days wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “I Hate Auburn” is the exception. He’s one of the fringe, an outcast, one of the small minority of Alabama fans who can’t keep a football rivalry in perspective. Or maybe Archibald is looking for rubes in all the wrong places.
The Tide backers captured in the recent ESPN documentary Roll Tide/War Eagle are all clearly exceptions. The documentary did Alabama’s image no favors. Even the most prominent and celebrated Alabama fans like alumni and author Gay Talese came off looking small, petty and classless. Talese was rejected by almost every college in the northeast before enrolling at Alabama, became sports editor of the Crimson White and later wrote for the New York Times and authored several books. He did the most damage to Alabama’s image.
He sneeringly claimed he’d never have a friend who was an Auburn fan and sniffed that Bama is “superior to these vulgarians and these trashy little white folk who represent the college in Auburn.” No, that’s not how true Alabama fans think. Talese is another exception.
Heisman Trophy winning running back Mark Ingram who expressed hate for Auburn in the same ESPN documentary without offering any rational justification for that base emotion must also be an exception. Arguably the most recognized Tide player of the last decade definitely doesn’t represent the viewpoint of the majority. He’s a lone wolf. Another exception.
Michael Boykin, pastor of the University Lutheran Church in Tuscaloosa (he’s still there) and self-proclaimed Bama fan, used Facebook last year to post insulting statements and to characterize Auburn students in a demeaning, vulgar manner. He must be cut from different cloth. No true Alabama fan would degrade teenaged girls in that fashion.
The braying herd of Finebaum callers who have come to infiltrate virtually every sports-talk radio show in the state and on satellite radio, insufferable boors like Legend, Phyllis, Jim, and the departed Shane, are all exceptions. Despite their persistence and pervasiveness they surely don’t represent the majority.
Unless they do.
Whether Alabama fans accept it or not, this is who they’ve become. They have transformed into a sea of Updykes, a swarm of Downings and a horde of Blackerbys. The exceptions are the majority. They are defined not by their love for their own program but by their hate of all others. For those of us who live in the state of Alabama and are not Tide fans this is really not a shocking revelation. It’s merely national recognition of what we’ve almost always known and endured.
If you’re an Auburn fan or a fan of LSU, Tennessee or some other Tide rival how many times have you had a complete stranger wearing crimson – be they five or 95 – shout “Roll Tide” at you? How many times have you as an Auburn, LSU, Tennessee or other fan accosted an Alabama fan in the same manner?
That basic act defines the difference between most fanbases and the exception-dominated Crimson Tide crew.
Speaking as an Auburn fan, the phrase War Eagle is used among our extended family as a form of greeting. If we see another Auburn fan in O’Hare airport, on the streets of London or in a hut in the jungles of Columbia we greet that member of our family with a War Eagle. It’s how we say hello and acknowledge our kinship.
We also occasionally use it outside the confines of Jordan Hare Stadium as an exclamation to express jubilation or triumph.
We don’t, however, use it as a taunt.
The third grader who shouted “Roll Tide” at the adult in an Auburn shirt at Pizza Hut wasn’t celebrating anything. He was taunting without even knowing why. His beaming dad, obviously an exception, must certainly be proud. The charming tyke is hardly alone. Wear gear bearing the logo of a Tide rival in a public setting and you can almost bank on multiple Tide taunts from exceptions of all ages.
In recent years the rhetoric has reached unprecedented levels, leading to incidents like the Updyke poisoning and Downing’s vulgar display.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban has expressed dismay at the various acts.
To Blackerby, Saban said “”I would tell him it’s not personal, that it really isn’t personal. That is not really the way that we should respect the opponents that we have.”
Saban admonished that Updyke and those like him don’t represent the true Alabama fan.
Those are his words. His actions, however, tell a different tale.
In fact, the behavior of Saban is precisely what emboldens the exceptional majority of the Alabama fanbase.
Since he arrived in Tuscaloosa Saban positioned himself as a mini-tyrant. His obscenity-laced tirades against the media, his hyperbolic fury at losses, his tyrannical sideline rages, his uneven record of discipline and his dictatorial control over all aspects of the Alabama football program combined with the undeniable success of his football team helps create an atmosphere where someone like an Updyke or a Downing feels empowered to act on their most crass impulses.
It’s Saban who spouts vulgarities at press conferences and on his call-in show. It’s Saban the camera catches mouthing the mothers of all profanities. It’s Saban whose sideline tirades include striking players and trashing his equipment. It’s Saban who compares losses to apocalyptic national tragedies. It’s that very behavior the legion of exceptions applaud, celebrate and emulate.
The buck starts and stops with Saban.
Saban says “It’s not personal. That’s not the way we respect the opponents.” Yet cameras catch him on the sideline as his team pours it on against a struggling Auburn team in 2008 charging his players like an enraged bull and bellowing in eye popping fury: “Don’t you know how much I hate these guys?”
What do you think Tide fans take to heart, Saban’s mumbled monotone words or his visceral actions? That’s not how we treat opponents we respect. Unless it is. Do what I do or do what I say?
Alabama fans are unique in their devotion to coaches. Even 30 years after his death you can’t go a single day without hearing Bear Bryant’s name mentioned in the state. During Bryant’s heyday, Tide fans adopted some of the best, but also took on the worst aspects of his personality.
When he dismissed Auburn as a “cow college” the Tide fanbase incorporated that same dismissive attitude toward their primary rival.
Even as Auburn surpassed Alabama in every football category in the 30 years since Bryant’s death, many fans retained the same baseless attitude of superiority “just because you’re Auburn and we’re Alabama.” The snide comments of Talese captured in the ESPN documentary capture this groundless sentiment perfectly.
Now as the Tide enjoys an era of success absent from the Capstone since Bryant’s death, Alabama fans have taken the confrontational worst of Saban’s public persona and cloaked themselves in its abrasive extremes.
It’s not enough to enjoy the wins and endure the occasional losses. Wins must be rubbed in the faces of vanquished opponents, and in the case of Downing, literally. Losses must be avenged. If that means destroying a cherished landmark at the risk of prison, so be it.
If there were justice in the world, Harvey Updyke would never have had the opportunity to celebrate Alabama’s national championship in New Orleans in January. If there is justice in the world part of his punishment will be that he is banned from ever attending an Alabama sporting event, prevented from ever watching an Alabama sporting event on television or listening on radio, barred from ever again wearing Alabama gear and prohibited from ever uttering the phrase that has come to define him and by extension the fanbase as a whole, “roll damn tide.”
Instead he was feted and celebrated on the streets of New Orleans. He was allowed to carry himself as a celebrity. And he was granted the unique opportunity to witness first hand as the team he obsessively adores added to its championship history. Downing and the rest of the exceptions celebrated along with him in the new Tide tradition.
Revered former Alabama coach Bryant once famously chastised his players to act like they’d been there before. It’s advice Tide fans would do well to consider again.
In the past decade Auburn, Florida and LSU have all won one or more national championships and all have suffered painful losses. Yet there are no stories of Florida fans bulldozing Denny Chimes, tales of LSU fans defecating on Ohio State’s dotted “I” or videos of Auburn fans defeathering Oregon fans.
The national title for boorish fan behavior belongs to the Tide. It is their exclusive domain.
It is what it is. You are what you are.