Auburn gives Toomer's oaks a special sendoff
AUBURN, Ala. — The circle-of-life aspect of college football could be experienced, in full, on the Auburn campus Saturday.
At 1 p.m. local time, the Gus Malzahn coaching era kicked off with the Tigers' "A-Day" game, a controlled scrimmage that nevertheless attracted 83,401 fans to Jordan-Hare Stadium on a cloudless afternoon.
Later on, the Tiger faithful walked 10 minutes to the edge of campus, paying final tribute to two beloved but dying oak trees at Toomer's Corner with a street party full of music, food, drinks ... and thousands of rolls of white toilet paper.
The live oaks, which were poisoned by Alabama fan Harvey Updyke, Jr. in 2010 — just hours after the top-ranked Tigers rallied to beat the Crimson Tide — have been a staple of the Auburn postgame-celebration scene for decades.
But nearly three years after being contaminated by Updyke, who received a jail sentence for his infamous crime, the trees have shown signs of terminal decline and will be removed by city workers next week.
Hence the timing of Saturday's memorial/public sendoff, featuring a large portion of those who attended the spring game.
The legend of Toomer's Corner dates all the way back to 1880, when Judge John Harper — the city of Auburn founder — helped launch the project of planting oak trees at the corner of Magnolia Avenue and College Street on the edge of Auburn's campus.
Twelve years later, the students began to congregate — and mostly celebrate — at the corner destination after football games, laying the groundwork for a ritual that has endured for more than 120 years.
The long-standing tradition of city-approved littering, by most accounts, began sometime in the late 1890s, when Toomer's Drugstore — the area's only business with a telegraph machine — developed a system of communicating the scores of Auburn road games to an excitable fan base milling around Toomer's Corner.
In turn, the same ticker tape that was used to post the results would become celebratory fodder for the masses, as they tossed the paper onto the power lines that rested above street revelers.
In subsequent years and decades, as American technology evolved from telegraphs and telephones to radio and television, the Auburn students' paper-throwing methods changed as well, moving from ticker tape to toilet paper.
With each landmark victory for the Tigers — from Auburn's Punt, Bama, Punt upset of Alabama in 1972 to the Iron Bowl triumph in 1989, the first time the Crimson Tide set foot on Auburn's campus — the bar for decorating the oaks and power lines with seemingly infinite rolls of toilet paper had been continually raised.
Bo Jackson, one of three Heisman recipients in Auburn's illustrious history (along with Pat Sullivan and Cam Newton), has seen his share of Toomer's Corner celebrations, helping the Tigers upend the Crimson Tide in 1982 (with a game-winning touchdown) and '83 (256 rushing yards).
At a Major League Baseball game on Wednesday (Royals-Braves), Jackson didn't mince words about the fallout, real or imagined, of losing the signature oak trees.
"The tradition is not going away," Jackson said to a media scrum at Atlanta's Turner Field. "It won't go away because when we win a game, we'll still go up to Toomer's Corner and we'll still roll Toomer's Corner.
"But the city workers will have an easier job now, cleaning up all that toilet paper. That's all. Those trees will be missed, but they will never be forgotten. Period."
Auburn quarterback Jonathan Wallace, a native of nearby Phenix City, shares Jackson's optimism regarding the Toomer's changes, once the oak trees are removed.
"This is a special weekend for Toomer's Corner," Wallace said, who completed 15 of 18 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday. "Lot of history to it ... a big tradition for us, in terms of rolling Toomer's. It's sad, but it's also a new day. Just like Coach Malzahn told us, 'Things are going to get better.'"
This week, Auburn city and school officials are slated to announce the renovated plans for Toomer's Corner, replacing the deposed oaks.
As for the A-game itself, the Orange team (primarily Auburn's No. 2 offense) racked up five first-half touchdowns and cruised to a 35-14 win over the Blue squad. The personalities of the respective sides, however, were hard to quantify, since the two primary quarterbacks (Kiehl Frazier and the aforementioned Wallace) split time running both offenses.
Even the game's most productive rusher, junior Cameron Artis-Payne (164 total yards, one TD), garnered at least five touches for the Blue and Orange squads — further blurring the lines of rooting interests.
But the fans handled the uniform swaps in stride, instead focusing on the program's rebirth, thanks to the arrival of Malzahn, the Tigers' offensive coordinator during the trifecta campaign of 2010 — when Auburn claimed the SEC championship, BCS national title and a Heisman for Cam Newton.
"I really appreciate the fans. It was kind of overwhelming, 83,000-plus for A-Day. Hats off to our fans," said Malzahn, who cut his head-coaching teeth at Arkansas State last season, compiling a 10-3 record (and bowl victory over Kent State).
The Orange squad accounted for 17 first downs, 35 points and 351 total yards (196 passing) — a productive day that doesn't even include linebacker Justin Garrett's 29-yard fumble recovery and touchdown return on the opening possession. On a shotgun snap, a Blue center air-mailed the ball over the head of Frazier (116 yards passing) ... and into the waiting arms of Garrett, who had a clear path to the end zone.
A few minutes later, Artis-Payne (Blue) bulldozed through the right side of the line on a handoff and sprinted — virtually untouched — for a 27-yard touchdown. It would mark the only time the Blue wasn't trailing from that point forward.
"(Artis-Payne) made some really good runs. He's a downhill back. He's gotten better," Malzahn said. "You know, he's a junior-college guy coming in. I believe the first few practices, his head was spinning. (But) he slowed down and really made some good runs in our lineup."
In the first half alone, Auburn squeezed 80 total plays from 24 minutes of action, pleasing Malzahn, one of college football's most progressive offensive minds.
"We try to go fast," he said, without a hint of pretense. "There was some good, there was some bad (for the day), but I'm really proud at how our guys responded ... Hustling on and off the field, handling adversity, dealing with success — really, that's what I was looking for."
On the heels of a winless campaign in the SEC last season, including a 49-0 defeat at the hands of Alabama, and recent published allegations of wrongdoing against the program (on former coach Gene Chizik's watch), Auburn has the look of an organization that's essentially starting from scratch. And with a schedule that features Mississippi State, LSU, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, the Tigers may be more than a few tweaks from title contention in 2013.
But real changes may occur, in time. For now, Auburn must regain its footing with a roster that still has some holdovers from Malzahn's initial tour of duty with the Tigers (2009-11), while also settling on a pecking order at quarterback, citing Frazier, Wallace, JUCO transfer Nick Marshall and incoming freshman Jeremy Johnson.
"We all want Auburn to get better," said Wallace, referring to the bevy of newcomers joining the Tigers this fall, including All-American defensive lineman Carl Lawson. "It's a matter of us coming together right away."
The same rationale could apply to those who turned out in droves for the A-Day game and Toomer's Corner party. The dismissal of a one-time championship coach (Chizik), death of two prominent trees and seemingly detestable notion of Nick Saban claiming three national titles at Alabama in the last four years is a lot to digest for hearty Auburn supporters.
Even the unflappable ones.
Therein lies the beauty of Saturday's sun-drenched experience. Through death (from a horticultural standpoint) and sorrow ... a new era of hope and change springs to life.