HOOVER, Ala. — Its a Wednesday in the Southeastern Conference, nothing all that out of the ordinary around here, but believe it: A convicted killer is sitting in the corridor of a hotel, screaming at a media personality and, really, just shredding the guys ego right in front of anyone who cant help but look toward the booming voice in the center of the hall.
By KENT BABB
The Kansas City Star
The middle-aged man in the red shirt goes by Legend, and, well, as legend has it, he once served a prison sentence for murder. Now hes out, and he spends his afternoons not just listening to Paul Finebaums radio show but participating in it. Hes a Finebaum regular and an Alabama fan, and God help anyone who forgets that or questions the Crimson Tides greatness.
This day is the second session of SEC Media Days, the annual meeting of all teams in one sprawling hotel complex, and because its also a gathering of fanatics, Legend is here, too. Hes wearing a headset and microphone, bashing the Internet writer and radio host Clay Travis as Finebaum, a nationally syndicated host, shakes his head and smiles.
Youve probably heard that the SEC is insane, but you cant possibly know it until you live it. Even those who live it sometimes cant believe what reality looks and sounds like.
In January 2011, a man called into Finebaums show. Al from Dadeville, he called himself. He was an Alabama resident who lived a half-hours drive from Auburn, Ala.
When Bear Bryant died, the man said, I was living in Texas, and I really didnt understand the Alabama-Auburn rivalry.
He went on. Al was an Alabama fan. Auburn people had disrespected Bryant when he died in 1983, throwing toilet paper over the limbs of two Southern live oak trees on Toomers Corner in Auburn. Thats the way they celebrate in Auburn, whether its a regular old win or a national championship: papering the trees arms and dancing in the streets, at the intersection of Magnolia Avenue and College Street.
Well, let me tell you what I did, Al said to Finebaum and his listeners.
Finebaum chuckled at the man, thinking he was exaggerating, the same as people like Legend.
I did not take him seriously, Finebaum will say in July 2012. Theres no way I could.
Als reasoning was flawed, but his story was troubling. Al detailed how he had poisoned those two 130-year-old trees in Auburn, as payback for the fans insolence.
Theyre not dead yet, the man said of the trees, but they definitely will die.
Finebaums laugh faded. Al wasnt the mans real name, but otherwise, his story was dead-on true. Finebaum asked whether he realized that poisoning trees was illegal.
Do you think I care? Al from Dadeville replied defiantly. I really dont. Roll damn Tide.
A few months earlier in Baton Rouge, La., visitors watched as Mike VI stalked by, pacing, dipping his whiskers into the wading pool for a drink, then returning with a grunt. It was a weekday, and passersby and visitors to the LSU campus had stopped at Mikes Habitat to see the Bengal tiger mascot that represents some but clearly not all of the fanaticism in the SEC.
Other schools have students in oversized, cartoonish costumes; they do push-ups after touchdowns or dance during timeouts. Arkansas added an inflatable hog a few years ago to rev the crowd during games.
But here, they not only have a tiger to admire in a $3 million pen, but also they coax Mike into a cage on game days and then park the cage next to the visitors locker room at Tiger Stadium, nicknamed Death Valley. In 1988, the stadium was so crowded and raucous that, according to legend, the rumbling after a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter qualified as an earthquake on a seismograph a few hundred yards away.
For all the intimidation tactics and urban legends, this is the lighter side of SEC mania. No one gets hurt or legitimately frightened; this is the roller coaster or Halloween house of sports. The thrill is real even if the threat is staged.
At least thats true for fans. Coaches sometimes experience something different.
Every game is sort of wild, to tell you the truth, says Gene Stallings, who led Alabama to the 1992 national championship. If you dont think some of those little games are important, you just lose one and youll see how important they are, too.
The tiger is one of the SECs better traditions, and LSU takes its mascot seriously. So does Georgia and its s English bulldog, Uga, bred and selected by the same Savannah attorney, Sonny Seiler, since 1956. When each dog dies, hes entombed in a mausoleum, complete with an epitaph.
Damn Good Dog, the plaque reads for the original Uga.
The Dog Of The Decade, is how Uga IV is remembered.
Georgia needs a new mascot, after the last two Ugas died not long after being moved to Athens. Uga VII had a heart problem, and Uga VIII contracted lymphoma. A bulldog, Russ, will roam Sanford Stadiums sidelines this year, but he will not become college football royalty. Russ is only a placeholder, until Seiler chooses Uga IX. He is taking his time.
You dont always find a dog that will live up to what you think hes going to do, Seiler says.
He looks at each puppys ears, tail, skeletal structure and chests. He has to carry a certain weight, and he has to stand strong during those humid days and nights in Athens. If theres a bad sign, then that candidate is eliminated. Already Seiler has crossed off two strong candidates this summer for reasons that just didnt feel right. The chosen one will not be introduced until late in the 2012 season.
We just know, says Seiler, 77. We know what were looking for.
Outsiders have applied pressure since Uga VIIIs death, and Seiler has defended his dogs and their lineage. But he knows that this is something he must get right. Its too important to too many people.
They dont see the dogs as some stuffy mascot that theyve got to be very careful with what they do and say, he says. They see these dogs as family.
Then again, fanaticism has a dark side. Finebaum learned that in January 2011, but that wasnt the first time. The stories go on and on.
One time, he says, Alabama lost a game to Arkansas, and a man was so despondent over the loss and the fact that he couldnt find his car keys that, well, he shot his son. Fights break out over situations much less serious than that, and even now, as Finebaum tells the stories, theres a group of fans angling for position for an autograph or a glimpse of SEC coaches and players.
This is Southeastern Conference football, Stallings says.
After Al from Dadeville called Finebaum in early 11, Auburn officials performed a soil sample. Sure enough, someone had infected the oak trees at Toomers Corner with a herbicide called Spike 80DF, which affects tree roots and, in some cases, can poison groundwater.
An investigation discovered that Al wasnt Al; his name was Harvey Updyke, a 62-year-old former Texas state trooper who had been disappointed after attending Alabamas loss in 2010 to Auburn. He didnt like how Auburn fans responded and allegedly wanted revenge.
Updyke has, in a handful of ways, more or less confessed to the tree poisoning.
Did I do it? Yes, the Auburn student newspaper quoted Updyke as saying this summer.
He also has denied it, on the advice of his attorneys and, because he has had trouble denying it or even simply keeping quiet about it, several lawyers have dropped him. His trial for criminal mischief and desecrating a venerable object he has pleaded not guilty has been delayed because of the media attention and is scheduled to begin Oct. 1.
Last September, a familiar caller was patched through on Finebaums show. It was Updyke, who abandoned his nickname and his bravado from months earlier.
Ive been advised by my attorneys, he said, not to call you anymore.
He couldnt help himself. In an unscheduled appearance that lasted more than seven minutes, Updyke never confessed specifically to poisoning the trees, but he didnt deny it, either. He offered no reasons; only an apology for the wrongdoing that had cost him friends and relationships even among family members.
Im not asking for sympathy, Updyke said. All Im asking is for forgiveness.
He went on.
I can give you a lot of reasons why all that happened I mean, a lot of reasons. All I can do, and its from my heart, Paul it is from my heart all I can say is that Im sorry. I cant undo it, he said.
Then he paused.
Paul, I guess Ive said enough. I guess Ive done enough damage.
Then he hung up.
To reach Kent Babb, call 816-234-4386, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/kentbabb. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.