By Tom Mattingly

The story came out of left field in late 2010 and early 2011. A man claimed to have poisoned two 130-year-old live oaks at “Toomer’s Corner” near the campus of Auburn University, to the point of coming clean on the “Paul Finebaum Show.”

It was a jolting announcement, even considering the contentious relationship between the Alabama and Auburn fan bases.

The local and national media weighed in quickly, most terming it a “new low” in the rivalry.

There was an arrest and ultimate conviction of 62-year-old Dadeville, Ala., resident Harvey Updyke.

(An Alabama spokesperson felt compelled to say Updyke was “not affiliated with the university in any way.”)

It was a volatile issue, dominating the chat boards and other media. Everyone seemed to have an opinion.

In a touching and perceptive moment on the “Sports Animal,” Heather Harrington opined that the tree-poisoning incident was like “poisoning Smokey.”

Sending a moving van to a coach’s home or flinging a rock through an athletic department office window were isolated, but well-publicized, incidents. Thoughtful fans of every SEC school did, however, have every reason to be greatly disappointed with and concerned about this turn of events.

All of this brings us to the question of being a fan and how all this “rivalry stuff” affects seemingly rational people.

Consider that there is a different feeling, something special, about college football from any other version. The whole concept is hard to put into words, but fans know the feeling.

Wherever you go across the width and breadth of the SEC, academic buildings, libraries, and bookstores are within arm’s reach of the stadium. Stadiums look as if they “belong” on campus. Each campus has a unique atmosphere and culture.

Decisions about team loyalties are often made early in life and are resolutely defended over the years. You rarely hear of an Alabama fan deciding to go to the Tennessee or Auburn side, an LSU fan doing likewise and rooting for Ole Miss, or a Florida fan hunkering down and rooting for Georgia.

Despite the cynics claiming SEC football is about winning and nothing else, with tradition being relegated to a dark and musty corner beneath one corner of the stadium, there is a special ambience to the fan experience.

That’s why we have “The Third Saturday in October” (now played occasionally on October’s second or fourth Saturday), the event formerly known as the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party,” the “Egg Bowl,” or the “Iron Bowl.”

The bumper stickers and road signs also tell the tale.

“Punt, Bama, Punt,” came from the 1972 Alabama-Auburn game. Auburn won 17-16, thanks to two blocked punts returned for touchdowns late in the fourth quarter. Even with the passage of time, these bumper stickers are still collector’s items, as are audiotapes of the plays in question.

“First the Tigers and then the Tide,” came from the 1985 Tennessee-Alabama game, Tennessee 16, Alabama 14, after the Vols had knocked off No. 1-ranked Auburn 38-20 earlier that season. Those were available shortly after the game’s conclusion to willing buyers. They adorned Vol fans’ cars from Graymont Avenue near Legion Field up I-59 as far as the eye could see.

“You are now entering Louisiana. Please set your watch back four seconds” evolved from a road sign on the Mississippi side of the border with Louisiana referencing the finish of the 1972 LSU-Ole Miss game. That night, the Tigers ran two plays in four seconds to defeat the Rebels, also by 17-16.

There was once a sign at a store in Auburn, offering a “28-27% discount” on selected items the day after the 2010 “Iron Bowl,” final score Auburn 28, Alabama 27.

Tennessee and Kentucky battled for the “Beer Barrel” annually between 1925 and 1997. Winning back the “Beer Barrel” was always an exciting moment. Keeping it was equally dramatic. Despite the passage of time, the “Beer Barrel” has been consigned to history somewhere in Knoxville, supposedly kept under lock and key.

These are the reasons collegiate stadiums host “can’t miss” events, dominated by the home team’s colors, but with enough visiting fans present to make things interesting. It’s uninhibited and intense… on and off the field.

If you’ve been to games at SEC venues over the years, you know all about that. It’s hand-to-hand combat, the better man wins, and that’s just in the stands.

When a game is still in doubt in the fourth quarter, with both teams’ fan bases in full voice and the bands going at it, there’s no place any self-respecting fan would rather be.