AUBURN, Ala. — On one of the coldest nights of the decade in Auburn, where college undergrads and shivering locals bundled four layers deep in navy and orange hustled from one watering hole to the next, the snow never fell. The BBVA Compass building’s digital sign projecting the frigid temperatures out to Magnolia Avenue and College Street flashed 20 degrees by the time the lines of the disappointed streamed out into the freezing air, but the flurries never followed, blankets of white unwarranted for just the second time this season in Auburn.
Snow is typically two-ply on the Plains, a winter wonderland built from the ground up by the joyful, the inebriated and — potentially, on this night — the frozen. But Monday night’s events stole that opportunity and buried it 200 miles south in Tallahassee.
Instead, it was just cold on Toomer’s Corner. Bitter cold. Gusts of wind whipped through the streets every 30 seconds after the BCS Championship Game, one pitting the town’s Auburn Tigers against the Florida State Seminoles, a hypothermic wind carrying bad intentions and uglier words from one corner to the next.
There are few places capable of such single-minded homogeneity as a college town in the minutes following a national championship victory or defeat, and Auburn, Ala., on Monday night, was never going to be the exception to the rule. Tiger fans, each and every one of them crammed into Quixotes and SkyBar and Moe’s Original BBQ, were either going to celebrate the best (and perhaps only) way they know how — scream, laugh, drink and stand on a particular frozen street corner to loft toilet paper high into a dark sky — or walk away heartbroken. This season left too much at stake to simply pay the tab and stroll off in mild spirits.
After all the miracle plays and redemption-themed hype videos and all that was lost on that corner connecting the university to downtown, there was only one way Auburn’s joyride was going to be derailed: in the most tightly-contested, gut-wrenching game in BCS title history, with the top-ranked Seminoles finalizing a comeback with just 13 seconds left on the clock.
But the end to this historic season — one of the greatest single-season turnarounds in college football history — isn’t really an end, and the story in Auburn on Monday night was as much about the town, its other losses and what remains on that corner as it was about a football game.
Five hours before the gut-punch, four commercial-sized trash cans leaned against brick walls just off the southwestern corner of College and Magnolia, the focal point of famed Toomer’s Corner, the cans tucked behind the brick pillars built by the university’s class of 1917. It is a corner steeped in iconicism and history, parts of which were stripped away in 2010 and officially chopped down following Auburn’s 2013 spring game. It is a corner of oak and toilet paper, sitting catercorner from Toomer’s Drugs. It is a corner undergoing change, some embraced, some mourned.
Where Toomer’s Oaks once stood, there are now nondescript piles of mulch. Fans still wander by for tradition’s sake, but there’s little to see outside of election-sized signs staked atop the mulch claiming 24-hour surveillance of the area. It’s a little too late for that now; the damage is done.
When confessed criminal and professed Alabama diehard Harvey Updyke dumped Spike 80DF, a poisonous herbicide, into the soil surrounding the two 80-something-year-old oak trees following the Tigers’ 2010 Iron Bowl win, there was to be no salvation for history — not by hand-washing the roots or vacuuming the soil or injecting the trees with sugars. The trees died a quick death as Updyke served his time in prison. Lose-lose situation. The fact that Auburn slogged its way through one of the worst seasons in program history in 2012 — three paltry wins over non-BCS programs — added insult to injury.
Gus Malzahn’s first order of public business after being hired as the program’s 26th head coach was to give the cornerstones of university tradition a proper send-off. The date was set for April 20. The trees were rolled — as they always were following Auburn victories starting in the late 1960s (or early ’70s, no one seems to recall) — photographs were taken and commemorative pieces were written. Days later, they were gone. Auburn ended up winning its spring game (lightening the mood here) and 12 more games in the fall. Was the three-month laundry list of miracles that helped the Tigers along the way some sort of recompense for these obligations and stresses?
In a year defined by late-season Malzahn magic tricks dubbed “Kick Six” and “The Immaculate Deflection” and various other monikers, the truth of the matter is that, despite proclamations of destiny — inside Toomer’s Drugs, there’s an Iron Bowl-themed T-shirt that reads: “Destiny Over Dynasty” — Auburn played its way to Pasadena. If there are angels in the endzone, they aren’t camping out on behalf of two trees. And if they were, the Tigers’ defense could have used a bit of help defending Jameis Winston and Kelvin Benjamin on that game-winning pass play.
This may be a story of a town’s resurgence following a collective low point, but to place all the eggs into one narrative is to take away from just how good this Auburn team ended up being this season.
Snow never fell on Monday, but we were 13 seconds away from an absolute blizzard.
As the once-expectant waves receded into the freezing night, those four trash cans sat untouched, empty. There was little to clean. The grounds were still powdered with the remnants of the fanbase’s simultaneous celebrations of its team’s SEC Championship victory and Ohio State’s loss in the Big Ten title game, the two December outcomes that catapulted the program to Pasadena, toilet paper residue frozen in time, strips of twos and threes hanging from unreachable branches — the wrong branches, but branches just the same. Dual wires now stretch across Magnolia and College like misdirected power lines in an attempt to replicate the welcoming oak limbs’ duties. The makeshift system works well enough. Auburn fans successfully rolled the corner multiple times in 2013. Toomer’s Corner still turns white when fans will it to be so.
Just not this time, not this night.
There’s a mural commemorating Auburn’s undefeated 2010 season on the outer wall of Sheldon Toomer’s blast-from-the-past drugstore, a place that smells like fresh-squeezed lemonade and serves it by the gallon. Heisman winner Cam Newton dominates the painting, standing above the crowds streaming by. It will forever be a season linked to one player — his heroics and his controversies.
For so many reasons, the 2013 Auburn Tigers warrant consideration for their own mural around town, perhaps on the outer wall of Bank Vault or the BBVA Compass building, the two structures facing Toomer’s Drugs on either side of the College-Magnolia intersection. Sure, 12-2 won’t please the eye as much as 14-0, but there are the last-second stunners to beat archrivals Alabama and Georgia to consider. There’s advancing to the final BCS title game and putting the unblemished regular season champ on the ropes for 59 minutes. There’s beating the Crimson Tide in an Iron Bowl classic. There’s oak-based redemption and Gus Malzahn’s rise and Heisman finalist Tre Mason breaking school records. Oh, and there’s beating Alabama in arguably the greatest finish in college football history. This team was something special, and something even more memorable.
There’s no denying the full-circle nature of events, either. Behind Malzahn, Mason and the nation’s scariest rushing attack, the 2013 version of the Auburn Tigers reconciled the ’12 rendition and nearly matched the ’10, helping to alleviate a city’s worth of disappointment along the way. That relief was not evident in the title game’s aftermath. It will surface soon enough.
The university has plans in the works to replace Toomer’s Oaks within the next couple of seasons, reportedly by 2015. The specific replacement trees have yet to be determined, but one thing is certain: the toilet paper trap made of wires is not the final solution. It is functional, but Auburn’s traditions call for roots and foundations.
Without trees or toilet paper or flocks of screaming fans in matching jackets, Toomer’s Corner sat cold and vacant early Tuesday morning. That is not a state of permanence. Winter — an Auburn winter, featuring two-ply snow — is coming.
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