I started digging because I don’t like thinking that’s what it is, and I don’t like thinking that’s what it is because I don’t like potty humor. That’s just me.
Of course, dating it to the celebration of arguably the most godliest God Thing in the history of Auburn God Things would be kind of awesome, as far as football tradition creation myths go. But not if it’s all simultaneously scatological and… stuff. That’s not what people think about before it happens or when it’s happening or after it happens, which is why the cover of the Summer 2011 / Toomer’s Oaks issue of Auburn Magazine—a roll of toilet paper underneath the word “Wipeout?”—was so (unintentionally, I’m sure) tacky; there’s nothing funnily fecal about rolling Toomer’s Corner—not now, and not then.
Yet suddenly, now that all the people that write the stories are meeting Harvey Updyke at Louisiana catfish joints and asking about the history of the thing, that’s the story—that the tradition began (at least in earnest) after Auburn won the 1972 Iron Bowl as some sort of hyuck-hyuck toilet paper tie-in to Terry Henley’s “We’re going to beat the No. 2 out of [then No. 2 ranked] Bama” comment.
I first heard about that particular theory in a quick ESPN piece right after the poisoning. I’ve heard it a few times since. I’ve rolled my eyes every time. Then came Sports Illustrated’s story on Updyke. And then a month or so ago the theory was endorsed by no less an authority on Auburn history than David Housel in Wright Thompson’s second ESPN piece on Toomer’s (which also quotes our own Dr. Jolley, I might add):
… as I sat in the Auburn library, retired athletic director David Housel came in to speak to students about the Civil War. “When are you going to say rolling Toomer’s Corner began?” he asked me.
When tour guides and fans speak of Toomer’s Corner, it seems as if the rolling has always been done. The ticker tape, then the TP, a chain leading back to something elemental. Right?
“Nobody knows,” Housel said. “There are all kinds of different stories. This I know for a fact. It wasn’t anything like what it was today until Dec. 2, 1972. Prior to that, you’d have some strands of toilet paper thrown over the power wires. But in 1972, Auburn played undefeated, untied Alabama, ranked No. 2 in the nation. We had a mouth of the South who played running back for us, a guy named Terry Henley. He went around all week telling people we were going to beat the No. 2 out of Alabama. He wasn’t just talking about ranking.”
When the team returned to Auburn after the win, the intersection was covered in toilet paper. That’s where it began.
This I know for a fact: That is not where it began.
Housel’s right, though—no one one knows exactly when it did start, probably because it’s hard to define “it” and hard to define “start.” Toomer’s Corner is Toomer’s Corner because it’s Toomer’s Corner. The heart of the town is where people go when there’s a reason to go somewhere, to celebrate something, to party. It’s just gravitational. Toomer’s Corner has been the setting for Auburn pep rallies since there were pep rallies in Auburn to be set. Speaking of, what we now only call “celebrations” were called “pep rallies” for a long time. Pep rallies before the game. Pep rallies after the game. Planned pep rallies. Spontaneous pep rallies. And some folks get”R-O-W-[a]-D-Y” at pep rallies. Some folks do crazy things at pep rallies, the unplanned response-to-victory ones especially. Some folks, you know, might even bring toilet paper to throw at pep rallies.
But we do know that rolling things at Toomer’s Corner—power lines, light poles, trees—with toilet paper didn’t just occasionally occur in patches after Auburn away game wins but was associated with the celebration of Auburn victories for at least a year before we beat the No. 2 out of Bama. There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence to support that claim: By 1977, rolling Toomer’s was a big enough deal for the Plainsman to rub how awesome and unique a tradition it was in the faces of student newspaper staffers at other SEC schools, including some dude named Paul Finebaum at the University of Tennessee; there are photos of (significant) rollings taken during the 1972 season and almost certainly before the Iron Bowl; a feature in the 1979 Glomerata claims rolling the corner had been a tradition “for the last decade” (which if we want to get all first-dictionary-entry technical would date it to 1969); tell-tale strands of toilet paper can be spotted in Glom photos taken in 1971.
But indisputable proof can be found in the Nov. 1971 Plainsman, in a story on the celebration after Auburn’s victory over in Georgia in Athens, which all God’s children pretty much agree is the game that won Pat Sullivan his Heisman Trophy:
“I wonder if they had a good pep rally at Toomer’s Corner?”
They had a good pep rally at Toomer’s Corner—and all up and down Magnolia Avenue and all over Auburn. Toilet paper, the long, fragile banners of victory, were wrapped around telephone poles, stoplights, and overhanging trees. Every car that came near Toomer’s Corner left with pertinent information painted in orange and blue on the fenders, decks, and windshield. “35-20″ was common, as was “Bear Beware” and “Auburn #1.” Some cars were even seen sporting slogans that were less than complimentary toward the University of Alabama.
At the height of the celebration a Greyhound bus passing through Auburn was attacked by brush-wielding enthusiasts. It left with orange and blue highlights on its drab gray sides.
By the time the band and the football team got back to Auburn, the celebration had made its way to Sewell Hall where banners and throngs of hysterical Auburn fans awaited the arrival of the victorious Tigers.
After the excitement had subsided, and the enthusiasts had gone home to dream about the Alabama game and Sugar Bowl bids, the streets were deserted. But the toilet paper thrown in the trees bore witness to the pep rally earlier and the painted windows of the stores proudly displayed the Auburn spirit. It had been a memorable day.
Toilet paper, the long, fragile banners of victory… not “like long, fragile banners of victory”—”the,” as in something understood, as in something already established… since the 1960s according to a story in the Nov. 14, 1985 edition of The Plainsman that tried tracing the tradition’s roots:
Celebrations at the Corner have been going on for as long as there was a football team, but no one knows the exact date of the first rolling of the intersection.
Dr. Alley W. Jones, head archivist for Auburn University, remembered one particular celebration as a student when Auburn upset Alabama 14-13 in 1949, but couldn’t remember the year rolling was first established.
“I remember everybody that was here in town went up to Toomer’s Corner,” said Jones. “They hooped and hollered and carried on, but I don’t remember any toilet paper. The rolling of it came alter, but I can’t tell you when.”
Neil O. Davis, former owner, editor and publisher of The Auburn Bulletin and former journalism professor at the University, is slightly more specific in a date for the beginning of the rolling tradition.
“That was not until the 1960s. There were always pep rallies and celebrations there, but the throwing of the toilet paper came later.”
To what extent? Sure, OK, that’s a question. There were undoubtedly more “long fragile banners of victory” hung at Toomer’s during the celebration of 17-16 than any previous celebration; there were undoubtedly more people there with undoubtedly more to celebrate (heck, judging by the pictures, babies might have been made up there). So its certainly possible, and certainly reasonable to think that the sheer volume of the toilet paper and the sheer size of the crowd that day might’ve played some sort of special role in establishing the spectacle not just as a tradition but as a gameday must.
But so far I haven’t found any corroborating source material or evidence along those lines—nor any Glom retrospective or Plainsman push for everyone to BYOR to Toomer’s after the game (and those asking us to believe that such a phenomenon was just an organic response to Henley’s smack talk are asking us to believe an awful lot). There was, however, an SGA campaign aiming to provide kazoos for all Auburn students to blow at the game.
…butt I digest.
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