Toward the end of Roll Tide/War Eagle, the latest entry in ESPN’s continually excellent sports documentary series, there’s a clip of a man answering a question from the press corps: “Are we sure that they are, in fact, going to die?” Between gulps, the man answers, “That’s an emotional question. I always want to hold out hope.” Viewers just stumbling upon the moment might think he’s talking about a group of school children, stranded in the wilderness and waiting for rescue. But, no, he is Stephen Enloe, herbicide expert at Auburn University, and he’s discussing the trees at Toomer’s Corner, a scene of celebration for Auburn fans after every victory, the trees draped in toilet paper by fans. The trees have allegedly been poisoned by Harvey Updyke, a rabid University of Alabama fan seeking revenge for a taunting act by Auburn fans after the 2010 Iron Bowl, the yearly game between the two in-state rivals. This, to those unfamiliar with the rivalry, will seem too outlandish to believe. But that’s the point of Roll Tide, War Eagle: to an outsider, every single level of this rivalry seems crazy, each more insane than the last. But to those that live with this every day—and people do live this rivalry every day—it’s just part of life, like eating and breathing.
In the world of American sports, Auburn-Alabama is unmatched in terms of pure vitriol and hatred. It’s the type of rivalry that precludes an insider from objectively spotlighting the series in a documentary. (Right about now is the time to tell you, in the interest of full disclosure, that I’m an Alabama native and a lifelong Auburn fan.) So it’s appropriate that while the two producers of the documentary, Bruce Feldman and Joe Tessitore, are experienced college-football analysts, its director, Martin Khodabakhshian, is an award-winning producer born in London and raised in several parts of the United States, but none of them near either campus featured here. This will surely set plenty of Alabama natives grumbling, especially Khodabakhshian’s use of controversial radio host Paul Finebaum as the thread that runs through the entire doc. But it’s an outsider’s perspective that’s necessary here and Khodabakhshian acquits himself nicely.
Roll Tide/War Eagle turns its focus on the last two games in the rivalry (2009 and 2010), a move that proves both smart and problematic. Over the last two years, both teams have seen unequivocal successes, each winning the SEC and BCS title (Alabama in 2009, Auburn in 2010) and each boasting the Heisman Trophy winner in its respective championship year (runningback Mark Ingram for Alabama, quarterback Cam Newton for Auburn). And over the course of these two years, there were twists and turns outlandish for even this rivalry, which has seen its share of surreal moments. In a way, it serves as a perfect microcosm of a conflict that’s more than 100 years old.
But therein lies the problem: it’s extremely difficult to sandwich everything about a rivalry this deep, this intense into a 50-minute program. Ken Burns could easily produce an epic 10-part miniseries on Auburn-Alabama. As Tigers great Bo Jackson tells the camera, “The rivalry runs a whole lot deeper for the fans because they’re the ones cheering. You’ve got husbands sleeping in basements and wives sleeping in the master bedroom and good friends don’t speak. But unless you’ve experienced it, the things I’m telling you about are just the tip of the iceberg. And it’s a big-ass iceberg.”
Much of the history of the rivalry is glossed over early on, some of the greatest moments and figures reduced to footnotes as a result of the condensed approach. Still, Khodabakhshian manages this with careful balance, giving the most legendary figures—like former Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant—the appropriate amount of screentime. He also manages to touch on many of the nuances (Auburn’s inferiority complex) even if it’s only surface treatment (the roots of the inferiority complex being connected to Auburn being a land-grant institution aren't fully explored). Of course, this documentary is for those unfamiliar with the rivalry and seeking to understand it, not those that know every single factoid about every player and coach involved. And its those viewers who will find the off-the-field controversies all the more fascinating.
Those events include the pay-for-play accusations surrounding former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. In the end, it feels like Khodabakhshian actually goes light on Newton, though that’s likely because at the time of filming the NCAA investigation was still ongoing. (Earlier this fall, the NCAA officially cleared Auburn of any wrong-doing in its recruitment of Newton). More time, of course, is given over to the aforementioned poisoning of the Toomers trees. It was something tens of thousands of people took seriously, yet Khodabakhshian can’t resist presenting the story with something of a smirk, portraying Updyke more as a bumbling fool too lost inside his own rabid fandom than either a sympathetic figure or even evil perpetrator.
As for the other development—the catastrophic tornado that struck Tuscaloosa this past April—Khodabakhshian does a wonderful job of highlighting the disaster, clips of the monster funnel ripping across the city evoking as much horror as it did the day it hit. He also brings a necessary gravitas after the more cartoonish Updyke sement, focusing on the story of Alabama football player Carson Tinker, who was injured in the storm and whose girlfriend was killed by the twister. Tinker’s own resilience reflects that of Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama community which, in the six months since the storm, have made remarkable strides towards recovery even as there’s still a long way to go. Khodabakhshian’s wisely uses the flag-football charity game as a way to show the support the university received from its cross-state rivals while also showing that even in unity, the two sides are always competing. And, as is shown, football provides a salve for the people of the community.
Khodabakhshian brings the doc full circle, showing Jelks returning to Tuscaloosa as part of the tornado relief effort. And this is the point at which he exits the series, showing a return to the norm in the weeks following the storm, the fans returning to their typical vitriol. Finebaum even comments on this return to normalcy to close the doc, a good summation for outsiders. As I mentioned earlier in this review, that’s who this documentary is for. And those outsiders will walk away from this having learned more about the greatest rivalry in American sports yet, most likely, still shaking their heads at the levels to which the participants take it. Those in the trenches of this in-state war won’t learn anything new and will no doubt find plenty to complain about, which is to be expected; it’s impossible to satisfy both parties regardless of who makes the documentary. In the end, the best Khodabakhshian can aim for is a well-balanced, informative, objective peek inside a rivalry that makes otherwise sane people come completely unhinged and push the already unhinged to even greater heights of insane behavior and that’s exactly what he delivers here.
- Several of the participants in the rivalry get off some good lines, but the best belong to Auburn alum Charles Barkley (save the complaints of bias for the comments, Bammers): “Alabama accusing Auburn of cheating is like Snooki telling Halle Berry she’s ugly.”
- I enjoyed the narration by Wright Thompson, a native Southerner with no direct link to either school whose subtle drawl adds a nice tie to the Deep South roots of the doc.
- To outsiders confused as to why both schools’ mascots don’t quite match with their team name (the Alabama Crimson Tide have an elephant, Auburn University boasts both a tiger and the famous “War Eagle” chant and accompanying eagle mascot), those are explained here—though probably not to anyone’s full satisfaction. But the vagueness is part of the fun.
- Since I’m sure my claim that this rivalry is the greatest in American sports will generate plenty of debate, here are the others that would round out my top five, just for fun: Army-Navy, Ohio State-Michigan, UNC-Duke, and Red Sox-Yankees. I’m sure you’ll disagree so share yours below.
- Interesting that, of all the scandals both schools have endured outside of Cam Newton (Eric Ramsey and James Brooks at Auburn, Albert Means at Alabama), Khodabakhshian highlights only Gene Jelks. More surprising, there’s no mention of Bill Oliver, who played at the University of Alabama under Bear Bryant but later coached at Auburn—including as interim head coach for half of the 1998 season, a particularly tumultuous time for the Tigers. All these, of course, are casualties of the limited focus of the documentary. Like I said, this could have been Ken Burns-long.
- I enjoyed the use of “Sweet Home Alabama” throughout, though the song is only really used by Alabama, not Auburn.
- Those radio calls played during the doc aren’t fake. They are frighteningly real and come from Finebaum listeners every day. If you want to hear them at their best (i.e., craziest), tune in on Monday, Nov. 28, the first show back after this year’s Iron Bowl. Speaking of Finebaum, I initially recoiled at his being the central thread in this doc, but the more I thought about it and re-watched it, it makes perfect sense. Love him or (more likely) hate him, he is the central figure at which point Auburn and Alabama fans intersect all year long.