When Harvey Updyke Jr., the Alabama fan who poisoned Auburn’s famed Toomer’s Corner trees and wound up serving eight months in jail and being ordered to pay almost $800,000 in restitution for that (even if he didn’t pay most of that), passed away Thursday at 71, many thoughts turned to ESPN’s Paul Finebaum. Updyke infamously revealed his poisoning of those trees live on a call to Finebaum’s show back in 2011 (as “Al from Dadeville), and the amount of media coverage around that call and the fallout played a significant role in Finebaum’s rise from local radio host to a national ESPN and SEC Network (for now) personality who makes a reported $5 million annually and has a sitcom about his life in development. Scott Fowler of The Charlotte Observer spoke to Finebaum about Updyke Friday, and he received some notable quotes:
“That’s the singular most memorable moment that I’ve ever had,” Finebaum said Friday in our interview. “ I’ve had a lot of happier moments and more enjoyable, but never one that just is stuck to you like that…. Whatever you do in life or in your career, you can’t run away from it. And I’ve always felt from that moment on, I would never be able to outrun him — even though I’ve tried.”
…Finebaum told me Friday he felt “terribly” about Updyke dying since he had gotten to know the man well. But the last time they spoke — in November 2019, on Finebaum’s radio show again — Finebaum publicly called Updyke an “idiot” and a “lunatic.”
“By no means were we friends,” Finebaum said when we spoke Friday. “In the last call, I was fairly ugly to him.”
Still, Updyke and Finebaum stayed in touch, off and on, for nearly a decade.
“There was an attraction to him,” Finebaum said, “like there’s almost an attraction from a newspaper reporter to a serial killer. You want to leave those lines of communication open, because when he was calling me he was still in the news…. But he just became, sadly, a carny barker as time went on.”
The discussion of that November 2019 call (seen above) is interesting, as Finebaum took a lot of criticism (including from us) for letting Updyke on the air in the first place. Call screening exists for a lot of reasons, and there’s a good argument that one of those reasons is denying platforms to convicted criminals with a history of self-promotion and trolling. (For the record, Finebaum said afterwards “when the tree poisoner called in, we didn’t know it was him until we were talking to him,” and said he would have handled the situation differently if given a do-over.) But the overall discussion here is also notable, and the comparison of the Finebaum-Updyke relationship to a newspaper reporter and a serial killer is certainly interesting.
Of course, Updyke wasn’t a serial killer, and it’s also important to not overinflate his role in college football history. He was an upset fan who committed an act of vandalism that destroyed another school’s prized trees, and gained national attention (and also a prison sentence) for calling into a radio show and bragging about it. He wasn’t a positive figure for the sport. And it’s notable that even Finebaum (who perhaps gained more from Updyke’s call than anyone else) isn’t entirely happy about that call, saying he’d “never be able to outrun him” and adding to Fowler later that Updyke will probably be mentioned in the first line of Finebaum’s own obituary.
But for good or for bad, Updyke and Finebaum will always be linked. And it’s definitely interesting to hear what Finebaum had to say about Updyke this week after nearly a decade of drama involving him. And it is somewhat unfortunate for Finebaum that the Updyke saga will always follow him. Yes, that saga arguably played a large role in his rise from a prominent local figure to a national figure, but that’s come with the cost of being forever associated with that first Updyke call, which he didn’t seek out or create. As he told Fowler, “I’ve had a lot of happier moments and more enjoyable, but never one that just is stuck to you like that.” And it’s always going to be stuck to him.