"It's difficult to describe to someone who doesn’t live here," says Birmingham, Alabama radio host Paul Finebaum. "It's really the Israelis and the Palestinians living together in one place, day in and day out, two sides that have a long history of hate." Really. Martin Khodabakhshian's Roll Tide/War Eagle means to describe just a little of that history, the long conflict between the University of Alabama's Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers. Premiering on ESPN 8 November, the film features interviews with players and coaches and a few fans, all picking sides. The rivalry, says former Auburn coach Pat Dye, goes back to Alabama's identity as an "industrial state, with coal mines and steel mills and all blue-collar people and great families, but I think they lived a little bit of a depressed life." This might have led to an investment in football, a way to define sides, to feel superior to someone.
Former Alabama coach Bill Curry recalls that a lawyer once laid out the rivalry's origins as based in the South's image problems: "The Civil War and Reconstruction has emasculated the dignity of the Southern male," he was told. "And then we move on into the 20th century and you’ve got the Depression and the image of the Southern farmer and poor people and the uneducated and the poverty. And then you got the Civil Rights movement with the dogs and the hoses, and now we're all focused on Birmingham and Selma and once again, the culture takes a hit." Poor Alabama, victimized by bad PR. How better to fight back than by investing in opposing teams located just 125 miles apart?
The film traces these investments through early times -- the aspersions cast by both sides on the other, Auburn the poor white trash university and Alabama too privileged -- and then gets to recent history, mostly avoiding the story of Nick Saban (the film mentions that he left LSU to spend "two years coaching the Miami Dolphins," neglecting to note his bad exit from the NFL). Instead, the movie focuses on two other scandals.
An interview with Harvey Updyke, convicted of poisoning trees at Toomer's Corner (he denied the crime, for which he faces up to 42 years in prison, and then called Finebaum's show to apologize to Auburn, unable to stop himself from closing with "Roll damn tide") reveals he remains unrepentant. And another interview with Cam Newton shows he's feeling vindicated after he and his father admitted to seeking money for his college quarterbacking services, but did not use a former Mississippi State player as an agent. Besides, Newton won the Heisman, helped Auburn with the national championship, and oh yes, beat Alabama.