As it so often does in moments of historic civil unrest, the death threats started when the billboard went up on the interstate.
It was the marketing logic of Rob Preston, president and CEO of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, that started a turf war in East Tennessee right about the time Brian Kelly's Notre Dame team disappeared from the field in Miami.
"I thought, if Alabama loses the national championship, I'm probably gonna wait 'til March before I advertise it. If they win, I'm going to," he snaps his fingers, "hit it quick. Obviously they won it, and we put a billboard up. I don't know if you've seen that billboard, but a lot of people hate that billboard."
For months Preston has labored as the right arm of the Devil himself: the man who brought Nick Saban, head coach of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide, to the heart of Tennessee Volunteer country. According a vocal portion of the state's constituency, he did it for no damn good at all, to hurt the Vols, or -- even worse -- to help Alabama. He keeps the evidence of his demagoguery handy, primarily on the answering machine in a back room of the Chamber of Commerce.
The first message played is a two-parter. The voice of the answering machine notes, "Friday, 7:56 p.m." The tinny sound of "Rocky Top" is heard, likely from a car stereo with the windows rolled down.
"It's a pretty poor rendition," Preston says.
Then, a young male voice drenched in the unmistakable high nasal twang of Appalachia:
"GET THOSE BILLBOARDS OUT OF EAST TENNESSEE ... PLEASE- "
"I think it cut him off," Preston laughs.
He hits a button. "Friday, 7:58 p.m.," the machine announces. More garbled "Rocky Top," then silence, then an audible sigh and the same voice:
"... I hate Nick Saban."
"This next one you won't want to record," Preston says, motioning to my tape recorder as the smile leaves his face.
Saturday, 3:07 p.m.: "MAKE SURE YOU KISS NICK SABAN'S ASS YOU FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT!"
"See, that one's not fun. That one's serious," he says.
The dominant conversation among coaches and athletic directors at last month's SEC meetings was the inevitable expansion of the conference football schedule from eight to nine games. Of the 14 coaches, only Saban voiced public support of a nine-game schedule.
Underneath that debate was sub-argument over the importance of cross-divisional opponents in the current (and reaffirmed, for now) eight-game format. Since the divisional split in 1992, the SEC's cross-division format has existed solely to serve two long-standing rivalries: Auburn and Georgia, a 116-time affair called "The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry," and Alabama and Tennessee, known simply as "The Third Saturday In October."
Unlike Georgia and Auburn, the "Third Saturday" has been marked by no lesser amount of hate or history, but large and often deflating streaks. The Crimson Tide is 7-1 vs. the Volunteers since 2005. Before that, Tennessee went 9-1 from 1995 to 2004, following a previous 0-8-1 mark. Before that, Tennessee won four straight, and before that, Alabama took 11 in a row. And so on.
To those outside of "Deep South" and "Third Saturday," it's a common gripe that in order for those four teams to enjoy their games annually, the rest of the conference is saddled with contrived rivalries like Mississippi State vs. Kentucky or Florida vs. LSU, a game that often creates a disadvantage in strength of schedule for those two teams. If cross-divisional opponents were eliminated in an eight- or nine-game schedule, that would mean more frequent marquee match-ups like Georgia vs. LSU or Texas A&M vs. Florida, and less of Ole Miss vs. Vanderbilt.
This particular streak has been especially humbling: Saban is undefeated against Tennessee since arriving in Tuscaloosa, outscoring UT 204-65 since 2007. So why should the conference at large cater to a lopsided affair, especially with a future network and potential playoff committee consideration in the balance?
"And do what, get rid of it, not play it?" asks Michael Hartley, a Tennessee fan from "south of Knoxville" in line to see Saban speak in Athens. He's here with his girlfriend, a lifelong Alabama fan who's parking the car at the moment.
"Hell no. I mean, I hate 'em worse than anybody. But not playing it's worse than losing."
Four days and 30 miles away from Saban's looming visit, interstate traffic and a strong storm system have caused a minor delay for the Bradley Sunrise Rotary Club. There are close to 700 Tennessee football fans inside the Bradley High School Performing Center in Cleveland, Tenn., "The City With Spirit." Inside, Rotary member Mark Rodgers patrols the stage dressed in a full tuxedo complemented by a Tennessee baseball cap, microphone in hand.
"We're gonna need y'all to be louder in here. I need a 'GO VOLS!' over here!" he enthuses, pointing to one corner of willing fans.
The Bradley Sunrise Rotary Club is stalling for Tennessee head coach Butch Jones, throwing out packs of M&M's, leading a rendition of "God Bless America," giving a convocation (for, among other things, the success of Coach Jones and the Tennessee football team), raffling door prizes and playing a variety of UT-created hype clips on a screen above the stage.
About 15 rows from me is a man with long, gray hair and in a one-piece orange jumpsuit, the same as a prison-issued outfit, except that his has "Tennessee Volunteers" stitched in cursive white lettering across the back. He's the exception, as the crowd trends towards middle-aged, middle-class families with children and older couples. Behind me are players from the two local high schools, Walker Valley and Bradley, dressed in shorts and jerseys. Most are far from the size of D1 prospects, and almost every one of them sports bangs that land just over their eyes.
Scott Williamson, a local DJ from Talk 101.3, takes the mic to ham momentarily.
"I look out here at six, seven hundred people, and you know what I think? A Vanderbilt football game. That's what I think."
With a succession of patchwork brick buildings overlooking Lee Highway, Bradley High looks like any other rural public school. Cleveland, population 41,000, is substantially bigger than Athens' 17,000 and accordingly has the feel of a sprawling exurb. Just south of the high school are yesteryear-looking mom and pops like the Dairi Kreme restaurant, yet a half-mile around the corner is a Starbucks. Its parking lot currently stares at one of Preston's Nick Saban billboards.
Word reaches the stage that the Butch has landed. Another radio personality, Steve Hartline of WCLE, makes one more run at firing up the crowd, prodding at the disaffected football players behind me.
"Now, in about four days, in another town, another coach from south of here is coming. And now I want y'all to make so much noise, I want those folks in Athens to say, 'Did you hear how loud they were at Bradley High School in Cleveland four days ago?" Rodgers yells.
For an embodiment of evil, Preston fails to threaten. A self-described "UT and SEC fan" and graduate of East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Preston worked for the Boy Scouts of America for 11 years before starting his chamber of commerce career first in neighboring Monroe County. He's skinny, honest, and looks like a stock photo of a youth group leader. Throughout the particulars of discussing threats and insults directed at himself, he's as excessively polite as you'd expect from someone representing a town nicknamed "the Friendly City," even as he stands harried on the eve of "probably the biggest event in the city, ever" among Daniel Moore prints and signed Alabama memorabilia in the floor of his office. Behind us two phone lines ring nonstop.
He keeps the emails in a thick green folder in his desk. He lets me read through them under the agreement that I won't disclose the names or email addresses of the correspondents (although I can report that folks are still using Hotmail accounts). Most are the standard buffet of message board acrimony -- slurs, conspiracy theories, rambling single paragraphs bereft of punctuation, and the refusal of business, a tactic SEC fans are particularly fond of. A Tennessee fan in Marietta, Ga., writes repeatedly that he will never stop to get gas or food in Athens on his way to Knoxville again, ever.
"I got one just this week that said they wished the United States military could use Athens for target practice," Preston says.
There are technically death threats in these pages, but they're framed with a certain provincial gentility. Instead of simply writing, "Die, [expletive]," there are phrases like "I hope whoever did this gets what they deserve." If there's a redeeming quality to the base-level SEC fan stereotype, it's that they seem to have read Emily Post.
"They've hit it from all different angles," he concedes, allowing that his work, cell, and home numbers have all been targeted. "There's a radio show in Knoxville that about three months ago gave out my name and number and email."
Tennessee Sports Radio (unaffiliated with UT) issued a press release March 25 with the headline "Athens can keep Nick Saban - Tennessee Sports Radio and Bradley Rotary have BUTCH JONES." In it, station owner Jason Bailey expresses his displeasure at the Athens Area Chamber booking Saban and alleges that he refused the Chamber's attempt to buy ad time on TSR to promote the event.
In retaliation, the release goes on, TSR would throw its support behind an event in neighboring Cleveland featuring new Tennessee head coach Butch Jones and emceed by station personality and former UT quarterback Erik Ainge. Bailey also claimed the event would outdraw the Saban engagement:
"If they figured they can get 1,000 people to pay money to go see Saban, I knew we could get twice that many members of Vol Nation to come out to hear Butch Jones – and the Bradley Sunrise Rotary was the perfect group to make it happen. Better yet, the Saban money goes to the Athens Chamber of Commerce while the money raised by the Bradley Rotary from the Butch Jones event will go directly to charity. Every single penny will be given away."
Preston concedes that he knew booking Saban might attract some negative attention, but said any idea that it was to help Alabama in a rivalry with Tennessee is absurd and that the contract with Saban was signed months before Jones was even hired.
The press release was originally housed on Tennessee Sports Radio's official site, but some time between its release and the actual events it was removed. Neither Ainge nor Bailey were officially involved or even present at the Cleveland event. Both Ainge and Bailey were contacted numerous times by phone and email for this story. On Tuesday morning I received an email from Bailey responding to a question about TSR encouraging a protest of the Saban event:
"As a joke. Yes. We havnt [sic] even mentioned it in the past couple of months."
Bailey then offered to have me appear on Ainge's show but didn't respond to multiple follow-up emails.
Athens sits 59 miles north of Chattanooga, 58 miles south of Knoxville, and just east of Interstate 59. The strip mall bric-a-brac of Exit 52 hides a postcard-ready shot of the American South's small town, anchored by the McMinn County Courthouse and Tennessee Wesleyan College, both sloping toward a view of the Blue Ridge mountains.
Steve Spurrier spent part of his youth here while his father preached at the Mars Hill Presbyterian Church. He, along with actors Lou Ferrigno and Kirk Cameron, are former guests at this event.
"Spurrier's made fun of Tennessee his whole career," Preston notes. "He even did it that night and no one seemed to care."
Word around town is that if there's an incident, those responsible are looking to take advantage of being moved outdoors. Last year's event featured Phillip Fulmer and members of the 1998 Tennessee national championship team, with 276 tickets sold. Once demand to see Saban blew past 1,000, the event couldn't be housed in a building on the Wesleyan campus (the college's total enrollment is 1,100). The decision was made to move the affair, including a barbecue dinner for each attendee, to a large grassy area behind the Wesley Commons building where graduation is normally held.
"Certainly we've held large events on campus, but even when we had the Tennessee State Supreme Court come to hear cases, I don't think we had this many people or this much media," Tennessee Wesleyan Vice President of Student Life Scott Mashburn said.
The scene, which Saban will later tell the crowd is one of his favorite speaking locations ever, resembles nothing short of a gubernatorial address from a pre-segregation era state fair, or just a plain old big tent revival* -- one massive yellow and white-striped tent stretching around 30 by 50 yards, with another smaller tent behind it to catch overflow and house the silent auction, and a third for food services. Driving into town Monday, I can see a pair of trustees working on the rigging of what looks like a massive wedding or high school graduation.
* In fact, there is a big tent revival held every weeknight in Athens, just over a mile up the road on Decatur Pike. Services start at 7 p.m., and all are welcome.
This spectacle provides a tactical disadvantage, as North Green Street will cut right up against the event. North Green is also Tennessee Highway 30, a main thoroughfare for north-south traffic and therefore unable to be shut down for the event.
"The latest we've heard is that there's a plan online somewhere to drive cars up and down the street with PA systems playing 'Rocky Top,' Preston tells me 24 hours before the event. Preston said that Ainge's show had also encouraged Tennessee fans to buy tickets so they could heckle Saban from within the crowd.
McMinn County Sheriff Joe Guy is overseeing the security efforts. To combat the potential threat of Big Orange audio strikes, Guy has taken the tactical countermeasure of parking any large vehicle at the sheriff department's disposal -- vans, trucks, prisoner transports, etc. -- alongside the Green Street side of the event. We meet in his office inside the McMinn County Justice Center where among other souvenirs of his law enforcement career is a confiscated stovetop moonshine still.
"We want to give Coach Saban the freedom to interact, and we want the event to be good for the public. But there have been a few vague comments made. None really towards Coach Saban, just to the chamber mainly," Guy says.
According to Guy, the most important facet of any security detail is a "noticeable officer presence," as high visibility of a large number of police is the strongest deterrent. There have been multiple walk-throughs because of the logistics involving Saban's pre-speech meet-and-greet with private groups who have paid for the privilege. Unbeknownst to the large crowd on hand, Saban will be housed in Fowler Hall, across the street from the event.
"We really don't expect a problem. People here in McMinn County are happy he's here."
Accompanying Saban from Tuscaloosa to Athens is Jeff Purinton, Associate A.D. of Communications at Alabama.
"We've always had appearances in Tennessee, so I'm a little surprised that this had the response it did," Purinton says with a laugh.
"We checked it after we saw some of the articles early on. But our people felt good about it after talking to everyone here. They were very organized. And coach is pretty big-picture about all of this."
Saban first appears to the crowd in a media scrum just outside the tent, where, flanked by deputies, he delivers a requisite non-comment about the controversy of his presence.
"We've been up here several times. We do some things for people. This is not about Tennessee; this is not about Alabama. It's about what we do for people. We try to support charities, and we're here to support the Chamber today."
Friday night, Jones doesn't take the bait either. There are ample opportunities for the first-year coach to feed the perception that an unjust invasion into Big Orange Nation has occurred on his new watch, if only to build equity among a fan base that's suffered a crisis of confidence in the last decade. He's far too tactful for that, sidestepping a teenage fan's question on when he'll get to brag to his Alabama friend about beating the Tide again.
"I understand the magnitude and importance of that rivalry ... Rivalries are what make the pageantry of college football, and obviously, our rivalry with Alabama is very, very important, coupled with the great job that Coach Saban has done with their football program. I think that adds to it as well," Jones responds.
A member of the Athens Area Chamber insists -- on a very strict agreement of anonymity -- that for all their talk, "those folks at the Bradley Sunrise Rotary Club have been trying to get Nick Saban for years." Meanwhile, at Jones' speaking event, the rotarians boast that they got Jones when Athens couldn't.
The true intent of functions like the Saban and Jones events are lost in fandom, but aided by it as well. Each year, the money raised by the Athens Chamber at this event funds about 35 percent of its annual budget, according to Preston.That money goes towards everything from scholarships to the United Way to other city events and needs. The Sunrise Rotary donates all proceeds to various charities, including internationally.
With an estimated 90 percent of sales for the Saban event coming from out of McMinn County, it's a direct windfall for the local economy, not to mention that every chain motel room by the interstate is booked. One hundred percent of Saban's speaking fee goes towards the Nick's Kids Fund, which aids more than 150 charities and played a large role in relief efforts after the 2011 tornadoes hit Tuscaloosa.
"It's not going to the Alabama football team, unlike those emails," Preston says.
The hatred is thick, and the P.R. is corny at best. Neither school wants to associate itself with death threats or fan-fueled sabotage on the rubber chicken circuit. That's ostensibly why Tennessee Sports Radio was likely asked by UT to back off. But for SEC football's ability to generate previously unthinkable levels of revenue in amateur athletics, what's lost in the dueling East Tennessee coach speeches is that this may is the only SEC football event all year that doesn't generate a single cent of profit for the conference or a member institution.
It's ugly, but it's all for a good cause.
They are two largely similar speeches given by vastly different personalities for seemingly opposite reasons.
Inside Bradley High School, Jones seems to have evolved ever so slightly from the campaign-trail ingratiating of a rookie head coach. He's the much-publicized third or fourth or worse choice for the Vols, but you get the feeling that he knows better than any of the rumored candidates for the job just how to rebuild pride. Just like James Franklin and Hugh Freeze and Dan Mullen before him, he has to play the long con of patience towards regaining that pride, because his rookie season will feature a team thin on talent.
Like Freeze and Kevin Sumlin, he's proved very successful at delivering the opiate of choice: recruiting success. Grab the right amount of four-stars, and your fan base won't feel a thing through a 5-7 season. And while he can't talk about running back Jalen Hurd or any of the names he's already locked up, he can talk about recruiting "a young man named Eric Fisher, who, when he came to us at Central Michigan, wasn't rated the 48th-best player in the country. He was the 48th-best player in Michigan."
Fisher went on to become the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. The crowd oohs and aahs accordingly. Jones then provides a collection of anecdotes about building team chemistry since his arrival and that the players are currently working with Navy SEALS in teamwork-building exercises.
"I don't want any energy vampires on this team!" he insists.
Jones is passionate but a little dry, noticeably restrained even when he's showing the feigned enthusiasm that's demanded at these type of events. Maybe he's tired. Since taking the job in December he's worked an abnormal amount of hours off the field to meet with former players and any and all kinds of groups. But if he doesn't bowl over the crowd with a preacher's passion, he's more than prepared for any situation. He's humble and inscrutably genuine, but still funny. At the post-speech meet-and-greet inside the Bradley choir room, Rotary president Pat Fuller is busily directing traffic for fans to have their picture taken with Jones.
Jones leans toward the fans in line: "You guys hear that?" he asks. "She just called me Coach Dooley on accident."
It brings the partisan house down with laughter and the fast-talking Fuller blushes with her apology. Next up is a pale-skinned young man named Adam, who's confined to a wheelchair and wide-eyed at meeting Jones. The coach invites Adam to practice this fall as a special guest. As the room grows quiet for their conversation, Adam's parting words are loud:
"Hey, I really hate the Georgia Bulldogs. So please kill Georgia this year, please."
Another warm round of laughter. It's Butch Jones Day. Literally. Before leaving the stage, Fuller takes the microphone to announce that June 7 will officially be Coach Butch Jones Day in Cleveland, Tenn., and that as such, Jones is an honorary citizen of Bradley County and the city of Cleveland. He's also presented with a special coin outlining the principles of the rotary club.
He doesn't miss a beat, borrowing the microphone. He's just finished telling the crowd moments ago about the honor of being their coach and how his players will pull their pants up and wear their hats right, all to thunderous applause. Now here comes the knockout.
"And I'll tell you right now," he says, holding the coin in the air, "that this coin will be in my right front pocket the day we take the field to play Austin Peay in our opening game."
Whoops and hollers and waves of applause. Cleveland is now truly with Coach Jones. Every day is Butch Jones day.
Meanwhile, at the top of the mountain, a man has managed to make over a thousand people forget that they're sweating to exhaustion under a giant vinyl tent.
Most college football coaches build their non-football speeches around their whys -- their personal philosophies based on valuable life experiences. It allows for anecdotes and easy stories. Both Jones and Saban give their whys, but if Jones came to Cleveland to deliver the whats and whens of Tennessee football under his watch, Saban is here to grant the public his hows.
"I think we're going to open it up now for questions," Saban announces. "I know it's hot here tonight, but remember, that's a circumstance," he tries to joke.
He's referencing a part of his speech on players losing sight of their goals because of their current circumstances. Be it the influence of his resume or his unhidden disdain for any and all feckless members of the human race, Saban's speech feels alarmingly free of fluff for one of these events. He worked to become a better man to impress his future wife, the lowest point of his career was losing to ULM in 2007, and his favorite part of the job isn't winning, but pushing his team to achieve excellence.
But these are still Bama fans, and that's Nick Saban's curse now and forevermore. Night after night, interview after interview, the man who built a formula of consistent success with ruthless accountability and emotionless drive is forever doomed to push the boulder of jocular ROLL TIDE! fandom up a hillside in Hell.
It never ends. Every question alternates between gushing praise he politely shrugs off and the trademark entitlement of a fan base that tattoos its total number of national championships on every piece of paraphernalia. If you listen to the man himself, there is no mystery to Nick Saban. He's Bill Belichick covered in a veneer necessary for him to function in recruiting and booster-coddling and events like these.
He tells the crowd that nowhere in the Alabama football facility are there mentions of championships, only the work ahead. So what the hell do you think he thinks of your t-shirt?
Every question gets the brutally honest short answer first and the programmed-in lighthearted exposition second.
Fan: "Coach, please answer yes to this: do you have a process or a plan in place to eliminate distractions for AJ this season? I've seen the Webb girl, and she's a distraction."
Saban: "Yes. But if you were in AJ's shoes, you'd probably want the distraction too. There's a lot that AJ's been through that you don't know about."
Fan: "What's the funniest thing a player has ever said to you?"
Here Saban has no real honest answer. It takes him about 10 seconds to think of anything, and the answer ends up a story about how during a team accountability committee meeting Barrett Jones told him that a particular player with discipline issues wasn't a "blinking light, but a strobe light," referencing Saban's own analogy he gave the team about how every player must be an unblinking light for the whole Christmas tree to shine. Or something.
Fan: "Coach Saban, can I have a scholarship?"
Saban: "For what?"
It's a teenage boy asking, and even in this heat he's wearing a houndstooth fedora and a blazer. He looks like a member of Fall Out Boy dressed for fraternity rush. Once the laughter settles, Saban softens the blow.
"We're gonna need to see some tape, man."
"Okay, you're ending it," he points to a woman near the front row.
Fan: "Coach, what's your favorite national championship and why?"
Saban: "The next one."
Thunderous applause, and then a softening explanation about how the Rose Bowl was certainly special, and a team coming to win back-to-back titles is a great sign of character, and before the applause can stop, Saban is whisked away in a phalanx of deputies. He moves quickly as fans begin to cloud around with phones, but stops near his car to sign an autograph for an Alabama fan in a wheelchair flanked by two friends in Tennessee orange t-shirts. Then he's gone.
There is relief in Athens, among Preston and his staff, among Guy and his deputies. The event was handled flawlessly.
Erik Hermanson is the man in the wheelchair, a 31-year-old Knoxville native paralyzed after a car wreck in high school. His lifelong friend, Tennessee fan Laura Mahoney, and her boyfriend, Walter, drove him to the event.
I asked him what Saban said.
"He said 'Erik, I know you're a good man,'" Hermanson smiled. "Even with these two orange sons of bitches next to me!"
The planned strike to thwart Nick Saban arrives at exactly 7:32 p.m. on Tuesday, as a black Dodge Ram pickup with Florida tags cruises south down Green Street. The truck's two occupants are both white males likely in their late 20s, wearing Tennessee orange t-shirts and sunglasses. Their stereo is playing "Rocky Top" at maximum volume.
Almost simultaneous to their passing, the crowd of 1,500 erupts into applause and laughter as Saban tells a story about his wife forgetting her purse in the White House. After Alabama had won their third national title in four seasons. The only person who even notices the noise from the pickup is a deputy stationed by the street. With his arms folded, he laughs.
"They're gonna have to be a little louder than that to beat him."
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