published Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Mark Wiedmer: 'Overboard' Vols fans vicious on Saban's visit

Alabama Coach Nick Saban addresses the crowd during the BCS Celebration ceremony as Alabama celebrated its third BCS National Championship in four years
Alabama Coach Nick Saban addresses the crowd during the BCS Celebration ceremony as Alabama celebrated its third BCS National Championship in four years
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Just in case you think there's an offseason when it comes to jealousy and loathing among Southeastern Conference football fans, we introduce you to Rob Preston this morning.

As the president of the Athens (Tenn.) Chamber of Commerce, Preston apparently has become the sole target of the Big Orange Nation's anger regarding the June appearance of Alabama football coach Nick Saban at the organization's seventh annual benefit dinner.

Read one email: "If you do not cancel Saban AND apologize for being so financially irresponsible, we are taking the list of members and are going to actively boycott any and all businesses who are members or are related to the chamber in any way."

Another stated: "You are an absolute joke and a disgrace to the state of Tennessee. Why do you think it is OK to bring in Nick Saban to speak? ... Are you hoping he will get to do some recruiting and further damage the state of Tennessee's football program? I wish you all the worst and hope your event is a complete failure -- Rocky Top for Life."

Finally, a third nastily noted: "This is the ultimate disrespect to the University of Tennessee and all Vols fans, and it amounts to kicking us when we're down. It's the college sports equivalent of scheduling a Nazi to speak in Israel. I hope your power fails, your catering is illness-laden and that the backlash boycott sets Athens businesses back 25 years."

But it was the Easter weekend phone call that shocked Preston the most.

"It was filled with cuss words," he said. "It said, 'Whoever is responsible for this should be dead.'"

Said Preston on Tuesday, less than two months before Saban's June 11 arrival: "Some of the Tennessee fans have gone overboard in taking this way too seriously."

Not that Preston -- an avid distance runner who's made it his goal to run at least one marathon in all 50 states -- is taking any of this less than completely seriously in the wake of the horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon.

"We're going to have extra security that night, both for Coach Saban and myself," he said. "We'll be prepared."

Yet even Preston, who has completed marathons in 36 states and twice has run the Boston Marathon, admits he was completely unprepared for the interest in Saban, both positive and negative.

"We had [former Tennessee football coach] Phillip Fulmer, Al Wilson and Peerless Price off the 1998 national championship team last year and we drew 276 people," Preston said. "We've already sold 1,324 tickets for Coach Saban, and people from as far away as Florida and Virginia have bought tickets. We're cutting it off at 1,500 because we just don't have a facility to accommodate more than that."

Other than the wounded pride of some UT fans, everybody wins with this benefit. The entirety of Saban's undisclosed speaking fee will be turned over to his charity, Nick's Kids, which helps mentally disadvantaged youngsters.

The money generated from the benefit will do what it always does, which is to help Athens-area businesses and organizations, everything from the local United Way chapter to Tennessee Wesleyan College.

"This will be, by far, the most money we've ever raised from one dinner," Preston said.

How much the most? The former record crowd for one of the Chamber's dinners was Christian activist and actor Kirk Cameron, who was a child television star during his "Growing Pains" days.

Camerson drew a crowd of 1,160, but tickets sold for $10. Tickets for Saban are $50.

Said Preston, mindful of Saban's four total BCS titles, including the three he's won at Bama in the past four seasons: "They just want to come and hear the guy who's probably the greatest college football coach of our lifetime."

Not that the Crimson Tide coach is the only reason for sports fans to make their way to Athens on the second Tuesday in June. The dinner's silent auction will feature football helmets autographed by Peyton Manning and Herschel Walker, as well as a 1986 Masters scorecard signed by Jack Nicklaus, which just also happens to be the last year the Golden Bear won the green jacket.

It all sounds like a perfect early summer evening to most of us. But Preston isn't concerned about most of us. His concern is for the type of nut who would poison another fan base's beloved trees. Or worse. Much worse.

Said the marathon runner Preston, the nightmares of Boston, Newtown and Aurora still fresh and horrifying: "It just takes one crazy person to ruin everything."

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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mkelly54 said...

Some people just need to grow up. This isn't about UT or Alabama, it's about helping charities and Nick Saban is one of the best drawing cards in the country.

If this is all people care about, then they really have their priorities out of order.

April 17, 2013 at 8:48 a.m.
timbo said...

Weeniemer....lighten up. Two of the examples you used were kind of funny. The third was a little much.

It's just football but bringing up Newtown, Boston, and Aurora to make your point was just as extreme as the Tennessee fans. Saban is a big boy...I think he can handle some irate Tennessee fans.

Free speech is much more important than some of your "lofty goals." It seems a newspaper guy would get that first, except you really don't care about my right to free speech, just yours. Then you can have a monopoly on speech.

This was harmless, and your comments expose your politics. You are just another stupid liberal using the sports page to make a liberal point.

I don't read your articles much, and now I won't read them at all.


April 17, 2013 at 9:45 a.m.
chas9 said...

timbo, your logic escapes me. What does any of this have to do with politics?

April 17, 2013 at 12:05 p.m.
drdroad said...

I'm not sure I understand timbo's comments. He puts down the writer of this article and then proceeds to commit his own sins by suggesting people who don't agree with him are stupid, and that this article is written by one of those. I reread the article I can't see anything that suggests the writer is a "stupid" liberal. Unless maybe timbo is saying you must be either stupid or liberal to want to support charities? Is that it?

That said, I still don't understand why a Chamber of Commerce in Tennessee would invite Alabama's football coach to give a speech. I can't imagine anyone who went to UT, Vanderbilt, Memphis, UT Chattanooga, or any other Division I Tennessee school would be happy about this.

April 17, 2013 at 5 p.m.
RealisticVol said...

I don't blame Saban a bit for accepting an event which allows him to come here and get his name in front of potential recruits. i agree with drdroad's comment "That said, I still don't understand why a Chamber of Commerce in Tennessee would invite Alabama's football coach to give a speech.". It was very poor judgement to invite him and give him the opportunity. No wonder other states' residents don't think Tennesseeans are very smart.

April 17, 2013 at 6:29 p.m.
pigskinfan99 said...

Coach Saban's visit will not directly affect UT's recruiting. If a player from the area was already in Bama's list, Bama will get the player with or without Saban's visit. In fact, until Butch Jones and staff arrived, most all of East TN was ignored by the past two regimes, even 3. The HS coaches never saw any TN recruiters. Finally, some of these strange extreme posts should join the famous "tree poisoner" from Bama. Get a life and some reality dudes. I am orange blooded but personal attacks like some of these are bad as we are rebuilding. Any comments?

April 17, 2013 at 6:57 p.m.
rolltiderobert said...

Funniest quote is from the clown that thinks that selling over 1,000 more tickets is being "financially irresponsible"! Newsflash, redneck...over 1,300 people paying $50 a pop say that your boycott won't go very far. And by the are you going to watch your Vols on TV this fall while you're boycotting TVA?

Not very bright, are you?

April 17, 2013 at 9:46 p.m.
rolltiderobert said...

RealisticVol, other states' residents think you guys aren't very smart because you think bringing in a speaker that sells over 1,000 more tickets than the year before somehow is "poor judgment".

April 17, 2013 at 9:50 p.m.
jbiggers said...

First of all. Nick Saban is a college football coach and not a person of interest for any terrorist organization or assassin. I can't believe this rivalry between football fans has even made the slightest effort to relate this bullsh** to the tragedy that happened in Boston. This has been blown way out of the water. I agree that Tennessee should go with anyone besides Nick Saban. Peyton Manning would draw 50x the people Saban would. Peyton would need a stadium to speak in Tennessee. Blame the misfortune of the University on the current AD. He killed the football program, not Saban. Go Vols!!

April 19, 2013 at 4:29 a.m.
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