published Sunday, August 24th, 2014

Wiedmer: Athens Chamber seeks forgiveness with Manning

When the University of Tennessee's 118th football season kicks off one week from today against Utah State, an old argument may well resurface about which opponent Volunteers fans hate most — Alabama, which owns seven straight wins over UT, or Florida, which has won nine in a row over the Big Orange.

(Side note: Let Vanderbilt stretch its current two-game streak against Tennessee to three or four and it might give both the Crimson Tide and Gators a run for their money.)

But Athens (Tenn.) Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Rob Preston says there should be no discussion about which Vols foe makes the Big Orange Nation angriest. It's the Tide. And there's no runner-up.

In case you've forgotten -- and it seems most UT folks haven't -- Preston's the guy who brought Bama boss Nick Saban to his Chamber's annual fundraiser in the late spring of 2013, just after the Tide had won their third national championship in four years.

"I got 500 to 600 emails, and most of them were pretty brutal," Preston recalled Friday. "There were so many angry fans and so much reported about it that Saban's secretary called me three months before the event to ask me, 'Is this going to be safe?' I told her, 'He doesn't have anything to worry about. They're going to be aiming at me.'"

He had his reasons. One email read: "I think Athens should be used as target practice for the U.S. Air Force. Beatings are also in order for the [jerk] who booked Saban to speak."

Another proclaimed: "TRAITORS!!! Sure, it's a speaking engagement about leadership. ... Hitler was a leader too. Guess he couldn't make it. I work with Chambers all across the South ... and never, never have I seen such a dumb decision."

By the time the big day arrived, the Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated and ESPN News all had reported on the controversy. Thankfully, there were no problems. The Chamber raised a record $93,000, and most of the few UT fans in attendance seemed to echo Ed Brown, who said of Saban that night, "I've come to hear a leader of men speak. Of course, I'll want to kick the snot out of him in October."

Yet having had the figurative snot kicked out of him by all those angry Volniacs, Preston made a vow to appease them as soon as possible. So come June 27, 2015, against high odds, he'll deliver the most popular Vol in history, Peyton "Does he even need a last name?" Manning, to address next year's fundraiser.

"It usually takes four or five months to lock up all our sponsors, but we were done in three weeks this time," Preston said. "We've even got a waiting list if someone drops out."

So all's forgiven, right? Preston's gone from pig to prince, dirtbag to dreamboat, loathed to loved with one press release. Is this a great country or what?

"Not exactly," he said. "Most everybody's gotten over it, but we've got a few around here who will never forgive or forget."

Examples?

"A business leader here in Athens who dropped his [Chamber] membership when Saban spoke," Preston said. "When we got Peyton, I sent emails out to everyone who'd written a negative letter or email telling them about Peyton coming, hoping they'd forget about Saban. We also reached out to this man personally, hoping he'd return to the Chamber. He said no. When we asked why he said, 'Because they brought that jerk [Saban] to town."

It's a good thing Athens is "The Friendly City." No telling what the reaction might have been.

Yet if they've been slow to forgive Preston, they've been quick to gobble up Peyton tickets. Though the $50 general-admission tickets and $75 tickets that include dinner don't go on sale until 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 2 -- dinner tickets must be purchased at the Chamber; general-admission tickets can be bought at www.athenschamber.org -- Preston has begun selling $1,000 reserved tables for six that also get your name in the program, as well as meet-and-greet packages that run $5,000 for eight tickets.

"We had a hospital near the Kentucky border, the Byrdstown Medical Center, that called us a day or two after we first announced Peyton," Preston said. "That's 182 miles away. They wanted to buy eight tickets. They said they'd have a check to us in two days, and they did. We had 1,500 for Saban -- that's our record crowd -- but I think it's safe to say we'll have more than that for Peyton."

Part of that will be the venue. Saban's talk was held under two sweltering tents pitched atop a Tennessee Wesleyan College athletic field. Manning will speak inside the air-conditioned, 4,000-plus seat McMinn County High School gym.

"The fire marshal will ultimately determine how many we can sell," Preston said. "But we think we can get 600 on the floor and somewhere around 4,000 in the stands. It's a very big gym."

But is it big enough to hold everyone willing to cough up at least $50 to hear Mr. UT Football?

"We've been told to expect to have people camping out the night before tickets go on sale," Preston said of Labor Day night. "If nothing else, I don't anticipate receiving any death threats that day."

He doesn't expect a whole lot of praise, either.

"Of all the emails I sent out about Peyton coming to the 500 or so people who'd voiced their displeasure with me over Coach Saban, I've only gotten one response back," Preston said.

That person's original note to him 18 months ago contained 184 words. In part, it read: "You are an absolute joke and a disgrace to the state of Tennessee. ... Are you hoping [Saban] will get to do some recruiting while he is in the area? ... I wish you all the worst and hope that your event is a complete failure."

A few days ago a new note appeared from that same person. It was 20 words long.

"Well played, Athens Chamber," it read. "You are no longer on my [expletive deleted] list. I will definitely be purchasing tickets to this."

Reconciliation moves at its own pace. Or as the 19th century English novelist Frank Smedley surely would have have written if the Southeastern Conference had been around back then, "All's fair in love and war ... and SEC football."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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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