Snagging Nick Saban was the challenging part. Now the big dilemma is where to put him.
Alabama's highly successful football coach will be in McMinn County on June 11 as the featured speaker for the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce's seventh annual benefit dinner. Rob Preston, the chamber's president and CEO for the past six years, began his pursuit of Saban with a phone call last April.
"We got a commitment in late June or early July and didn't get the date until December," Preston said with a smile. "Then he goes out and wins another national championship. The timing has been very good."
Tickets for the benefit dinner cost $50 and may be bought by calling 423-745-0334 or at Athenschamber.org. Preston said Thursday that 465 tickets have been sold nearly five months before the event.
Saban won his fourth BCS championship on Jan. 7, when he guided the Crimson Tide to a 42-14 rout of previously undefeated Notre Dame. No team in college football history has won three straight national championships or four in a five-year stretch, but Alabama will have that opportunity later this year and will likely begin the season ranked No. 1.
The plan is for Saban to speak at Tennessee Wesleyan College's James L. Robb Gymnasium, which seats around 850, but the early surge in demand could result in a shift to an outside venue on the TWC campus.
"A lot of people will be coming into our community for this, and they are going to be buying gas and spending the night, which is great," said Preston, a Red Bank High School graduate. "We've already sold tickets to people in Nashville, Virginia and Fort Oglethorpe. I guess the word is out."
Alabama associate athletic director Jeff Purinton said Thursday that aside from coaching clinics and Crimson Caravan obligations, Saban makes only a half-dozen or so offseason appearances each year.
"Certainly no more than 10," Purinton said.
Saban had a speaking fee of $20,000 when he agreed to the Athens event, but the asking price since has increased. Purinton said all the revenue from Saban's speaking engagements goes into the Nick's Kids Fund that the coach and wife Terry started when they were at Michigan State in the 1990s to benefit underprivileged children.
According to Alabama's athletic department, more than $2.5 million has been distributed to more than 150 charities through the Nick's Kids Fund since the couple came to Tuscaloosa in January 2007.
"His fee has gone up, and I know that's not a greed thing," Preston said. "So many people are requesting him. We got lucky."
Saban will not be signing autographs, unlike last year when former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer and former Volunteers players Al Wilson and Peerless Price shook hands and signed autographs for two hours. Preston said there will be a meet-and-greet beforehand for the sponsors, all of whom will receive an 8-by-10 framed picture with Saban.
Past speakers for the Athens chamber's biggest fundraiser of the year include Pete Rose, Steve Spurrier and Bruce Pearl from the athletic realm and actors Kirk Cameron and Lou Ferrigno. Preston said that Cameron, the former "Growing Pains" star who has since made faith-based films such as "Fireproof," drew the largest crowd at 1,200 but that Ferrigno may have been the most interesting.
Ferrigno, remembered most for his role as "The Incredible Hulk," suffered from hearing loss as a youngster, which led to self-esteem issues.
"His hand was so large that he kept flipping the microphone off," Preston said, "but we had a lot of hearing-impaired people that night, and he had a very uplifting message. It is my understanding that Coach Saban's speech will be motivational and very little about football.
"I've had people tell me they don't care about football or Alabama, but they are in a leadership position in their job and want to hear what he has to say about leadership."