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

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

April 17th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

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/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."