KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The cigars were everywhere in Knoxville on Saturday morning.
Problem is, the University of Tennessee is a tobacco-free campus. It has been for decades. So, a not-small percentage of the hundreds of thousands of college football fans who poured into East Tennessee for the afternoon’s matchup between No. 3 Alabama and No. 6 Tennessee had their stogies stuffed into secret locations. In their back pockets, behind secret zippers sewn into the lining of purses, even stuffed into Mission Impossible-like compartments of ballcaps.
It was a lot of trouble. But at the end of the most glorious football night seen by this town in a generation, you know what? It was no trouble at all.
Perhaps the single biggest indicator that the Third Saturday in October had finally returned to real relevance in the college football universe was that the cigars were being sneaked into Neyland Stadium by the pallet.
This series of football-obsessed border rivals has been happening since 1901. And since 1961, it has been easy to identify the victor in this winning streak-dominated series by the trails of white smoke that have risen from the locker room of one team or the other, like a college football Vatican announcing who will rein over this series for the next 364 days. A trail that rose into the sky after what very well might have been the greatest and almost inarguably the most entertaining of the 104 games played between them.
On Saturday evening in Knoxville, the scent of burning tobacco wafted its way from corners and tunnels and beneath the steel beams of the century-old stadium. It came from men who rode torn-down goalposts like mechanical bulls, and from countless sections of the parking decks around the stadium and the party decks of the Vol Navy down on the Tennessee River. They smoked as if they’d been lit by the eternal flame of the iconic Torchbearer statue at the center of campus. The smokers were easy to spot. And good luck finding someone of authority telling them they weren’t supposed to be doing it. There were no rules. Just delicious orange anarchy.
That’s how it goes when you survive a 52-49 track meet and clock-expiring wounded duck field goal that exorcises a generation’s worth of crimson-covered demons.
“I have been holding on to this damn thing for 16 years,” declared Tom Bryan of Nashville as he took a drag and then coughed as if he had just downed a bucket of sand. “I bought it in Tuscaloosa in 2007 because I wanted to smoke it down there and smoke one of their own bought down there, just to piss them off. But they whipped our ass and I have been waiting ever since. I don’t think that humidor thing worked. It’s drier than a bone. But I don’t care, either.”
All week long, stories were written across Tennessee and Alabama about the cigar smoking tradition. How tobacconist sales spiked this week in both states. How longtime Tennessee equipment manager had secured several boxes of custom-rolled “Bosphorus Straits” from a Nashville cigar maker and UT fan (no one would confirm that because of the previously mentioned campus tobacco ban, not to mention similar NCAA rules). How former players from both schools still held on to the butts they had smoked after winning the game, no matter how long ago that victory was.
At Smoky’s Tobacco, the go-to for smokes in Knoxville since 1983, when Reggie White ruled Tennessee football, they weren’t able to keep the shelves stocked with their hand-chosen selection of 2006 orange-banded specials.
So, why the suddenly aflame interest in a cigar tradition that has been tied to this contest since 1961? The same reason that Smoky’s chose those ’06 models. Because that was the last time that the Vols had beaten the Tide.
Many believed that losing streak would — OK, might — end on Saturday night.
After Tennessee jumped out to a stunning 21-7 first quarter lead, those in orange started fiddling with their contraband, salivating at the thought of firing them up. When Alabama scored 18 unanswered points to tie the game at 28-28 early in the second half, they pulled their hands out of those pockets to cover their faces. Take lead, lose lead, tie again, repeat.
Hands in, hands out, cigar gripped, cigar loosed. It was like that for hours. Tennessee fans wrestled with recurring nightmares suffered time and time again over the last decade and a half, a dark feeling of “Oh hell, here we go again.” “Pass interference?!” “Did they really just fumble away a touchdown?'”
Bama fans kept waiting for the familiar feeling they’ve come to expect during the Nick Saban era, like the sun rising. “OK, here we go, we’ll start comfortably pulling away now.”
Instead, it was haymaker after haymaker. A stadium that started as deafening in the daylight settled into a nervous nighttime murmur and then woke up again. You know, the way a truly great college football rivalry is supposed to make people feel. It had hurt the hearts of fans on both sides, and arguably the heart of the sport itself, when people dared to declare the Third Saturday in October couldn’t possibly be a “real” rivalry because it has been so lopsided in the Tide’s favor. But those who really know this game have always known better. They know it has always been a constant series of streaks. It’s been that way since the end of World War II. Before this current Bama streak, Tennessee won 10 out of 12, including seven in a row. Prior to that, the Crimson Tide went 8-0-1. Tennessee four in a row, Bama eleven in a row, on and on. In fact, the cigar tradition started because in ’61 Alabama snapped a six-year winless drought.
Those who have been around the game long enough would always grab those doubters by the arm at the end of every recent Bama-Vols contest, even as the Tide wins piled up, and tell them to take a drag off the air in the stadium. “Does that smell like people don’t care who wins this game?”
On Saturday night they cared. A lot. You could tell by the cigars hanging from the smiles of the winners. A team that finally feels like it might be emerging form the Big Orange desert in which it has wandered for nearly two decades, perhaps finally ready to return to the national championship conversation for the first time since before smartphones existed. Any Tennessee freshman who was among the thousands who stormed Shields-Watkins Field was two years old the last time their new school had beaten this old foe.
So, sure, smoke ’em if you got ’em.
“This tastes terrible, but it also tastes great,” admitted a coonskin-capped Tennessee fan who identified himself only as “The Mayor of the Mountains.” “Also, don’t tell my doctor that I’m doing this. Though he is a Vols fan, so he probably won’t care.”
But the real tell was the number of Coronas, Havanas and Belvederes piled up in the trash cans around Neyland Stadium. There were no moral victories won here. Just a W and an L, the joy and pain that comes with each, and a whole lot of wasted tobacco leaves.
“The hell with those things!” shouted Janine Bates of Dothan, Ala., tossing a box of King Edwards, still wrapped in plastic, into a concrete receptacle next to Thompson-Boling Arena. “They’re jinxed. And they are bad for me, anyway.”