Tennessee beats Alabama – Festive cigars and a party in the making for 16 years

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Knoxville, Tenn. – Cigars were everywhere in Knoxville Saturday morning.

The problem is that the University of Tennessee is a tobacco-free campus. It’s been decades. So a sizable percentage of the hundreds of thousands of college football fans who flocked to East Tennessee for the afternoon game between No. 3 Alabama and No. 6 Tennessee had their stogies lined. in secret places. In their back pockets, behind secret zippers sewn into the lining of handbags, even stuffed in Mission Impossible-style cap compartments.

It was a lot of trouble. But at the end of the most glorious football night this city has seen in a generation, you know what? It wasn’t a problem at all.

Perhaps the biggest indicator that the third Saturday in October had finally returned to real college football relevance was that cigars were being smuggled into Neyland Stadium by the paddle.

This series of football-obsessed frontier rivals has been around since 1901. And since 1961, the winner of this winning streak-dominated series can easily be identified by the trails of white smoke rising from a team’s locker room. or the other, like a college football Vatican announcing who will control this series for the next 364 days. A track that rose into the sky after what very well could have been the biggest and almost unquestionably the most entertaining of the 104 games played between them.

On Saturday night in Knoxville, the smell of burnt tobacco drifted from corners and tunnels and under the steel girders of the century-old stadium. It came from men riding demolished goal posts like mechanical bulls, and countless sections of the parking lots around the stadium and the Navy Flight party bridges over the Tennessee River. They smoked as if they had been lit by the eternal flame of the iconic torchbearer statue in the center of campus. Smokers were easy to spot. And good luck finding someone in authority telling them they weren’t supposed to. There were no rules. Just delicious orange anarchy.

That’s how it goes when you survive a 52-49 athletic encounter and a basket of injured ducks that expires on the clock and exorcises the valor of a generation of crimson-covered demons.

“I’ve been hanging on to this damn thing for 16 years,” Nashville’s Tom Bryan said, taking a puff and then coughing like he’d just swallowed a bucket of sand. “I bought it in Tuscaloosa in 2007 because I wanted to smoke it there and smoke one of theirs bought there, just to piss them off. But they whipped our ass and I’ve been waiting ever since. I don’t Don’t think this humidor worked. It’s drier than a bone. But I don’t care either.

Throughout the week, stories were written across Tennessee and Alabama about the tradition of cigar smoking. How tobacconist sales increased this week in both states. How long the Tennessee amenity manager had gotten several boxes of custom-rolled “Bosphorus Straits” from a Nashville cigar maker and a UT fan (no one would confirm due to the previously mentioned on-campus smoking ban, not to mention similar NCAA rules). How former players from both schools saved the butts they smoked after winning the game, no matter how long ago that victory was.

At Smoky’s Tobacco, the go-to place for smokers in Knoxville since 1983 when Reggie White ran Tennessee football, they weren’t able to keep the shelves stocked with their hand-picked selection of 2006 orange-striped specials.

So why this sudden inflamed interest in a cigar tradition linked to this competition since 1961? The same reason Smoky’s chose these ’06 models. Because that was the last time the Vols beat the Tide.

Many thought the losing streak would end – OK, might – end on Saturday night.

It made.

After Tennessee took a stunning 21-7 first quarter lead, those in orange began toying with their contraband, salivating at the thought of shooting them. When Alabama scored 18 unanswered points to tie the game at 28-28 early in the second half, they took their hands out of those pockets to cover their faces. Take the lead, lose the lead, equalize again, repeat.

Hands in, outstretched hands, cigar squeezed, cigar dropped. It was like that for hours. Tennessee fans struggling with recurring nightmares have suffered time and time again over the past decade and a half, a dark feeling of “Oh fuck, here we go again.” “Skip the interference?!” “Did they really miss a touchdown?”

Bama fans were waiting for the familiar feeling they had come to expect in Nick Saban’s days, like the sunrise. “OK, here we go, we’re going to start moving away comfortably now.”

Instead, it was hay after hay. A stadium that started out as deafening in the light of day turned into a nervous nocturnal murmur then woke up again. You know, the way a really big college football rivalry is supposed to make people feel. It had hurt the hearts of fans on both sides, and arguably the hearts of the sport itself, when people dared to declare that the third Saturday in October couldn’t be a ‘real’ rivalry because it was so unbalanced. in favor of the tide. . But those who really know this game have always known better. They know it’s always been a constant series of streaks. It’s been that way since the end of World War II. Prior to this current Bama streak, Tennessee had 10 of 12 wins, including seven in a row. Before that, the Crimson Tide was 8-0-1. Tennessee four in a row, Bama eleven in a row, again and again. In fact, the cigar tradition started because in 1961 Alabama suffered a six-year drought without a win.

Those who’ve been in the game long enough would still 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 breath of fresh air in the stadium. . “Does it 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’s emerging from the Big Orange wasteland it’s wandered in for nearly two decades, perhaps finally ready to get back into the national championship conversation for the first time since before smartphones didn’t exist. exist. Any freshman from Tennessee who was among the thousands who stormed Shields-Watkins Field was two years old the last time their new school beat this old enemy.

So, of course, smoke them if you have them.

“It tastes horrible, but it’s also good,” admitted a Tennessee coonskin fan who identified himself only as “the mayor of the mountains.” “Also, don’t tell my doctor I’m doing this. Although he’s a Vols fan, he probably won’t mind.”

But the real tell-tale was the number of Coronas, Havanas and Belvederes piled up in the bins around Neyland Stadium. There were no moral victories won here. Just a W and an L, the joy and pain that go with each, and a lot of wasted tobacco leaves.

“Damn those things! shouted Janine Bates of Dothan, Alabama, as she threw a box of King Edwards, still wrapped in plastic, into a concrete receptacle next to the Thompson-Boling Arena. “They’re bewitched. And they’re bad for me anyway.”

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