There was once a time when the biggest rivalry game on Alabama’s slate did not fall on the final week of the regular season. Instead of the Iron Bowl, fans eagerly awaited the third Saturday in October. When coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s voice of grit and gravel grumbled across the locker room, players set their sights on Tennessee, not Auburn.
“That game was big to them, of course, and it had been big to Coach Bryant all through his playing days and through coaching at Kentucky,” said Kirk McNair, former sports information director for The University of Alabama and current editor of Bama Magazine.
While the cross-conference rivalry may not resonate as strongly for all today, the competition between the Volunteers and Crimson Tide has created a lingering tradition. Following victories over Tennessee, Alabama players and fans light cigars in honor of the win.
In the early 1960s, head trainer Jim Goosetree had an idea for a post-game celebration. The rivalry ran deep in the locker room as Goosetree graduated from Tennessee, and then-defensive line coach Ken Donahue played for the Volunteers. Goosetree decided that a victory over the Vols merited celebration and sent a student manager to buy cigars for the team to be smoked post-game – only if Alabama won.
“He wasn’t to breathe a word of it, unless Alabama won the game,” McNair said. “They were locked away in a travel trunk.”
For a long time, McNair said, the tradition remained under the radar. It wasn’t unusual to see smoke coming from the locker room – Bryant smoked, as did several on the coaching staff. But when the tide began to shift in the rivalry, the tradition became more well-known to those beyond the program.
“In the ‘70s, we really started beating them on a regular basis year after year, and word slipped out and it got to be a bigger and bigger deal,” McNair said. “But they never had them out in plain view before the game – they didn’t want to have egg on their face – but they were always there.”
Interestingly enough, McNair said, Bryant hated cigars.
“It always amused me that he allowed that to happen, but anything to beat Tennessee, I guess,” he said. “He used it as motivation.”
The locker room after a Tennessee victory was a lively place, McNair said, featuring dance moves from Goosetree and Donahue and much ire from the Volunteer faithful. “Goosetree would get up on the examination table and he’d get up on there and dance, sing and lead the Alabama fight song,” he explained. “They’d even get Donahue, who was a real reserved guy – fiery coach but reserved in every other respect – they’d even get him up there.”
The Alabama-Tennessee rivalry is a rivalry of streaks. During Andrew Zow’s career at quarterback, that streak didn’t go in Alabama’s favor. Although he never notched a win over the Vols, Zow said that the tradition was still a motivator.
“I’m not a smoker, but I think even if you don’t smoke it, just winning the game and playing Tennessee is very important – it’s getting the opportunity to play a team with that type of tradition,” Zow said. “Smoking a cigar is something we were looking forward to. It never happened, but I think the way guys look at it now, it’s part of it. Younger guys don’t understand it until they get an opportunity to play and realize that you’re not smoking, or you are.”
Reagan Starner, owner of local R&R Cigars since it opened in 2012, said his store operates under a distinct slogan leading up to the third Saturday in October.
“Our message this week is a great win deserves a great cigar,” he said.
While Starner makes sales, Alabama players won’t be thinking about the cigar tradition until after the clock hits zero on Saturday.
“It’s something big for us players, but that’s something we’re not focused on right now,” offensive lineman Cam Robinson said. “We got to get the win first. If we don’t, ain’t nobody going to be smoking cigars.”
Source:: The Crimson White Sports