Rob Preston wasn’t trying to inflame the passions of football fans when he sought a speaker for the annual Athens Chamber of Commerce dinner this summer. He just wanted a well known speaker who would draw a crowd.
That’s nothing new. As president of the chamber, he has been selecting speakers for six years. His track record is impressive.
Preston’s first speaker was South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, whose family lived in Athens for a couple of years when Spurrier was a kid. Another speaker was Pete Rose, who was both entertaining and accommodating, according to Preston. He said Rose signed autographs for two hours after the dinner.
Kirk Cameron, a Christian evangelist and former star of “Growing Pains,” drew the biggest crowd (1,200) when he spoke two years ago.
Cameron has strong views and isn’t afraid to express them. But he isn’t as controversial in Tennessee as the speaker Preston secured for this June.
Preston first contacted Nick Saban’s people last spring. It wasn’t until two months ago that a date was firmed up. The Alabama football coach agreed to speak June 11.
What a catch, huh? Unlike Rose, Saban has a full-time job, which he takes rather seriously. Since he is so obsessive about winning national championships, he doesn’t have much time for speaking engagements unless they involve accepting Waterford Crystal footballs.
Nonetheless, his busy schedule didn’t prevent him from carving out an hour or so for the Athens Chamber of Commerce. Preston was elated.
But I suspected others might not be as excited about Preston’s big get. So I asked if he had received death threats.
“Close, but not quite,” he said.
I don’t know if he was kidding.
But I do know SEC fans often don’t have a sense of humor when it comes to their football allegiance. After three consecutive losing seasons and six consecutive losses to Saban’s Alabama teams, UT fans are a tad more sensitive than most.
Preston says he roots for Tennessee himself. And he doesn’t view this as an act of betrayal.
“It has nothing to do with Alabama,” he said. “Saban (usually) speaks very little about football.”
He speaks more about leadership, Preston said.
Based on some of Preston’s emails, that won’t appease all UT fans.
“You CANNOT be so naive as to think Saban has agreed (to speak) out of the goodness of his heart,” one Tennessee fan emailed Preston. “This shrewd person is doing it to benefit recruiting. PERIOD. Don’t for a second think differently, or you are a fool.
“So, on behalf of the vast number of TN fans, thank you for doing your part in helping Saban and the hated AL program. I can only hope that people are not dumb enough to support your event.”
Maybe the fan would have felt better if Preston had told him about the 2012 dinner. The Athens chamber honored UT’s 1998 national championship team and featured coach Phillip Fulmer and players Al Wilson and Peerless Price as speakers. They drew a crowd of 276.
So far, 981 tickets have been sold for this year’s dinner.