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ATHENS, Tn. ( — The walls in Sara Chihasz’s elementary school classroom are plastered with posters of Alabama coach Nick Saban, Bryant-Denny Stadium and an assortment of other Crimson Tide memories.

The decor doesn’t exactly sit well with her students because, well, her Loudon, Tenn., classroom is roughly 35 miles away from Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium.

The buildup in Athens, Tenn., to hear Alabama coach Nick Saban speakMore than 1,000 fans wait to hear Alabama coach Nick Saban speak in Athens, Tenn., on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.


Perhaps that’s why Chihasz was first in line to hear Saban speak Tuesday at the Athens Chamber of Commerce’s annual benefit dinner, a sold-out affair that saw more than 1,500 people — mostly Alabama fans — converge under a tent on the campus of Tennessee Wesleyan College. On a swampy 90-degree day in East Tennessee, Chihasz arrived more than four hours before the gates opened.

The Alabama fans behind her didn’t arrive for another 90 minutes. She wanted the best seat for an event so relatively close to home.

“It’s the best chance I had to hear him speak,” Chihasz said.

That might have been why the line to hear Saban speak stretched for blocks more than an hour before the gates opened. About 10 guests were spotted wearing Tennessee shirts, but the majority sported some sort of Alabama gear, and it was clear that many had driven for hours to attend one of the few non-Crimson Caravan speaking engagements Saban conducts during the offseason.

Ironically, the crowd gathered in this small town was one of the largest to hear Saban speak since Alabama won its third BCS National Championship in the past four years.


“This is the only dinner,” Athens chamber chairmanMurray Willis said, “that will be on”

In the months leading up to the event, Rob Preston, the Chamber of Commerce’s president, received a slew of threatening e-mails and phone calls that harshly criticized his role in bringing Saban to Athens. One particular callon Easter weekend was a borderline death threat.

The possibility of a backlash prompted Athens to beef up its security for the event. Five police officers surrounded Saban as he entered and exited the premises.

As fans waited in line, a car drove up and down the Athens streets blaring Tennessee’s fight song, “Rocky Top” as one of the passengers waved orange and white pom poms out of the windows. Occasional chants of “Roll Tide!” erupted from start to finish.

Ultimately, though, it proved to be a peaceful evening with little controversy.

“We’ve been up here several times and we do some things for people,” Saban said. “This is not about Tennessee. This is not about Alabama. It’s about what we do for people, we try to support charities and we’re here to support the chamber today.”

It was a beautiful sight for Tennessee state senator Mike Bell, who wore a black Tennessee polo shirt as he stood in line surrounded by Alabama fans. Asked why he was attending the event, Bell was playfully interrupted by a man sporting a white Crimson Tide shirt.

“He’s lost,” the man said.

Bell, though, was right where he wanted to be and seeing exactly what he wanted to see at a function that he said would positively affect the area’s economy. He pointed to one fan who drove up from Florida as he explained the boon in business that promised to occur at the area’s restaurants and hotels.

It was later revealed that one group of fans traveled from Michigan to hear Saban speak. More than 900 of the 1,500 tickets sold went to out-of-state residents.

“I realize that (Saban) is probably the best coach in college football,” Bell said. “And he’s probably coaching the best team in college football.”

For Elice Chapman, the event served as a reason to invite her parents to town. The Chattanooga native stood next to her parents, who drove from Tuscaloosa, and was awaiting two more family members from Spring City, Tenn.