Saban’s speech at the seventh annual Athens Area Chamber of Commerce benefit dinner is expected to attract a sellout crowd of 1,500, the largest in the event’s history. Rob Preston, the Chamber of Commerce president, calls it a boon for the local economy and notes that “probably 90 percent” of the ticket buyers are from outside McMinn County.
But the decision to invite Saban to an event less than 60 miles south of the University of Tennessee’s campus has caused hard feelings in some quarters. Saban’s Alabama team has won three of the last four national titles and has beaten the Vols six straight times by an average of 23.2 points.
Preston said his office had received more than 100 complaints about the Saban appearance over the last several months. Security has been beefed up for the event as a precaution, he said.
“We’ve gotten emails,” Preston said. “We’ve gotten phone calls. Most of the phone calls happen at 2 o’clock in the morning or when we’re not here. They leave it on the machine.”
Preston, who considers himself a Tennessee fan, said the chamber hardly received any negative feedback when another rival coach — South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier — spoke at its first benefit dinner.
“We certainly did not do this to get people upset,” Preston said. “Some people say this is a combined effort to help Alabama’s recruiting. I know to you that sounds ridiculous — and it is very ridiculous — but (some) people think that’s what this is about.”
Even with all the commotion, Preston said he never had any second thoughts about inviting Saban. Preston didn’t say how much the chamber was paying for Saban’s appearance but noted that the coach was donating the entire amount to Nick’s Kids Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting children, family, teacher and student causes.
Preston said people have bought $50 tickets from as far away as Florida and North Carolina. The previous record holder was actor Kirk Cameron, whose appearance sold just over 1,200 tickets.
“The positives have far outweighed the negatives,” Preston said. “This is by far the biggest event that we’ll probably ever have. To bring a coach the caliber of Nick Saban to our little town is just a great thing. What it’s going to do for our local economy, it’s a great thing.”
Other previous speakers at the event have included actor Lou Ferrigno, former Tennessee men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl and retired baseball player Pete Rose.
Last year, ex-Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer spoke with former wide receiver Peerless Price and linebacker Al Wilson in a salute to the Volunteers’ 1998 national championship team.