Smoke rises from the student section like a cloud hanging over a Grateful Dead concert. Fumes roll out of the locker room as fans whir desperately to keep up.
It’s the Third Saturday in October, and there are victory cigars to be smoked. The tradition isn’t just for Alabama or for Tennessee, but for the winner of the annual rivalry game. It isn’t just for players and coaches, but for fans, too.
“When we came here it was an educational process of trying to educate our players of what it means, from the date in October to cigars to everything that goes into it, everything that’s been associated with it, and then getting back to making the rivalry relevant again,” said Butch Jones, Tennessee’s fifth-year coach. “This rivalry means so many things to so many people.”
Smoking a cigar isn’t a regular thing for most fans after a win. It’s even rarer for college athletes. Alabama running back Damien Harris said he’s smoked only two cigars in his life.
Then again, he’s only played Tennessee twice.
“Not very regularly,” he said. “I guess you could say annually.”
There was a rivalry long before the cigar tradition began. This weekend’s game in Tuscaloosa will be the 100th meeting of the two teams. Most of the origin stories about the cigars don’t begin until about 50 years ago.
Hootie Ingram, who played for Alabama from 1952-54, said the cigar tradition had not begun when he played. Alabama was 1-1-1 in the rivalry in his three years, beating Tennessee in his senior season.
The story most commonly told traces the tradition to the late Jim Goostree, a longtime Alabama athletic trainer who had graduated from Tennessee. Going into the 1961 game, Alabama hadn’t beaten Tennessee since 1954 (there was a 7-7 tie in 1959). Goostree told the team he’d dance naked in the locker room if Alabama won.
The Crimson Tide secured a 34-3 win at Birmingham’s Legion Field. Goostree danced while smoking a cigar. Players wanted a cigar to celebrate, too. Longtime Alabama assistant Ken Donahue, another Tennessee alumnus, arrived in 1964 and further stoked the rivalry.
Judging by social media images posted after the game, the naked dancing has long since died off. The cigars have lingered for decades. It was well established by the time Ingram returned as athletics director in 1989, though the athletic department didn’t have an official role.
“It was just something that happened,” Ingram said. “It wasn’t any kind of organized deal. It carried over with some of the players.”
That remains the case. The athletic department previously procured cigars for the game and handed them out to players, reporting it as a secondary violation to the NCAA. That’s no longer the case.
Coach Nick Saban has said previously that he doesn’t smoke a cigar after the game. Ingram didn’t celebrate wins over Tennessee with a cigar when he returned as athletics director. Several players keep the cigar as a trophy rather than smoke it.
Bryant-Denny Stadium and the university campus have been smoke-free since January 2015. But no amount of security could have prevented thousands of fans from lighting up last time Alabama won the game in Tuscaloosa.
No one stops the players, either. The football program comes prepared in case of a win with upright fans and blowers to ventilate the locker room.
“It’s a good feeling,” inside linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said. “A very good feeling. We know we have to have a good week of practice this week and we’ll see what happens on Saturday.”
In recent years, the cigars have come from R&R Cigars in downtown Tuscaloosa. It’s the only cigar shop in town, and only been open since 2012.
A player from the team stops by earlier in the week and purchases the cigars. They’re not bought by the athletic department or the coaches, which would be considered an NCAA violation. The cigars are not donated or discounted beyond what would be a normal sale, because that would be an NCAA violation as well, said R&R owner Reagan Starner.
The cigars of choice have been two house cigars: the Casa de las Estrellas and the Black Warrior. Starner traveled to Honduras when R&R opened to design the cigars.
“If you don’t smoke cigars, the Casa de las Estrellas is great for novices and beginners,” Starner said. “I made that one to be milder and to have a lot more sweet notes; a lot of citrus, a lot of spice. It would go well with a red wine or a white wine. It would go well with a high-proof bourbon or a single malt. It’s a smooth smoke. I made them for my family; it has my family crest on it. It’s a good cigar.
“I went down on a trip back in 2012 and went down to the factory, saw the fields and saw the tobaccos. I threw some tobaccos together and said, ‘Let’s see how this tastes as a cigar.’ That one became the Black Warrior. I changed that one up a little bit and that became the Casa de las Estrellas. It’s really about finding the tobaccos that you like, finding the tobaccos that pair well together and modifying it until you find that happy medium of the flavor to the body to the strength. I’m pleased with both of them.”
The week of the Tennessee game is the biggest week of the year for R&R Cigars. It’s like Christmas or Black Friday. Business builds as the week rolls on and the game draws closer. Home games against Tennessee usually draw more customers than road games, but business has grown this week as the tradition has continued.
That’s not the case on the other side of the rivalry. Silo Cigars in Knoxville does good business during the week of the Alabama game, but tends to see more business for other football games, employee Nathan Sack said. The 10-year streak of Alabama celebrations puts a damper on the tradition for Tennessee fans. Expectations for this year’s game also play a part in it.
“The overall mood of the Vols football fan is not exactly high going into this game,” Sack said.
There aren’t photos on the wall of Alabama players or celebrities who have come to R&R Cigars for their victory smoke. But it has its place in the tradition.
“The cigar tradition is my favorite tradition and I’m really glad that I get to be a part of it every year,” Starner said. “It’s such a great tradition. It’s classy. It’s not, ‘Let’s go get hammered after the game.’ It’s, ‘Let’s go have a cigar and a drink.’ I think that’s very classy. I wish there were more traditions like that.”
Already in hand
An Alabama player has already stopped by R&R Cigars this week to pick up cigars for Saturday, if needed. The tradition remains alive and well on Alabama’s side.
“I definitely think the tradition has grown since we’ve been here,” Starner said. “I don’t see how it hasn’t. If I look at our sales year-in and year-out for the Tennessee game, every year the weekend gets stronger and stronger. So the tradition is definitely being revived.”
Before Alabama’s 10-game winning streak, Tennessee won 10 of 12 in the series. The Volunteers kept the tradition going then.
It’s a celebration set apart from the rest of the schedule to commemorate one of the South’s biggest rivalries. It’s not just another game or another tradition.
“My first time smoking a cigar was after my freshman year when we played Tennessee,” Hamilton said. “I smoke a cigar once a year. We’ll see if we have that opportunity after the game on Saturday.”
When the smoke clears, the tradition lives on.