As the Crimson Tide will be rolling into the University of Tennessee at Knoxville Saturday favored to win, and considering audience and tailgating restrictions imposed by the pandemic, more cigars will probably be fired alight in lounges, bars and homes of University of Alabama grads than inside Neyland Stadium.
“Well, living in (Panama City) Florida my tradition isn’t really impacted,” said Bryan Russell, who studied public relations at UA, and works for the Florida Department of Health. “Light up a Cuban (cigar) and drink a cold beverage while grilling out.”
The post-Volunteers-whupping stogie, a UA tradition dating back to 1961, tends to create day-of or day-before impulse purchases, by non-aficionados.
“I’m usually working out of town for the game, so I often go the night before to the one place in most small towns that sells cigars: the liquor store,” said Trey Brooks of Birmingham, who studied TV, radio and film production at UA.
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With foresight, and a few extra bucks to spare, a novice can save the smoking day. During her years at UA earning master’s and doctoral degrees in English literature, Natalie Wagner celebrated the Tide’s string of Vol victories, a streak extending back to coach Nick Saban’s 2007 arrival, usually with the fervent fans at Egan’s bar. She teaches now at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, Ohio, just east of Cleveland.
“You walk in a cigar store day of the game when you wake up and realize you don’t have any, buy something cheap, maybe ask the clerk for a recommendation but only within a certain price range, and maybe pick up a few extra, so you can be the hero to someone who started drinking too soon and dropped the cigar ball,” Wagner said.
R. Daniel Proctor who during UA years wrote and drew cartoons for The Crimson White, worked many years as cartoonist for The Knoxville News Sentinel, though he’s now employed by the Knox County Health Department.
“I live in Knoxville,” Proctor said. “The locals usually just hand me their aged, unlit cigars after the game.”
The smoking of the Vols began almost 60 years ago, with former UA athletic trainer Jim Goostree, who had held a similar position with UT before joining the Tide. Like his boss, the legendary coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, Goostree hated losing to the big orange in the long-standing rivalry, dating back to 1901. This weekend’s game will mark the 103rd match, traditionally played on the third Saturday in October.
Hard to believe for 21st century fans, but in 1961, the Vols had beaten the Tide five times. Blended with a 7-7 tie in 1959, back when football games could still end in a tie, Alabama hadn’t scored a victory over Tennessee in six years.
Goostree made a bet with the players: If they’d beat UT, he’d dance around the locker room naked.
Difficult to say how much of an inspirational factor that played, but the Tide drummed the Vols soundly that year, 34-3. Fortuitously for the perpetuation of the ritual, Goostree danced with a victory cigar; otherwise the tradition might have died like the streaking craze of the ’70s.
A photo from a 1972 victory over Tennessee — UA came from behind in the fourth quarter, to win 17-10 — held in the Paul W. Bryant Museum collection, shows Goostree dancing on his trainer’s trunk in the locker room, sporting a towel and a smile.
In a story for ESPN, the trainer’s son Jimmy Tom Goostree recalled that the last thing his dad would pack into a suitcase for Tennessee games would be a couple boxes of Tampa Nuggets. After a win, he’d share. For a loss, he’d return the cigars to the drug store to get his money back. Tennessee picked up on the idea, and began smoking its own victory stogies in return, something they haven’t had the opportunity to do since 2006.
It’s technically an NCAA violation to fire up tobacco in locker rooms, and though coach Saban didn’t love the idea, and tried to discourage it, he gradually acquiesced. UA reports every post-Vol cigar ritual, as a secondary violation, but oddly, the NCAA has decided to overlook it. Saban still doesn’t smoke, but he’s learned to live with it. In 2015, a photo of running back Derrick Henry smoking a fat cigar, his massive arm around Saban’s shoulders, rippled around social media.
Cigar shops enjoy the third week in October as a sale booster, ringing up 30 percent or more over a typical week. Vitola Fine Cigars, at 2314 Sixth St. in downtown Tuscaloosa, adjacent to Five Restaurant, ran “wide open” in the Druid City for the 2019 Tennessee game week, but store manager Jason Burson expects a slightly smaller rush this year, being as the game’s away.
“We’ll get more from the bars, things like that, that will come through and buy some for their patrons,” he said. The Tuscaloosa location opened just last year, but from the four older Vitola establishments in Birmingham, they know what to expect. He’s been with the company eight years. “My sales would normally pick up starting the beginning of the week,” which, in another tradition, is known among some Tide faithful as “Hate Week.”
Roughly 30 to 40 percent of Vitola’s clientele tend to be regulars, knowledgeable connoisseurs. But the shop also gets a lot of foot traffic from the curious walking to Five Restaurant, or other destinations in the downtown Tuscaloosa entertainment district, who may start out window-shopping, and end up guided to something suited to their tastes, maybe stopping off at one of the three inside lounges, or the outdoor patio. Vitola carries a selection of scotches, bourbons and wines to complement the smoking experience; the lounges feature leather chairs and widescreen TVs.
Burson and staff start out by asking what a customer may have smoked in the past, learning from their perspective, their tastes.
“Then I guide them to what I feel, as a professional, to what they need,” he said. “And I explain to them why they need it.”
Beginners typically start with something milder, though those with differing palates might be guided to medium, or heavier flavors.
“A mild (cigar), think of a cappuccino, or latte. A medium’s like a Folger’s, a good solid cup of coffee,” Burson said. “A bold cigar’s more like an espresso. It’s in your face. It’s everything that’s out there.”
New cigar smokers don’t have to spend a fortune, but should think of it like wines, ranging from more common varieties all the way up to Dom Perignon-level complexity.
“A good mild beginner cigar can fall in that $8 to $13 range, where it doesn’t feel like you’re spending your paycheck,” Burson said. “But I’ve got cigars in my store that are $100 a piece. These are the prestigious brands, using rare tobaccos … not your normal production rolling of cigars.
“But the same company that makes a $100 cigar, super-rare, also makes a $15 stick. I’m not trying to sell you a Mercedes, knowing that you have a Honda budget. I’m going to put you on what you’re looking for.”
Though he prefers to fit the individual to the cigar, and thus varies his brand recommendations he does like to push Perdomo Cigars, out of Miami, Florida, whose owner is a big contributor to UA.
“But individuals are not going to have the same flavor profiles,” he said. “I have customers come in all the time, asking ‘What’s the best cigar you’ve got?’ And I can take them to great cigars, but I can’t say it’s the best.
“Like someone starting off on wine may be happy with a Yellowtail, but the more and more you get into it, the higher the price point, the more you get into the fine wines.”
COVID-19 has cut into this year’s cigar business, as it has with virtually everyone’s.
“I don’t have the 500 people a night walking by my store …,” Burson said. Vitola sanitizes its store multiple times throughout the day, and enforces distancing. Masks are absolutely required for anyone not eating, drinking or smoking.