Going up in smoke: Victory cigar tradition makes Alabama vs. Tennessee rivalry special

Going up in smoke: Victory cigar tradition makes Alabama vs. Tennessee rivalry special
Bear Bryant smoking a cigar after Alabama defeated Tennessee 20 - 13 in Knoxville on October 16 1976. In the photo to the right is Kirk McNair, who was UA sports information director at the time. He is now editor of Bama Magazine. Photo courtesy of Dewey Mayfield

Former Alabama fullback Baron Huber remembers the first time he puffed on a victory cigar following an Alabama-Tennessee game. His was special. It wasn’t in the locker room of Bryant-Denny Stadium like most former players. His came long before that: October 14, 1995.

At age 10, Huber, who grew up a Tennessee fan before choosing Alabama, watched as his Volunteers smacked Alabama, 41-14, for their first win in the rivalry since 1985. He finally got to take a puff off of his grandfather’s cigar. It was a moment he would never forget.

“It was just one of those milestones in my life,” Huber said. “When I was a fan of them, the years that Tennessee would win and I would be able to have a puff of the cigar or be around my family celebrating the win were important to me. There’s just a real romance to smoking or taking a puff of that cigar.”

The cigar tradition is one that runs through the DNA of one of the SEC’s oldest rivalries. It started in 1961 when Alabama’s athletic trainer Jim Goostree handed out cigars following an Alabama win. Since then, it’s become as big a part of the rivalry as the actual game.

Former Alabama offensive lineman Mike Johnson did not learn of the tradition until he got to Alabama. Huber, an expert on the rivalry, had to educate him. It’s a tradition that flies under the radar. Johnson said he felt like he crossed a threshold when he first puffed on a victory cigar after Alabama’s 6-3 win over Tennessee in 2005.

“It felt like a right of passage,” Johnson said. “Being able to light that cigar up, being at The University of Alabama and beating Tennessee on that emotional stage in a rivalry game, it felt like a right of passage. It felt like I was apart of the lore that went along with Alabama football. It felt like I could finally be a part of all of that.”

Since head coach Nick Saban took over, it has been only Alabama smoking cigars. This Saturday will be the two team’s 100th meeting. The Crimson Tide have not lost since 2006, and very few games have been close. Huber and Johnson were at Alabama for that last loss. The Crimson Tide had the lead until Tennessee running back Arian Foster scored with 3:52 left in the game.

Huber said he will never forget that feeling. After all, it was his first trip back to Neyland Stadium after choosing Alabama over Tennessee.

“That was really tough,” Huber said. “We kicked a field goal on the one yard line and that ended up being an achilles heel. I’ll never forget how loud the stadium was when they were able to run the clock out. It was one of those feelings that pissed you off to the point that you’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that feeling never happens again.”

Both Johnson and Huber can remember each victory cigar they smoked as players. Some were better than others, however. For Huber, he loved getting the chance to smoke one right after Alabama beat Tennessee 29-9 in Knoxville in 2008. Johnson values a different one. His favorite one came after Alabama’s 12-10 win when the Crimson Tide needed Terrance Cody to block a field goal as time expired to win. 

He treasured every single puff of that one. That team went on to win a national championship.

“I’ve never enjoyed a cigar as much as I did that day,” Johnson said. “...There was so much emotion on the line. Being able to light that thing up after was a great feeling. It was just such a stress release. I smoked that cigar slow. I enjoyed every quarter-inch of that cigar as it went down to my fingers.”

The tradition is not one that is limited to the fans. Most people in the stands light up their cigars after a win for their team. Johnson always loved the community feel of the tradition. He said there is just something about everyone smoking a cigar that gives the game an old-school feel.

“It’s just classic,” Johnson said. “It’s like sitting down and listening to your favorite music, but everybody that you love in that locker room is doing it at the same time. It’s a sense of accomplishment that I’m not sure you can describe with words.”

Even with Alabama dominating the rivalry, the importance of getting to puff on a victory cigar has not been lost on them. Players to this day treasure the added bonus of taking down one of the team’s biggest rivals. For most, their freshman year is the first time they ever get to taste the smoke that victory brings them.

This season, Alabama wants to continue their undefeated run. That cigar will mean that they are on the right track.

“It's a very good feeling” Linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said. “...My first time smoking a cigar was my freshman year when we played Tennessee. So, I mean, I smoke a cigar once a year. We'll see if we will have that opportunity after the game on Saturday."

Players like Huber and Johnson haven’t played in an Alabama game since 2009, but that hasn’t stopped them from being a part of the rivalry. Most years, they find themselves puffing on those cigars that have been such a big part of their lives. 

“No matter where you are from or if you are playing for Alabama or Tennessee, I promise you that on the third Saturday in October when you go into the stadium, you know you are looking at a different game,” Huber said. “You know you are looking at a game that means more than just a win or a loss.”

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