Security officials were scrambling Saturday night in Knoxville.
Down the Neyland Stadium tunnel was orange chaos on a field awash in the emotional a-bomb release after a 15-year horror. Tennessee finally beat Alabama and the scene from the Crimson Tide extraction from Neyland Stadium was a practice in managed mayhem.
Glassy-eyed Alabama players made the solemn walk from the locker room to the bus through a verbal minefield.
“Chicken alfredo or spaghetti and meatballs?” managers asked as they made the walk towards the exit.
There they met a steady stream of Tennessee fans unloading 1.5 decades of frustration. The looks on faces obscured by cigar smoke were almost medieval — something combining the aftermath of an exorcism and a successful wedding night.
They came for the pound of flash and this scene was a chance for a little more.
Rocky Top blared on speakers from the nearby parking garage.
Middle fingers, check.
Name a four-letter word, they came free of charge.
Police, sheriff deputies and security officials sprinted a few times to shore up the various fence lines separating the exiting Vol faithful and the team they just conquered.
A line of Crimson Tide fans formed something of a human shield between the team and the stream of hecklers. It didn’t even look intentional, but it helped serve the purpose.
This was a night so uniquely college football as a once-dormant rivalry caught a new fire. Both goalposts were sacrificed less than an hour earlier as almost every 101,915 witnesses traded Rocky Top for Dixieland Delight blasting over the loudspeakers.
It wasn’t quite Newton’s third law but Knoxville offered its best equal but opposite reaction to the last 15 years of pain. Alabama players who weren’t old enough to tackle football the last time this happened got the honor of receiving that outpouring.
Bryce Young had almost a dozen police officers for the escort to the bus.
Terry Saban gave a gracious smile to the Alabama fans who cheered the exit from her husband’s postgame news conference.
A Tennessee staffer puffed his cigar as he walked past the small Alabama stronghold.
“We’re shutting it down,” one police officer said at 7:58 pm local time as he swung the fence leading out of the stadium. Players, coaches and staff are bottlenecked inside the stadium as cops and security workers to secure the situation.
Off to the side, four blue-shirted security workers looked exhausted.
“You don’t get paid enough for this, huh?” was the question.
“We don’t get paid at all,” was the response.
They were baseball players from a local small college working the game as a program fundraiser. Instead of a quick few hours of directing lost fans, they were stuck in the middle of history.
A few minutes after the brief lockdown, Henry To’o To’o emerged from the locker room. The former Vol linebacker who transferred to Alabama in 2021 got his share of the Tennessee fan backlash but after the loss, he just wanted a few hugs from his family. They were among those in crimson lining the barricade and had nowhere to hide in Alabama jerseys with their last name on the back.
Light rain was falling at that point as the rush of Tennessee fans exiting slowed to a trickle. At one point an ambulance, there to transport a Tennessee fan injured on the field, filled part of the exit tunnel.
Sweaty Alabama staffers and managers were loading equipment bags and boxes as fast as they could. It was dark and dank under Neyland, and the less-glamorous jobs looked, even more, trying in the aftermath of Tennessee 52, Alabama 49.
“It’s A Great Day To Be Alive,” by Travis Tritt only briefly replaced Rocky Top on the parking garage loudspeakers as the last of the Alabama entourage was leaving.
“My dogs are barking,” one cop told his coworkers as he looked at his feet. It had been a long day on the banks of the Tennessee River, but the action was winding down.
At 8:29 pm, the song skipped over to an ironic playing of Sweet Home Alabama.
It was like they knew Nick Saban was loading into a black Chevy Tahoe in the tunnel for a quiet exit. The dozen or so cops flanking the vehicle kinda gave it away as the SUV pulled out and into the Knoxville drizzle on the night he lost to Tennessee for the first time in 16 tries.
“We didn’t answer the bell today,” Saban said as he opened his news conference earlier. He also noted the fact that every goal remains ahead of this team if it can run the table in the SEC West.
But for a night, those at the center of the Alabama program had to wear this one. And nobody in orange would make the brutal walk to the bus any easier.
Michael Casagrande is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande or on Facebook.