TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – There are few spectacles in American sports that match the pageantry, buzz and emotion of a high-level SEC football game. For college football in 2019, there’s no bigger event in the sport’s regular season than No. 2 LSU visiting No. 3 Alabama on Saturday, bitter and age-old rivals with enough storylines for a Netflix series.
The wondrous circus that would normally accompany an event of this magnitude will only be accentuated by a visit from the president. Donald Trump announced he will be attending the game at Bryant-Denny Stadium, sending the university and town into a tizzy. This will be Trump’s third appearance at a major sporting event in the past two weeks and the second SEC football game during his time in office.
“It can’t get any bigger,” said former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, who is running for a Republican Senate seat in Alabama. “It adds a little flavor to it and shows the importance of college football in our country and to the South. It adds another dimension to it.”
No matter one’s politics, the arrival of a president at a major sporting event brings outsized logistical challenges. There are bipartisan expectations on Saturday of long lines and lengthy delays that come with the increased security of a president’s visit. Trump’s last appearance at a college football game came in January 2018 at the national title game between Georgia and Alabama in Atlanta.
Trump’s appearance was most memorable for the logistical mess that accompanied it, as the combination of biblical rain and security enhancements for the president left fans stranded in the downpour outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium for extended periods of time. “It created the logjam of the century,” said Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity, who recalls his wife being stuck in the rain for 90 minutes in part because of a gate closure. “It was a miserable experience.”
While an honor in theory, the president’s arrival at a sporting event is challenging in execution. As one sports executive who has dealt with presidential visits over the years put it to Yahoo Sports: “The worst words you can hear are: ‘The president is coming to your game.’”
What changes when a president comes to a game? From the College Football Playoff title-game experience, there was an influx of security, including additional metal detectors. There were closed gates, closed roads around the stadium and an extended security perimeter. Parts of the concourse can be shut down for periods of time as the president moves around.
“Everyone must be patient,” said Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff. “Things will be different. Streets will be blocked. Entrances will be blocked. Everyone needs to keep in mind that job No. 1, the top priority for the day, has to be protecting the president.”
The key factor to how disruptive Trump’s visit will be on Sunday to the 101,821 fans expected at Bryant-Denny Stadium will be the time of Trump’s arrival. Trump came about an hour prior to the College Football Playoff title game and stood on the field for the anthem.
That delayed virtually the entire crowd attempting to enter the game. If Trump times his arrival to kickoff, it would minimize the disruptions. Trump left before the game’s thrilling conclusion in overtime when Alabama beat Georgia, 26-23.
Alabama athletic department officials and the football operations crew have been scrambling all week to prepare for the Trump visit. Gates to the game will open at 11:30 a.m., three hours prior to kickoff. Ticket holders have been encouraged by the school to show up no later than 1 p.m for the 2:30 kickoff. Alabama officials compared the process of entering the game similar to entering an airport, minus the removal of shoes and belts.
Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne told Yahoo Sports: “Anytime the president of the United States comes to an event, it takes the planning and detail to another level. Our university has been doing a great job working with the people from the White House for this big weekend.”
Hancock has been around three presidential appearances at a major sporting event, as Bill Clinton attended a pair of NCAA tournament games when he worked for the NCAA. He said part of the disarray around Trump’s visit to the College Football Playoff title game was a perfect storm – from the rain to the debut of mobile ticketing to an entrance being cut off which caused a logjam.
“I felt a lot of sympathy for game management there,” he said. “It’s the biggest game of the year. The biggest game from media perspective. ‘ESPN Gameday’ and SEC Nation will be there. I can only imagine how the resources are going to be stretched.”
The reaction to Trump back at the College Football Playoff title game was generally neutral, with his appearance mostly memorable for the disastrous logistics. The reaction on Saturday will likely be positive, as Trump has his highest approval rating in Alabama compared to any other state.
Trump won every SEC state in the past election, and the choice appears to be strategic to receive a warm welcome. “There’s nowhere Donald J. Trump can go in the country on Saturday at 2:30 and be more beloved than Tuscaloosa, Alabama,” said a college football industry source. “That’s his base.”
In a bizarre twist, Tuberville told Yahoo Sports he’s planning to spend the day campaigning outside of the stadium. A former Auburn coach going to solicit votes at Alabama’s stadium is a bit like a Steinbrenner stumping for votes in Boston or Cowboys owner Jerry Jones campaigning in Washington, D.C.
Tuberville calls campaigning “recruiting on steroids” and is considered a favorite in the Republican primary on March 3.
Tuberville’s favorite status could be in jeopardy, as former attorney general Jeff Sessions announced this week that he’s entering the race for his former Senate seat. That will likely force Tuberville to be more closely aligned to Trump — who Tuberville says he hasn’t met — as Sessions and Trump have a rocky relationship.
Tuberville released a statement this week that references helping “President Trump change this country” and need to “stop recycling the same old politicians.”
On Saturday, Tuberville will be canvassing the area to shake hands and take pictures outside a stadium where he was once viewed as a heated rival. “Time heals all,” he said in a phone interview. “Lot of water under the bridge.”
He added that he’s excited for the game, much like everyone else. “It won’t be a 10-9 game,” he said. “This thing is going to be in the 30s. That’s an unusual day for both programs.”
It will be an unusual day in Tuscaloosa. Get there early to see it.
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