Tailgating: Step right up to the college football carnival
When Texas and Oklahoma get together for the Red River Shootout at the State Fair of Texas every October, the smell of corn dogs wafts through the stadium and screams ring out from the thrill rides that rise above the Cotton Bowl, giving the game a real carnival atmosphere.
For almost 80 years, the Dallas backdrop to the storied rivalry has provided one of college football's most colorful game-day experiences.
But the rest of the college football world is catching up, and fast. From Death Valley to Happy Valley, fans have taken the art of tailgating to such extremes that a pregame party now feels an awful lot like a day at the fair.
At its core, tailgating is all about entertainment, replete with the simple pleasures of food, family and fun. Tailgating can be formal or informal. It can turn a lazy, fall Saturday into an occasion, bringing young and old together to celebrate the past while living in the moment. And like a visit to the carnival, tailgating includes a game of chance (read: the impending game) and, in today's college football world of parity, often features a roller coaster ride.
"Tailgating," said UCLA radio analyst and former Bruins quarterback Matt Stevens, "is like spending a day at an amusement park."
As summer surrenders to fall, tailgaters everywhere will soon be turning college campuses and stadium parking lots into veritable midways. And when they do, the fun will start early and end late.
For tailgaters, college football is no longer a great way to spend an autumn afternoon. Rather, it's a great way to spend a fall weekend. One-and-done basketball players spend less time on campus than some tailgaters.
With tailgaters, the game equates to the spread. And we're not talking points here. Often, the menus at tailgate parties are so elaborate that they render the tilt itself a dessert, and that's only if you have room. Some tailgaters skip the game altogether, opting instead to continue their parking-lot partying while monitoring the action on the field via television. And, just as USC has a reputation for churning out tailbacks, and Penn State is known as Linebacker U., the best tailgating schools all seem to have their own signature dish.
At LSU, the aromas of Cajun specialties like crawfish etouffee and gumbo float through Tiger Stadium. The location of Washington's Husky Stadium, which is sandwiched between two lakes that feed into Puget Sound, has helped make salmon every bit as common as hamburgers at tailgate parties there. And in Tuscaloosa, Dreamland Bar-B-Que pairs with Crimson Tide football about as well as a houndstooth hat.
Some of the more elaborate tailgate meal plans seemingly rival the menu at a five-star restaurant, and the setting can be almost as formal. That's especially true at Ole Miss, where festivities revolve around the sprawling wooded area on campus known as The Grove.
"The Grove is upscale tailgating. We're talking about linen. We're talking about chandeliers. We're talking about sterling silver. We're talking about fresh cut flowers," said Langston Rogers, longtime Mississippi sports information director.
"Tailgating at The Grove is like attending a class reunion or a wedding every weekend. It's the place to be."
As in real estate, location is paramount at The Grove. The day before a Rebels home game, fans arrive early to get a spot along the path of the pregame Walk of Champions, during which player and coaches are cheered as they walk under the famous arch of the same name and through The Grove en route to the stadium.
"It's like a land rush every Friday to find your spot," Rogers said.
At The Grove, where snapshots of pregame gatherings could be used as magazine ads for Ralph Lauren, what's on your back is almost as important as what's on your plate.
"We have a long-held tradition among Ole Miss students," Rogers said, "that the women will wear dresses and high heels. The men will wear Khaki pants, navy blazers and ties."
Legend has it that the women of Oxford, Miss., will go on summer shopping sprees to find just the right outfit for The Grove.
"I've heard stories of women who will go shopping in New York before the season," Rogers said. "If there are seven home games that year, they will buy seven outfits for The Grove."
That's commitment. But it pales in comparison to the multitude of Alabama fans that do their preseason shopping on the lot of the local Winnebago dealer. A caravan of rabid, RV-driving 'Bama fans snakes its way to every Tide game, home and away.
When Jeff Purinton began as the school's football sports information director in 2007, the Tide's first road game was at Vanderbilt. On game day, Purinton watched in wonder as the Alabama faithful rolled up to Vanderbilt Stadium in RVs like a band of carnies pulling their rigs onto the fairgrounds.
"The RVs just kept pouring in," Purinton said. "It was unbelievable."
Purinton was on the phone during this interview, but you could practically see him gesturing quote marks when using the term "RV" in conjunction with 'Bama football.
"They are really nice RVs," Purinton said. "So nice, I don't even know if you could call them RVs. They are high-end coaches kind of what you'd expect to see a rock star arriving in."
For Alabama home tilts in Tuscaloosa, the pregame party in the recreational-vehicle parking lot is so spirited that an estimated 20,000 RVers don't even bother entering the stadium. Instead, the party goes on in the lot right through the game.
In Knoxville and Seattle the tailgate parties are floating, but they always end up in the same place. Many fans of the Volunteers and Huskies arrive at their team's waterfront stadiums via boat, where they tailgate before going ashore for the kickoff.
At Tennessee the tradition that has come to be known as the Volunteer Navy was born of necessity. Back in 1962, Vols play-by-play announcer George Mooney grew tired of getting stuck in the landlocked traffic on his way to Neyland Stadium, so he instead took to the Tennessee River.
"George took a boat and tied it up on the banks of the river, across from the south end zone," said Bob Kesling, the Vols' current radio voice. "Taking a boat to the game caught on and grew into something big. Today we have the Volunteer Navy."
Kesling attended Tennessee, where he walked on to Bill Battle's team in 1972, but grew up in Ohio. He believes his Midwestern upbringing has helped him understand why college football means so much in the South and why people there spend the better part of the midweek planning elaborate tailgate parties, then stretch those parties out so they last all weekend.
"The SEC is different," Kesling said. "Other than Atlanta, there are no NBA or Major League Baseball teams (near SEC schools), so people focus on college football 365 days a year. In the Midwest you have baseball teams to divert your attention. In the South, basketball is something that helps you get through the winter. All that adds to the passion and people want to savor it and stay on campus as long as possible."
At the University of Washington in Seattle, a sea of Huskies fans numbering 5,000 strong drops anchor in the shadow of Husky Stadium.
"As long as they've been playing football here, fans have been coming to games in boats," said sports information director Jeff Bechtold. (For the record, the stadium opened in 1920.)
Right before kickoff the university provides a shuttle service that brings on-water fans ashore in small motorboats that are normally used for coaching the school's crew team.
Once inside Husky Stadium, fans are treated to a million-dollar view that just might be the closest thing college football has to San Francisco's AT&T Park.
"I'm biased," Bechtold said, "but there's no more beautiful place to watch a college football game. You have boats on the water, the Cascade Mountains to the east, the Olympic Mountains to the west."