Tailgating: Step right up (continued)
Indeed, tailgaters have been known to traverse mountain ranges and great bodies of water, typically coming from far and wide, to spend a day on their college campus of choice. The most popular figure at a Georgia football game is no exception.
Georgia's irrepressible English bulldog mascot, UGA, makes the 225-mile commute to Athens from his home in Savannah for every game. The Bulldogs' 2008 season opener Aug. 30 vs. Georgia Southern will serve as the coming out party for UGA VII after the passing of UGA VI last June. The new UGA is to be selected by Savannah attorney Sonny Seiler, whose family has handled a long line of Bulldog mascots dating back to 1956.
Georgia tailgaters rally around the Dawg Walk, when Bulldog players saunter a quarter-mile through the main tailgating area.
"The tailgaters here have elaborate setups," said Leland Barrow, Georgia's assistant sports communications director. "The spreads could feed royalty. You see people with a couple of entrees and all kinds of sides. Some people actually bring deep fryers.
"Judging by the elaborate setups, they must start getting ready on about Tuesday. You see 50- and 60-inch flat screens. Some people have two of them so they can watch a couple of games before the Bulldogs play."
Others are more intent in seeing the canine those in the UGA community refer to as a "damn good dog," and in posing for photos with the pooch.
After a Bulldog win, fans congregate behind the chapel and ring a bell in the tower to celebrate. With so many tailgaters outside the stadium during the playing of the game, there is no lag time between the sound of the final gun and the first bell ringing.
Up in Indiana, tailgating remains as much a part of Notre Dame football as former Fighting Irish coach Ara Parseghian, who once was featured in a car commercial in which he likened the versatility of a station wagon's tailgate to that of the triple-option offense.
Today, the triple-option is almost as rare as a station wagon, and tailgate parties in South Bend typically take place without the benefit of an actual tailgate. No matter.
Irish stalwarts arrive early to stake out their turf in the stadium parking lots. Or they might opt to stroll the campus, where they can partake in a steak sandwich served up by the Knights of Columbus, which has become a popular tradition. (Also see: Golden Dome Pilgrimage: A trip to Notre Dame)
Some fans accent their tailgating with a visit to the Grotto, Golden Dome or Basilica of the Sacred Heart, where Notre Dame players attend a pregame Mass.
"It's very ritualistic," sports information director John Heisler said of a Notre Dame tailgate. "There are an awful lot of people that have there own game-day rituals. They might meet friends, go here, go there. At Notre Dame, the game-day experience tends to be different from one alum to another."
At Florida, fans rise early to tailgate in the shadow of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, a.k.a. The Swamp.
"I'll get there five hours before the game starts," Florida associate athletic director Steve McClain said. "When I arrive, the fans and tailgaters are already here. I get a kick out of surveying the scene. We have one fan that has an entire fleet of Gator vehicles. He has an RV, a van, a car depending on what his needs are."
Once a year it's almost mandatory that Gator fans pack up and drive the 71 miles to Jacksonville for the rivalry game with Florida, formerly known in pre-PC days as "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party." The crowd at the neutral venue in Jacksonville Municipal Stadium is clearly bipartisan, but the turnout for the tailgating on Jacksonville Landing is virtually unanimous.
"The Landing is a place where people who don't have a ticket to the game can go to be a part of it," McClain said.
Festivities surrounding the contest last most of the week, dominating the city of Jacksonville like a Super Bowl. "When I get there on Thursday, the game has already taken over the city," McClain said.
Typically, tailgate rituals differ from school to school, depending on regional palettes and tastes. While most tailgaters watch the game, the practice of arriving at a stadium without any intention of ever setting foot inside is growing in popularity.
At Ole Miss, there are typically 3,000 to 5,000 people in The Grove during the game. Many arrive without tickets and are more than content to experience The Grove and never see the inside of the stadium. "Everyone should see The Grove once," Rogers said, "It really does take tailgating to a higher level."
Rebels fans like to say they've never lost a party. Count LSU among the schools that would at least cover the spread.
"The tailgating at Tiger Stadium is a spectacle in itself," LSU sports information director Michael Bonnette said. "We have 92,000 fans that come into the stadium, and we estimate there is another 30,000 or 40,000 fans who never even make it inside.
"They have radios and TVs, they hear the roar of the crowd when things go well or the silence when they don't. It's a party inside and outside. Fans start parking cars on Thursday night. It's an all-weekend-long event. A lot of the people in motor homes stay Saturday night and leave Sunday morning."
Just as an appearance by UGA highlights a visit to Georgia's Sanford Stadium, the sight of Mike the Tiger sends Bayou Bengals fans into an uproar.
"They take Mike (a real tiger) around the stadium before the game and he goes through a crowd of tailgaters for a short time. It's really an event," Bonnette said.
Deep in the Arroyo Seco below the San Gabriel Mountains, the pregame events of UCLA fans outside the Rose Bowl stretch across the Brookside Country Club, where golf gives way to impromptu touch football games and Frisbee tossing.
Stevens, the former Bruin signal caller, was a highly recruited quarterback out of Fountain Valley, Calif., whose freshman year of college 1982 happened to coincide with UCLA's move to the Rose Bowl from the Los Angeles Coliseum. When the Bruins made their move, Stevens made his.
"I was being recruited and as soon as I found out they got the lease at the Rose Bowl, I made up my mind," Stevens said. "I knew right then that I wanted to go to UCLA."
Stevens liked the idea of playing in one of college football's most storied venues. But he also liked the idea of returning to the Rose Bowl once his career ended for homecomings and tailgates.
Today, Stevens is at every game for his gig as an analyst on Bruins radio broadcasts. Every time he sees the famous Rose Bowl script in neon on the stadium's exterior and the mountains beyond, he remembers why he chose UCLA.
"There's no better place to watch college football," Stevens said.
There is no frozen tundra at the Rose Bowl (which is at least a 30-minute drive from the UCLA campus), and no autumn leaves fall through crisp air in Pasadena. Instead, the mercury rises to an average high of 73 degrees in November. Stevens believes those things, coupled with the tailgating scene, give Bruins home games a mystique unlike that of any other school.
"People make a day out of a game at the Rose Bowl," Stevens said. "They set up TVs, have picnics and throw a Frisbee or a football around. It could be late November, but you're out there in short sleeves. It's the most kid-friendly environment I've ever seen for college football. There's no place like it."
Today, Stevens does a pregame show that originates from the Rose Bowl parking lot, an area that's transformed into a sun-dappled bazaar, complete with food courts and entertainment, before every game.
"One time," Stevens said, "I was doing the pregame show and I looked up and there were 100 to 200 people crowded around me. I didn't know what was going on, and then, out of nowhere, I see a supercross motorcycle guy flying by, doing a flip. It was crazy."
Which brings us back to the crazy environs of the annual Texas-Oklahoma game. The fairgrounds setting, where revelers can play games of chance, go for a spin on a thrill ride or indulge in foods ranging from deep-fried Oreos to funnel cakes, makes the game feel like it's being played in the middle of a three-ring circus.
Indeed, it's just a typical college football Saturday in America.
Doug Ward is a southern California-based freelance writer.