|All aboard! Gamecocks tailgate in style|
By Wayne Drehs
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- There's less than an hour until kickoff. The pregame buzz has filled the air. But you wouldn't know it from here. Where you're sitting, there are no keg stands. No Jock Rock. And no smoldering charcoal briquettes.
Instead, there's a tuxedo-clad bartender. Hardwood floors. Marble countertops. And golden-haired Lynda Murray, kicking back on her flowered Victorian couch, sipping a Pat O'Brien Hurricane.
This is the epicenter of tailgating's high life. Forget everything you've ever heard about the conventional kegger. Welcome, instead, to the 22 luxurious rail-bound cabooses that make up South Carolina's "Cockaboose Railroad," one of the most unique spots on Page 2's Tailgating Tour.
Some 50 yards from the main entrance to the 80,000-seat Williams-Brice Stadium, these spiffed-up cabooses, sitting on a dormant track, would drop even Robin Leach's jaw. From built-in Bose stereo systems and big screen TVs to mahogany cabinets and brass chandeliers, each individually decorated caboose has a flair all its own. It's no wonder that over the past 10 years, Smithsonian has come by. As has Southern Living. Football fans from Moscow have popped in. So, too, have Senators. Mayors. And, of course, Lou Holtz.
"When Lou came by, he just sat on the couch, looked around and said, 'Man, this is the life,' " Lynda said. "And he's right."
There is no perch-like view into the stadium, and sleepovers aren't allowed. Though owners can hang here whenever they want, most use their caboose only to "railgate" for South Carolina's six home games.
Yet, a half-dozen folks sit on the waiting list. Last year, when a rival company opened seven cabooses in a parking lot down the street, they sold -- for $200,000 each -- in two weeks. One increasingly impatient potential buyer offered David Murray, Lynda's husband, $225,000 for his Park Avenue-worthy pad.
"I thought about it for a split second," he concedes. "But realized I couldn't. Lynda would have killed me."
All this for a 30-by-9-foot steel box on immovable wheels. From the outside, they're identical, each featuring nothing more than garnet paint, a Gamecock logo and a rooftop deck. But on the inside, they're refreshingly unique. Some look like a dance club, others a Victorian palace, and yet others like a scene right out of a Jesse James film. There are white walls, checkerboard walls and purple walls. Leather couches, pillars, tiffany lamps.
In Murray's caboose, two 200-year-old "War" and "Peace" lithographs hang. He pays a local woman $160 to tend bar and clean up on game days. A gardener keeps the grounds clean and flowers fresh. There's central heating and air conditioning. Running water. Sewers. Even closed-circuit satellite television that brings in any and every available game.
And yet, it's only part of the South Carolina experience. When the once-beaten LSU Tigers come to town this weekend, they'll witness one of the most electric entrances in college football as the Gamecocks run onto the field to the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Surrounding them will be arguably the SEC's most loyal fans. Since 1997, which includes a span in which the Gamecocks went 1-21, they've averaged nearly 80,000 fans per game, 10th in the country. This isn't the Swamp. It isn't Death Valley. In South Carolina's 111-year history, they've won nothing more than one Carquest and two Outback Bowls. Yet, the way the fans act, you'd think they were the USC that claims Marcus Allen, Ronnie Lott and Keyshawn Johnson.
Fifteen-hundred women often show up for Holtz's off-season, female-only "Football 101" clinics. In 1996, when construction began to expand Williams-Brice, athletics director Mike McGee had to build an observation deck to quench the curiosities of snooping fans.
After the winless 1999 season ended with a 31-21 loss to rival Clemson, first-year assistant Dave DeGuglielmo was greeted outside the stadium by four random families, all realizing he was single and all inviting him for Thanksgiving dinner.
And when Lou Holtz wondered publicly why South Carolina's highways were besieged with trash, the state launched an anti-litter campaign.
"It's sick. I run on the field for pregame warm-ups and there's 100 people yelling my name," DeGuglielmo said. "And I'm the friggin' line coach. I mean, I can't cross the parking lot without 30 people stopping me."
Both DeGuglielmo (from Boston) and Sonefeld (a native of suburban Chicago) find parallels between Gamecock fans and those of the Red Sox and Cubs.
"In both places, the fans would give anything and everything to win big just once," said Sonefeld, who owns a Gamecock luxury box. "Yet win or lose -- you're probably getting just as drunk anyway."
At Wrigley, it'd be on the rooftops; at Fenway, in the Monster seats. At South Carolina, it's in a Cockaboose. It started in 1990, when local steel man Ed Robinson set out to make use of the ugly vacant tracks behind the south side of Williams-Brice Stadium. Robinson purchased the tracks, later purchased the cabooses and then sought out some of the school's big donors -- lawyers, doctors, dentists and real estate developers -- as prospective owners.
For $40,000, each of the original 22 owners received a gutted steel box. The outside needed a paint job. The inside needed an interior decorator. So that's what they got.
"When my mother first heard about this, she flat out told me, 'That is the stupidest thing you've ever done'," said Bob David, one of the original 22. "Then I brought her here, showed her the place and she loved it.
"But she still thought I was stupid."
David Murray estimates he's spent $120,000 in decorating alone.
Since the Cockabooses opened in 1990, the University of Louisville has added its own cabooses outside Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. But nothing beats the original. Owners pay $2,200 per year in association fees as well as roughly $1,000 in state and local taxes. Over the years, Cockabooses have held everything from bachelor parties and bridal showers to corporate meetings and Sunday-School dinners.
Like buying a condo, owners claim 1/22 of the Cockaboose Corporation and have the freedom to do whatever they want to the interior. They can't touch the outside. And the caboose can't move.
Put simply: It's the perfect blend of football, hospitality and luxury partying. Just ask DeGuglielmo. After last Thursday's 27-21 win over Kentucky, DeGuglielmo was whipped-tired, but he didn't go home. He didn't head to his girlfriend's house. He walked over to Cockaboose No. 2 where Lynda Murray was waiting, as she does at every home game, with a fresh batch of chicken salad.
"I know I better show up because it's waiting for me," said DeGuglielmo, standing on the black platform outside car No. 2. "It's unbelievable. Look at this. How many programs have this sort of set-up with fans that are so loyal?
"I can't think of one."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org