Rebel spell: timeless tailgating tradition

The deeper into The Grove one ventures, the more it feels like the entire state has come to party. Photo courtesy University of Mississippi Athletics

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OXFORD, Miss. -- The Ole Miss campus speed limit remains a genteel 18 mph in honor of Archie Manning, but everything else in Oxford seems to be changing faster than Jeremiah Masoli's eligibility status.

In the months since quarterback Jevan Snead last took a snap for the Rebels in the Cotton Bowl and turned his attention to the NFL:

  • Mississippi football has gone from the SEC's upper division to expected also-ran.

  • The NCAA initially denied Masoli's request for a waiver that would have allowed the disgraced quarterback to play this season after he transitioned from sociology undergrad at Oregon to recreation grad student in Mississippi. Then the NCAA reversed itself. Masoli on Friday was cleared to play immediately.

  • And Ole Miss students voted to find a new mascot to replace the goateed, politically incorrect Colonel Reb -- who was banned from the sidelines of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in 2003, six years after the waving of confederate flags was spiked -- as the school continues to distance itself from symbols of the Old South.

  • Pregame perfection

    To get an inside look at the tailgating tradition at Ole Miss, click here for images of the party ... oh, and the after party -- the game itself.

    With a new sideline mascot pending (Ole Miss will continue to be known as the Rebels), the troubled Masoli seems to have trended past the squeaky-clean Manning and the kind-hearted Michael Oher of "The Blind Side" as the school's most high-profile icon of late.

    Things traditionally are much simpler when autumn falls on this college town in northern Mississippi, where Saturdays are as timeless as oxford shirts, which are practically standard issue on the natty campus.

    On those eternal fall football weekends, car speeds drop to 18 and everything else soon follows suit, from the speech patterns to overall pace of the surroundings.

    There was one of those Saturday mornings in October 2009. Much of the campus is strangely quiet.

    Outside The Lyceum -- the white-columned signature building that served as a hospital during the Civil War -- a statue of James Meredith stands proud but alone; the real Meredith could not have felt much more isolated back in 1962, when he became the first African-American to attend the University of Mississippi. Nearby, deserted fraternity and sorority houses that look like antebellum mansions or Restoration Hardware stores stand still.

    Everyone is in The Grove, a blissful, 10-acre plot of oak, elm and magnolia trees on the Ole Miss campus that before, during and after home games doubles as the school's hub and heaven on earth.

    The Grove is more than a tailgate party. It's a little like a family get-together and a lot like a school reunion.

    Venerable Vaught-Hemingway

    Construction on federally funded Vaught-Hemingway Stadium began in 1912, with Ole Miss students helping to build the original grandstand. When it opened in 1915, capacity was 24,000.

    The venue originally was known as Hemingway Stadium in honor of Judge William Hemingway (1869-1937), who was both an Ole Miss law professor and chairman of the university's Committee on Athletics. In 1982, the stadium became a hyphenate, in honor John Vaught, who coached the Rebels to three national championships.

    In 1980, the addition of aluminum bleachers in each end zone increased capacity to 41,000. A new press box, aluminum sideline seating and a club level section were added during a major renovation in 1988. Lights were installed in 1990. An upper deck, which included the Guy C. Billups Rebel Club Seating, was added to the east side of the stadium a year later to increase capacity to more than 50,000.

    The stadium's most recent expansion, completed in 2002, saw the south end zone bleachers replaced by a rounded bowl with an upper deck, an upgrade that added 10,000 seats. Vaught-Hemingway now seats 60,580.

    "When I was in school in 1968, the stadium held about 42,000," said Sparky Reardon, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs at Ole Miss. "Enclosing the south end zone was the key to giving the stadium a big-time feel. I think the stadium and the crowd realized its potential when we played LSU for the SEC championship in 2003. Even though we lost, being a part of that event was special. It was big-time college football, and the stadium was a big part of it."

    Vaught-Hemingway's playing surface was named in honor of Dr. Jerry Hollingsworth, a longtime Ole Miss backer, in 1998. The field went from grass to artificial turf in 1970, then switched back to grass in 1984 before the current FieldTurf was installed in 2009.

    Archie Manning and his son Eli Manning, Deuce McAllister, Dexter McCluster and Patrick Willis all left footprints on the field ... and impressions on the locals.

    "Guys like Archie, Eli, Dexter, Deuce and P Willie distinguished themselves to the extent of needing only one name," Reardon said. "Thousands of fans consider them personal friends. It's the nature of the place."

    "Coming back to The Grove," said Jay Carmean, an Ole Miss alum from the class of 1999, "is like coming back to a big hug from all your friends."

    Mostly, The Grove is like no place else.

    Walking through The Grove feels like stepping into the art-directed pages of a Ralph Lauren magazine ad or onto the set of a John Grisham movie.

    The good ol' boys here wear navy blazers paired with khaki pants, white oxford shirts, red-and-white striped repp ties and Eli Manning haircuts. Coeds show up for football games in sparkling-new cocktail dresses. The student body, alumni and returning sorority sisters and fraternity brothers all greet each other with, "Hotty Toddy!" A young alum laments the agony of graduation: "God, I wish I still lived here."

    On this fall Saturday, gray skies, intermittent drizzles and the Crimson Tide all will roll through Oxford, but no one in The Grove will much mind.

    The last time the Rebels won an SEC title, Lyndon Johnson was in the first year of his presidency in 1963. But legend has it Ole Miss has not lost a party since James Polk was in office. Polk's administration coincided with the school's opening in 1848.

    No one comes to The Grove to make history; they come to relive it.

    Ole Miss put together a run of three national titles in four years as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, and folks here are still feeling it.

    "People hear stories from their grandparents about how great it was," said Carmean, now an Oxford attorney. Maybe that's why everyone here is so gracious and upbeat. It's the opposite effect of what happened to all those bedraggled baseball fans in New England, the ones who came of age hearing generational stories about how heartbreaking it is to root for the Red Sox.

    Every home football Saturday begins with a red and blue tent city being erected in The Grove even before the sun comes up.

    The portable shelters are decidedly upscale, stocked with sterling silver flatware, white linen tablecloths, fresh-cut flowers, even chandeliers and, of course, two kinds of dishes: fine china and satellite television. Menus feature Southern specialties like fried chicken, finger sandwiches and sides of potato salad with bread pudding for dessert. The smell of barbecue floats through the foliage. Beer is banned in The Grove, but bourbon and Coke is practically mandatory.

    The crowd is inordinately homogenous but, sartorially speaking, very colorful. Officially, the school hues are Harvard crimson and Yale navy. But some of the guys are bold enough to mix Nantucket red pants with pastel blue shirts and seersucker jackets; some of the gals rock peppermint pin-striped pants and navy sweaters. Ralph Lauren has his own rack in the school's bookstore, and if you're going to The Grove, go preppy.

    Then there are some folks -- at least three by my count -- dressed like the school's Colonel Sanders look-alike mascot, the one that has finally fallen from favor.

    Strolling The Grove can be a little disorienting because it seems to go on forever and everything repeats itself. An inordinate amount of men look like one of the Manning brothers, and a lot of the women look like future or former Miss Americas. Everyone speaks in a slow, soothing drawl that's smoother than the gin-fueled Pimm's Cups they mix over at City Grocery on Oxford's Grisham-esque town square.