There’s tailgating and there’s tailgating “SEC style.” Throughout the 2017 football season, OneSouthernMan is showcasing the tailgating scene at every SEC campus where pre-game festivities can be as big, if not bigger than the game. The first stop was Oxford, Mississippi; the home of the Ole Miss Rebels, for their September 2 season opener against South Alabama.
The history of American tailgating can be traced to the summer of 1861 when Washington, D.C. residents – donning their Sunday best – brought picnic baskets full of food, wine, and whiskey and sat hillside at the Battle of Bull Run near Manassas, Virginia, in hopes of watching Union forces drive their Confederate opponents off the battlefield. We know how that contest ended. As for football, historians say the term “tailgating” originated when nineteenth-century fans grilled sausages at the “tail end” of a horse as Princeton and Rutgers met for the first college football game in 1869.
But if the Yankees are credited for inventing the tailgate, then Ole Miss Rebel fans should be credited with raising it to an art form.
The Sporting News once referred to The Grove as the “Holy Grail of Tailgating Sites.” One trip to Ole Miss on a home-game Saturday and you’ll understand why. Fashion meets football meets fun.
Admittedly, I grew up supporting another SEC team, still, I find myself in Oxford a couple of times each season to experience all The Grove (the 10-acre, tree lined area in the center of campus) has to offer.
At its core, tailgating can be simple. Pick up some chips and dip, a case of coke and maybe your adult beverage of choice. Grill some burgers or hot dogs and finish the meal with some Keebler Chips Ahoy cookies and you’re set. Right? That may work for a middle school game but tailgating in The Grove can be compared to an outdoor culinary competition with 60,000 to 80,000, fashionably attired football fans, sipping Chardonnay and Bourbon for six to eight hours before kickoff.
On the recommendation of a family friend, Betsy Collier Smith, I was hosted by a festive group of friends who join forces for the five or six home games each season. Organized by Holly & Brad Armstrong, the group on Saturday included Lauren & Mark Hodge, Eddie Reed Rice, Dana & Jason Crisp, Shelia Moore, Lauren & Paul Pearson, Jennifer Downs & Trey Hogue, Jennifer & Hiram Eastland, Kathey & Jim Garrett, Stephanie & Tom Tann, Rhonda & Chris Rousseau and Anne Clarke and Steve Downing.
Every inch of their two-tent space – located within an easy walk to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, had a constant flow of family and friends stopping by to experience Southern hospitality at its finest.
“Our family has been coming to The Grove for years and our kids now have the same opportunity,” said Mark Hodge, a realtor, and owner of the Crye-Leike office in Oxford. “Tailgating here is multi-generational, as some families ‘will’ their tailgating spots to their children and grandchildren.”
To boot, the history of Ole Miss tailgating is as intriguing as the plot of a Faulkner novel.
Decades ago fans would drive their cars and pickup trucks into The Grove, raising their trunks or lowering their pickup truck beds to feast on home-cooked food and socialize before a game. In 1991, after a monsoon rainstorm, University officials banned vehicles from entering The Grove, but the result had unintended, yet positive consequences. While the landscape may have changed over the years, the festive atmosphere grew larger, especially around 1993, with the debut of the canopy tent.
Fans can hire University “approved tailgating vendors” to store and set up their tent the evening prior to a home game, eliminating the hassle of setup and takedown. Some even hire professional caters like Jennifer and Sean Milner of Ladye Kathryn Custom Catering, to prepare dishes such as pork barbeque, beef sliders, pimento cheese balls, vegetable platters, baked beans, a variety of dips and desserts for every sweet tooth. I can personally vouch for their barbeque, sliders and banana pudding.
“We start prepping about Tuesday and the real cooking starts on Thursday,” noted Jennifer Milner, Ladye Kathryn’s head chef. “We cater for several clients in The Grove each home game, plus, we set up on own area to showcase our food for friends and potential clients. There’s nothing like this in the world, period!”
The day’s 6:30 p.m. kick-off meant fans would begin arriving around mid-morning, giving them about a seven-hour stretch to inaugurate a new season. And if you don’t know the words to the infamous “Hotty Toddy” cheer, you will by days end. Regardless of the teams win/loss record, there’s never a lull in school spirit.
The basic layout of a tent is simple: a long table or two covered in team colored tablecloths for the food, several chairs strategically positioned on the perimeter, with room for a cooler and mixers for your beverage of choice.
From there, the sky’s the limit. Tents with chandeliers, linen tablecloths, grandmother’s sterling silver and champagne fountains can be found. If it seems like every third or fourth tent has a large-screen TV, then you’re not dreaming. In fact, it’s estimated that anywhere from 25 to 30 percent of fans remain in The Grove during games.
My observations of The Grove are simple. While Southerners are known for our hospitable ways, the Ole Miss tailgating experience elevates everything to another level.
First, I have yet to walk into a tent in The Grove – invited or not – where I wasn’t offered something to eat or drink. My mama taught me never to refuse a sincere offer, so leaving hungry or thirsty is impossible. Plus, if you grew up within a 200-mile radius of Oxford I can guarantee you’ll see someone you know.
The day also took an unexpected twist, thanks to Bill Sprayberry, Mark’s father-in-law, for introducing me to former Ole Miss football great, Keith McKey, who was kind enough to take me to the M Club reception for former Ole Miss football alumni and down to the sideline to watch both teams pre-game warm-ups.
As for fashion, there’s tailgate casual and there’s “Grove casual.”
For guys, it’s fairly simple. A pair of khaki’s or nice jeans, a polo or button-down finished with Cohn-Hahn drivers and we’re set. You’ll always see a few fraternity guys in bow ties and Madrid slacks, irrespective of any fashion rule coined by Madison Avenue. It certainly adds to The Grove’s uniqueness. Yet, it’s the women that define fashion at an Ole Miss tailgate. All I can say is if people watching is your scene, then The Grove is the National Championship.
Our journey this season is just beginning and we’re looking forward to meeting lots of wonderful SEC fans along the way. As it stands now, there’s The Grove, a big gap, and thirteen other schools competing for second place. We’ll rank every school at the end of the season so there’s plenty of time to put your best foot forward.
Here are a few things to know before traveling to Oxford:
Click here to read “10 Must Knows for Tailgating” on the Ole Miss Football website.
- To experience The Grove, arrive several hours before kickoff. Unless you have a designated parking space on campus, you’ll have to park off-campus. You can try the lots near downtown but arriving early is a must. There are ample shuttles to transport you to and from campus.
- Dress comfortably, but fashionably. After all, it is “The Grove.”
- Two hours before kickoff the team walks through The Grove along the Walk of Champions.
- You’re welcome to bring coolers and food but you cannot cook with open flames. I recommend rolling coolers as you may end up walking a mile or two.
- For guys, wear comfortable shoes. I know better than to wade into women’s fashion, but I certainly enjoy the view.
- Have fun and soak up the experience.
Next stop: Vanderbilt, Sept 9 in Nashville. If you’re a Vandy fan and are interested in hosting us at your tailgate, contact us a [email protected]