Two years ago, I stayed at the Graduate Hotel, then a relatively new property in Oxford, Mississippi, and just a couple of blocks from the town’s famous downtown square. This picturesque town of around 23,000 had proliferated over the past few years and deserved a hotel that contributed to the square’s Southern charm while providing a venue for socializing and relaxation. The Graduate Oxford definitely adds flavor to college towns and the University of Mississippi, more affectionally known as, Ole Miss.
This is my second year to write the Tailgating SEC Style series about the tailgating scene in and around the Southeastern Conference. College football, in particular, SEC football, brings southerners together like no other activity I know. For 14 weeks each fall, alumni, students, parents, and everyday fans, arrive on SEC campuses in droves to watch their favorite team compete not only for a winning season but bragging rights for players and games that can last decades. It not just the three and a half hours spent in a stadium that matters, because for many “the game” usually begins on Thursday and continues through brunch on Sunday.
A “Collection” of Properties
Graduate Oxford employees balk when the word “chain” is used to describe the properties under the company’s umbrella. “We’re a collection of boutique hotels,” noted Annie King, the Marketing Coordinator for both the Oxford and Athens, Georgia properties. It’s no coincidence this collection of hotels is found only in and near colleges, each capturing the unique flavor of the school and community.
Ben Weprin, a University of Tennessee graduate and CEO of AJ Capital Partners and, the ownership group of the Graduate collection, wanted to give guest the feeling of saying in the community, as if they were sitting in “the living room of the community,” as described in the introductory video on the company’s website.
The Graduate collection began in 2014 and now has 11 properties, with nine others scheduled to open soon, including one near Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. But it was the Graduate in Oxford that I came to see. Rather, I wanted to experience.
Ole Miss is the flagship school of the state’s public universities. The school was first chartered in 1844, admitting the first 80 students four years later. Yet it’s the modern era – the Manning era – that defines what most SEC football fans know about Ole Miss.
The Manning era began in 1968 when Archie Manning, a standout quarterback from Drew Mississippi arrived on campus. From there the storybook reality originated. The star quarterback met and married Olivia Williams, an Ole Miss sorority girl and homecoming queen. Initially embarking on a pro football career, the couple raised three sons, Cooper, Peyton, and Eli, the latter two known as two of pro football’s best quarterbacks.
The Manning family took some heat when Peyton picked Tennessee over Ole Miss as the place to set college passing records in the mid-1990s. However, any ill will was buried when Eli arrived a few years later to extend the Manning quarterback era. But it was Cooper, whose football career at Ole Miss was cut short by a spine condition, that helped shape the Graduate’s mission.
Cooper Manning is in charge of investor relations for the management company, which means he’s the person responsible for bringing in money and business. Cooper’s fingerprints are all over the Graduate Oxford. The Coop, the bar and lounge located on the hotel’s fourth floor is named after him. Whether or not you ever spend a night in the Graduate Oxford, one “can’t miss” venue is catching a sunset on the Coop’s broad outdoor sitting area.
Archie and Olivia’s presence is also felt throughout the property, as their silhouette profiles hang in every room. The hotel has 136 rooms, including four suites named after various Oxford personalities you may or may not recognize. My favorite was the William “Willie” Morris suite, named in honor of the town resident and a legendary Southern writer. This retro suite designed with blue and lime green tones is the property’s most extensive suite and has ample space to entertain guests pre and post tailgate. Dogs are welcome at the Graduate Oxford and while no one mentioned the association, maybe in honor of one of the author’s best works, My Dog Skip.
Best Hotel Lobby In Mississippi
However, it is the lobby that captures the atmosphere of Oxford and Ole Miss so well. Lauren Ellis, the Director of Sales, called it the “living room of the community.”
Everything about it, from the pink hardwood floors to the artwork depicting “The Grove,” which is the tree-lined green space in the middle of campus that serves as the heart of Ole Miss tailgating, gives the Graduate it’s personality.
Let’s start with the lobby’s pink hardwood floors. Ole Miss has a reputation of being one of the South’s “preppy schools.” We know Southern guys aren’t afraid of wearing pink shirts or socks and the floor color pays homage to the prepster tradition Ole Miss emulates to perfection.
The artwork in the lobby is another feature which sets this hotel apart. Charlie Buckley, an Ole Miss graduate and now Oxford artist, designed the most intriguing piece on the walls. Buckley noticed that many of the tents popping up in The Grove each gameday Saturday were congregated by the various towns in Mississippi. His extensive research on the many details of this tailgating city is compiled into the masterpiece hanging just outside of the property’s cozy restaurant and coffee bar, Cabin 82. And if you look slightly to your left as you stroll through the front entrance, this incredible piece of art will definitely catch your eye.
The best part of the lobby rest not in the color scheme or even the local artwork, but the people who occupy the many chairs, tables, and sofas scattered throughout the main level. Any given weekday, dozens of students are situated, laptops and books open, studying for their next class or exam. Many hotels might discourage non-paying guests from taking lingering too long in or near their lobby. Graduate Hotels are unique in they encourage students, or anyone else, to stay as long as they like.
“We want the locals and the student in here,” Ellis interjected when I asked if they mind students hanging out. “Students in our lobbies are what give Graduate properties their personality. Plus, it’s usually one of the first places they want their parents to stay or see.”
Gameday not only creates a busy environment but add another energy level for Graduate guests and visitors. The hotel hosts their own tailgate, and they’ll even shuttle them to and from The Grove, which is convenient when tens of thousands of other fans descend on Oxford to root for or against the Rebels.
Whether it’s business or pleasure that brings you to Oxford, the Graduate Hotel should sit atop your list of places to stay or have a cocktail. Few venues in Oxford the atmosphere of the Coop’s outdoor patio area, and, this boutique property is within an easy walking distance of some of the South’s best restaurants and chefs.
Even if you’re not staying there on a football weekend, swing through the Graduate on your way to The Grove for a cup of coffee, pre-tailgate Bloody Mary or just to “see and be seen.” You can even ask a local about the origin of “hotty toddy.”
Nearby places to visit/eat in Oxford
City Grocery, fine dining on the square
Big Bad Breakfast, small diner about 2 miles from the hotel. Bring your appetite.
Blue Delta Jeans, custom made denim jeans
Hinton & Hinton, men’s & women’s clothier on the squre