The University of Mississippi, affectionally referred to as Ole Miss, is known for having one of, if not the best tailgating scenes in college football. In the sense of genuine southern hospitality, “The Grove” and the Zebra Tent at Ole Miss is tailgate heaven and rarely disappoints fans or visitors. The third college football weekend of the 2108 SEC season was no exception.
Summer in the south means hot weather, and while the temperature exceeded 90-degrees, Ole Miss and number one ranked Alabama fans remained cool and jovial as both teams faced their first SEC test of the season. Aside from an early touchdown that offered Ole Miss fans a few moments of hope, Coach Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide proved too powerful for the Rebel defense. But hey, it was the fantastic tailgate scene in The Grove that prepared fans for the 6 p.m. kickoff.
2017s Best SEC Tailgate…The Grove, Zebra Tent at Ole Miss
During the 2017 SEC football season, I tailgated on six SEC campuses, and all are unique and fun, with incredible fan bases, great food, and beautiful atmospheres. When summarizing the tailgates at the end of the ’17 season, I ranked Ole Miss as the best tailgate in the SEC. I believe it could easily rate as the best tailgate atmosphere in the nation, and other outsiders who have experienced The Grove agree. The season is young, and there are more places to go. However, The Grove and Ole Miss fans were at their peak on this particular Saturday.
Over the years several friends have told me about the infamous “Zebra Tent” that was started by Jane and Lantz Foster of Canton, MS. Lantz is an Ole Miss alum who married a Mississippi State University girl, before converting her to a Rebel fan. Some in Mississippi say that’s a rare feat. The Foster’s began tailgating in The Grove soon after they were married and joined forces with other friends and fans such as Erin Nobles, Suzanne Camp, Noel Webb, and Martin Mesecke, all playing important roles in making the Zebra Tent what it is today.
From a plug on a previous ESPN College Gameday broadcast to articles in national and regional publications and word-of-mouth from visiting fans, one could argue the Zebra Tent has become a branded imagine for Ole Miss tailgating. For starters, the tent’s unique design, which makes it stand out in a sea of blue and red rooftops, was hand-painted by Noel Webb. Each game has a different theme designed around a unique aspect of the game. A luau theme was chosen for this game since the starting quarterbacks for both teams are from Hawaii. Each week Jane and her crew also carefully plan the menu, even preparing a “kids table,” filled with delectable goodies and cookies from The Painted Cookie. The kicker is the champagne fountain which begins flowing early on game day, making The Zebra Tent one of the hottest brunch spots in the state for a few hours.
Southern Hospitality Rules In The Grove
In a region where manners are the norm, the Zebra Tent takes “Southern Hospitality” to another level. Fans, especially those from visiting teams, stroll past the tent and usually slow down to catch a glimpse of the design and of the magnificent spread of food that await guests each football weekend. And don’t think Jane doesn’t notice because she or one of their friends routinely invite onlookers into the tent to experience what tailgating in The Grove is all about; football, friends, and food!
I struck up a conversation with two Bama fans just outside of the Zebra Tent as they were admiring its layout and decorations. Southerner’s know too well how small a world it is because less than a minute into our conversation with Connor Norton and his dad, Keith, who works for the University of Alabama, I learned knows my cousin, Calvin Brown, who is the VP of Alumni Affairs at Alabama. Roll Tide y’all. And you certainly did Saturday night.
RELATED: Experiencing ‘The Grove’ at Ole Miss
One of the aspects that make The Grove so appealing and “fan friendly,” is the layout. Paved sidewalks are prevalent in both the main area and in what fans refer to as “the circle,” which is another area next to The Grove. However, to a new or visiting fan, it’s doubtful you will know or can tell the difference. Mark Hodge, who manages the local Crye-Leike Real Estate office is an Ole Miss alum and tailgates with his brother and several other families. He also knows first hand how Oxford’s quaint atmosphere, combined with the University and the fact the area is an artist and writers retreat, are a few of the reasons the region has experienced such rapid growth.
I asked Mark and his brother when Oxford property values began to rise and they both agreed it was when Eli Manning, now the quarterback of the New York Giants and former Ole Miss great, came to Oxford. Any Ole Miss or SEC fan knows Eli, along with his brothers Peyton and Cooper are the children of another legendary Ole Miss couple, Olivia and Archie Manning. If you are left wondering who the latter two are, well, I’ll let you research that info on your own. Just don’t ask an Ole Miss fan. They’ll think you’re kidding.
Like many of the SEC schools, the students at Ole Miss tailgate alongside their parents and fans, which makes the college tailgating experience come alive. While fraternities have already held their rush, sororities rush at Ole Miss doesn’t start for another week. Which brings me to the subject of “tailgate fashion.” Whenever I tell people that many Ole Miss fans “dress” for tailgates.
Fashionable SEC Tailgating
Jane, who not only is a marvelous tailgate hostess, is also an Instagram fashion influencer and agrees Rebel fans turn casual tailgate fashion up a few notches. Styles can vary, but suffice it to say, most of the ladies and co-ed’s spent a fair amount of time selecting their game day outfits. And when you hear someone say Ole Miss girls tailgate in pearls, they aren’t kidding. Speaking for southern men, they can take all the time they need because their beauty and grace add the finishing touches to a fantastic tailgate experience.
Richard Woodruff, a tennis buddy from Memphis was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta and has been tailgating with his parents, Debbie and Larry Woodruff most all of his life. Like other die-hard Rebel fans, the Woodruff’s keep a house in Oxford so they can make a weekend of tailgating in The Grove and enjoying the fantastic restaurants such as City Grocery, Boure, Ajax Diner and Snack Bar that are on or near Oxford’s historic and quaint town square. Enjoying cocktails on the roof of the Graduate Hotel, just two blocks off of the square is a must if you’re in town on Friday’s (or any other day) or when games are played earlier in the day.
Tailgate Like An Insider at Ole Miss
Ole Miss has five remaining home games, including SEC rivals Auburn and Mississippi State. If you have ever wanted to have the ultimate college football tailgate experience, then taking a trip to Oxford, MS and The Grove should rise to the top of your bucket list. Plus, you and your friends won’t have to feel like an outsider, because Tailgate Connect, a new concept that matches visiting fans with hometown tailgaters is your inside ticket to The Grove.
Next up, is the University of Tennessee as I travel to Knoxville to experience the “Vol Navy” as the Volunteers host the Florida Gators in a classic SEC East matchup.