College football tailgaters enjoy the coming together -- and decorating big
Tailgate parties aren't all burgers and Solo cups: They reflect sensibilities of school alumni
Tailgating decor includes chandeliers, custom-made flags and table linens
At any given Ole Miss home game, longtime tailgater Keith Henley lays out pewter serving trays and chafing dishes. Under the cover of two 10-by-20-foot tents in the wooded center of his alma mater’s campus, known as The Grove, Henley busies himself with the service. At the same time, his brother and stepbrother fill it with exquisite dishes of wild boar loin or grilled elk wrapped in bacon with cream cheese.
They bring along a generator so the flat-screen television and lamps work. The tables are covered in cloths embroidered with “Hotty Toddy” and finished off with elaborate centerpieces full of flowers – sometimes augmented by Jack Daniels bottles glued to wooden dowels. They’ll taste bourbon balls from their tailgating neighbors, with whom they’ve long exchanged Christmas cards.
Rivalries are top of mind for college football fans around the country. While athletes work hard to prepare for their final games of the season, some of their fans are just as focused on preparations for the big tailgate. For them, the communing crowd of friends and family is just as important as watching the game.
“It’s like a huge family reunion,” Henley said of Ole Miss’ tailgating scene. “When I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, family reunions were really special. On Easter, everyone dressed up and had fun. It was a special time of the year. I think tailgating in The Grove is like that; it’s a special time of year.”
And when Henley says dress up, he means it. Sharp suits and cocktail dresses are how students regularly dress for home games, he said.
Fellow Ole Miss tailgater Paula Jones likens home games to a wedding, and like any reception, the tents in The Grove are decorated to the hilt.
“There was one tent that had this huge topiary Rebel that was all in flowers, it looked like a New Year’s Day parade float,” she said. “It was just huge, it was beyond. It was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen.
“But there’s a lot of that,” she said. “The tent behind us hangs a silver chandelier (in their tent) and every game they hang a memento on it. So they just have years and years of ornaments on it. You can barely see the chandelier anymore. It’s almost like a Christmas tree.”
Visit any major college parking lot on a fall weekend and you’re likely to witness a broad range of tailgating, from recent grads carrying Styrofoam coolers to successful alums rolling up in tricked out RVs with personal chefs in tow. As they continue to celebrate, year after year, tailgaters say they develop a decorating style that reflects the family and friends they visit on their beloved college campus.
Once a year, Notre Dame alum and tailgater Marc Wolnitzek hosts a tailgate party so large it is affectionately named “Uber.” It’s ground zero for close to 150 partygoers. For the past 10 years, Wolnitzek has reserved the same area of the Notre Dame Stadium parking lot for the festivities. He arrives early on game day and erects a flag emblazoned with a shamrock and a leprechaun that says “The Admiral,” so it’s easy for friends to find him.
“One of my nicknames from school was The Admiral,” Wolnitzek explained. He credits his mother for teaching him to tailgate in style; she made the tailgate flag he flies now.
“My dad went to Notre Dame. My mom did not, but she embraced it whole-heartedly,” he said. “She spends a lot of time on various decorations.”
Over the years he’s added a collection of Notre Dame blue and gold accoutrements and handmade serviceware to festoon the tables and bar that ground his tailgate. It’s a detail he knows other Notre Dame tailgaters will appreciate: Regular tailgaters often take inspiration from each other, he said.
Since Wolnitzek sets up and runs his tailgate entirely by himself, he invests a lot of thought in his guests’ comfort as well as decor. “I want everyone to have a good time and for everything to be top-notch,” he said – even for visitors from the opposing team.
When Georgia Tech alum Jessica Keesee traveled to South Bend, Indiana, in 2007, she experienced the Fighting Irish hospitality firsthand. As Keesee and her husband carried their Yellow Jackets tailgating gear to the opposing school’s parking lot, they were greeted with warm cries of, “Welcome to Notre Dame!”
“They’re so nice,” she said, “to the point that I thought it was code for something else. I’m not used to opposing fans being that nice and polite.”
Heckling and rivalries aside, there are rules to follow for college football tailgaters. For example, at Ole Miss, smoking is banned and coolers full of alcohol must be locked. Grills are banned, so most tailgaters bring prepared food to The Grove.
The tailgating experience at Georgia Tech’s Atlanta campus is more upscale outdoor luncheon than gigantic parking lot party, Keesee said. Pennants, a tent, Georgia Tech logo camping chairs, a grill, tables covered with tablecloths and a classy spread of food are the staples of Keesee’s tailgate.
“We don’t want it to be us eating off paper plates, standing by the grill shoveling food in your mouth,” she said.
They use a little more imagination. Keesee and her tailgating companions display framed, themed menus, usually based on the opposing team. For the recent Georgia Tech vs. Alabama A&M game, they went with a space theme that included treats like astronaut ice cream, a riff on Alabama A&M’s home in Huntsville.
Keesee said she’ll sip cocktails beneath her tent, and remember that the tailgating experience is defined by the alumni as much as the students.
“You know that the people you’re around are your peers, not just as a Tech fan but in your career and your life. I expect a higher standard from Tech grads,” she said.
But she couldn’t hold back a dig at her school’s rival, the University of Georgia.
“I would expect a trashy tailgate at a UGA game,” she said, “which is probably very stereotypical of me.”
What’s your school’s tailgating style? Share your stories in the comments section below.