Often when I’m in the middle of yet another rant about the awesomeness of everything related to Southern football, I’ll meander into the superiority of game day tailgating in the South. The casual observer (read: Yankee) will inevitably ask: what makes tailgating in the South so special?
Truthfully, it’s tough to say.
The food cooks no faster or better on southern grills and the beer gets no colder — in fact, it tends to warm up quite rapidly below the Mason-Dixon Line. Fans don’t cheer louder or clap their hands harder. Most of the parking lot games are not unique either.
Typically, the formula is the same as everywhere else: thousands of fans converge on a city for a football game, set up a station in a parking lot or field near the stadium, and proceed to eat, drink and make merriment for several hours on an autumn afternoon.
But any self-respecting Georgia Bulldog fan — one such as your humble author — will tell you that the suth’un tailgating experience is so much more than that.
In the southeastern U.S., or SEC country as we call it, college football is king. Sure, southerners like the pros, too, but Saturday football is what we live for. We know the morning after a good tailgate is going to be, umm, rough, so we prefer it not fall on a workday.
Southern tailgating is highlighted by the various and sundry traditions at the 12 (for now) schools in the Southeastern Conference, where game attendance is incredibly popular. The NCAA, which keeps stats on this kind of thing, states that average attendance at an SEC football game in 2010 was 76,719 — tops in the nation (of course).
But for the purposes of today’s lecture, we’ll focus on the experience at just one of these schools; the University of Georgia in Athens, where Sanford Stadium, aka Between the Hedges, packs an average of 92,000 crazed Dawg fans inside its friendly confines on Saturdays from September to November.
On a typical game day in Athens, the city’s population of about 115,000 nearly doubles, according to the University of Georgia’s Parking Services division. Assuming the majority of those people are on and around the university’s campus, you’re talking about 200,000 bodies crammed into a one-square mile area.
To look at it yet another way, on six Saturdays every fall, tailgaters and residents make Athens twice as dense as the densest city on earth (if you’re scoring at home, that’s Manila, Philippines, with 110K humans per square mile).
So we’re talking about a lot of cars, a lot of people and A LOT of food and booze. This also means a lot of garbage, but that’s a subject for another time.
The impact on Athens is obviously huge. Millions of dollars flow into the city on Saturdays, bolstering the local economy. Municipal laws even change for game days, or at least their enforcement does. There’s been a long-standing rumor that the city of Athens does away with its open container law on the day of UGA home games. It’s actually not true, but I’ve not seen a single ticket handed out for this offense in 20 years.
The UGA campus is a sprawling network of buildings, fields and parking lots running north to south among gently rolling hills. When the game day crowds arrive, it becomes a sea of red and black — the school colors — a buzz of radios and remotely connected TVs mixed in with the sound of talk, laughter and occasional barking, the UGA fan’s preferred greeting.
I challenge any spectator to spend a day tailgating in Athens and hear the “calling of the dawgs” chant — Gooooo Dawgs, Sic ‘em, woof woof woof — any fewer than eight thousand times.
While we’re on the subject of dogs, our school mascot, an English bulldog known simply as “Uga,” is a source of great pride among the Georgia faithful. He has his own air-conditioned doghouse at the stadium and is often led through throngs of adoring fans by an entourage and full security escort. To speak ill of Uga is sacrilege. I once witnessed an altercation break out during an otherwise friendly game of bean bag toss when a University of Tennessee fan questioned Uga’s toughness.
Of course, the revelry and game day spirit is well-aided by alcohol. Though this has at times been a problem in Athens (southerners like to fight), it’s also a colorful part of the tailgate experience.
Most of the drinks that aren’t beer are based with bourbon whiskey. Beam and Coke, Jack and diet, Makers and ginger — you see them a lot. You’ll also see a lot of bourbon and waters, bourbon and sodas and bourbon on the rocks. It’s been said that the very air around the stadium smells like bourbon on Saturdays.
The food is also special. Georgia-style barbecue is the standard. Pulled pork sandwiches with slaw are common. Chili becomes more popular toward the back half of the season when the temperature begins to dip. And there are regional specialties, too, such as Brunswick stew, a vinegar and tomato-based concoction that I’ve seen cooked with everything from goat to rabbit.
It’s also not uncommon for someone to serve up alligator tails, an open sign of disrespect for our hated rival, the Florida Gators.
Georgia tailgates are known for unique fan traditions, the most evident of which is an array of fashion trends flaunted around town on game days. Red pants and seersucker are ubiquitous. Straw Panama hats adorn the heads of many an elder gentlemen. In keeping with the theme of southern gentility, a large contingent of the student body still wear formal dress to games — that’s coat and ties for the guys and dresses of the gals. Nothing says Georgia football like a 20-something southern belle in an elegant red dress shouting “Sic ‘em” (or worse) at the top of her lungs.
Thousands of these red and black clad fanatics crowd the sidewalks on Lumpkin Street as the team arrives to the game aboard buses with police escorts. Later the players approach the stadium on foot while the Redcoat Marching Band plays the “Battle Hymn of the Bulldawg Nation.” This event has been dubbed the “dawg walk” and gives fans a chance to high five the players and wish them luck before the game.
As far as I’m aware, the NFL offers no opportunity for such close encounters.
Another beautiful moment is the ringing of the chapel bell on the school’s north campus. After a Georgia victory, fans and drunken students can be seen lining up to give the rope a tug. The sound is sweet, echoing across campus throughout the night, each time providing a satisfying reminder of another Bulldog triumph.
So when I’m asked what makes tailgating down south so special, this is what I think about. Quite simply, it’s a heck of a party. But I’m biased.
Joey Campbell is Director of International Editorial for Demand Media. He also writes and hawks Kentucky basketball paraphernalia at Big Blue Lowdown.