At Ole Miss, the Tailgaters Never Lose
HELEN CRAIG, or Mrs. C. York Craig Jr., as she is more formally known, leveled a well-seasoned eye at me as the bluegrass band set up in the background. L. Rodney Chamblee, one of her 60 tailgating tent mates of friends and family, slipped a large bloody mary into my hand. Mrs. Craig stood under a tall blue tent rapidly filling with people and food, and underscored the eye with a smile that held the history of the South, and its hospitality, wide and deep, behind it.
We may not win every game, she said. But weve never lost a party.
On the great American calendar of revelry and seasonal rites, fall equals football. And pigskin equals parties: tailgating parties, in particular.
At the University of Mississippi in Oxford last Saturday, the Ole Miss Rebels, Mrs. Craigs team, lost 27-3 to Wake Forest. But the party, a 24-hour gale-force blowout held in the Grove, 10 acres of thick oak, elm and magnolia, was a victory.
The glory of the Grove is legend at all of Ole Misss rival schools in the Southeastern Conference and beyond. It is the mother and mistress of outdoor ritual mayhem.
As Charles R. Frederick Jr., a folklorist at the University of Indiana, characterized it in his dissertation on the Ole Miss tailgating event, the call to come on out Saturday and look us up in the Grove is as basic, and born to a spot, as a human bond can get. And it is as deep as the root of a tree.
It is also as fresh and green as a leaf.
I love it, Molly Aiken, 19, a sophomore at Ole Miss, said on Saturday under a tent, under the trees, a party roar rising and dissipating into the whisper of a warm, humid wind above. Theres no place like it.
Ms. Aiken, who is from Chattanooga, Tenn., said of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, I went to U.T. this past weekend, for the U.T.-Florida game, and I was, like, this just doesnt compare.
Ole Misss stadium accommodates 60,580 people, and devotees of the Grove argue that the Grove accommodates more. It is every kind of party you can describe, at once: cocktail party, dinner party, tailgate picnic party, fraternity and sorority rush, family reunion, political handgrab, gala and networking party-hearty what might have inspired Willie Morris, one of Mississippis favorite sons, to declare Mississippi not a state, but a club.
On Saturday, David G. Sansing, a professor emeritus at Ole Miss who has written a history of the university, stood at the top of the Grove, watching the party .
Your college days are the fondest years of your life, and those memories of those years grow rosier as time recedes, he said. When these alumni come back and walk through that grove, theyre not just walking over land ground theyre walking back through time.
That time has changed going forward. Ole Miss was not integrated until 1962. And though there were few black families partying in the Grove on Saturday, black players dominate the Rebels football team.
The hand-slapping between the partyers and the players as they took the Rebel walk through the Grove to the stadium was hard and full of heart. A police motorcycle escort preceded them.
THERE are seven home-game weekends at Ole Miss. And people in the Grove have how to have a good time down cold they can stretch the party over three days, from Friday night into Sunday morning. It is pimento cheese sandwiches and silver trays, candelabra and fried chicken tenders, button-down shirts, rep ties and khaki shorts, pearls, expensive sunglasses and flip-flops in your purse for when your high heels become history.
As Ms. Aiken explained, you show up in a new dress for each weekend, and you wear your hair curly if its going to rain. Rain, like the thunderstorm that cracked the sky open late on Saturday, only throws fuel on the fire. When a bolt of lightning touched down at the edge of the Grove, blasting the trees with thunder, the crowd went crazy with approval.
The party is technically a picnic. Originally an informal tailgating get-together when most serious pregame socializing took place at Ole Misss fraternity and sorority houses, by the 50s the Grove started to become its own pregame tradition.
Cars have been kept out since a rainstorm in 1990 that reduced the Grove to a rutted swamp, and tents replaced them. With the tents began a dance of real estate that kicked off the rules and regulations, and like a ball in play, the interpretations of them, that characterizes the party in the Grove today.
The Grove Society, an alumni organization, posts a strict schedule for the event, which dictates that set-up will start at Friday midnight.
Last Friday, at 11 p.m., the 15 university police officers assigned to orchestrate the arrival of people, pickups and vans unloading equipment at the road next to the Grove watched a gang of 60 picnickers, restless for territory and armed with tent poles and folding tables and chairs, sprint into the dark woods and disappear like a band of merry men into Sherwood Forest. White tents popped up like mushrooms, and the party was on.
Weve tried arresting the first two or three, and they still come out, said Officer Adam Peacock, standing beside his patrol car, its blue light bubble revealing more and more tents with each sweep. They start yelling at each other, and then they just rush. I mean, we could arrest all of them, but thats not very right.
A woman in a black cocktail dress with a diamond buckle, Sheila Cowart, class of 83, approached the car to ask advice on beating the rush.
I know yall say midnight, but if you really try to go by the rules, you got 200 that are in front of you, and youre kind of out of luck, Ms. Cowart said to Officer Peacock, shifting from heel to heel.
By midnight, most of the ground in the Grove was staked out by tents, circles of folding chairs and public squares of banquet tables. Christmas lights and camp lanterns were going up, satellite dishes pointed toward the stars, and a boom box broke the stillness with thick, lazy Southern rock and roll.
A boy in white shorts and a polo shirt stepped out onto the Walk of Champions, the brick path where the Rebels would make their ceremonial march through the Grove on their way to the stadium the next day.
Are you READY?! he called to the trees, prompting the Ole Miss cheer.
HELLLLL YES! DAAAAMN RIGHT! the trees yelled back. Hotty Toddy gosh almighty who in the hell are we? Flim flam bim bam, OLE MISS by damn! WUUUUUUUUUUUUU!
The Grove was now a tent city displaying the names of families, Mississippi towns and other states. Good Times Here Are Not Forgotten, read one tent.
Sometimes people encroach on your space, and you got to kind of help them get in their correct spot, if you know what I mean, said Johnnie Wade, class of 80, on Saturday at 10 a.m., with a grin as friendly as a fried egg. Bunch of rookies. Theres a certain place you want to be so everybodyll know where it is every year.
Mr. Wades daughter cooked breakfast in their tent, beneath what he called our redneck chandelier an Ole Miss umbrella hung upside down and wired with lights.
Many who attend the weekends, like Mr. Wade, hire students or local people to set up the tent, stake out their spots and store the setups between games.
The Walk of Champions is where the prime real estate is, said Chip Trammell, a senior at Ole Miss, whose business, the Rebel Tent Company, typically makes $25,000 a game, charging $150 a tent. We dont guarantee it, but you will be within a 10-yard radius.
He worked from 3 p.m. Friday to 3 a.m. Saturday to secure 40 tents for 30 clients.
By Saturday afternoon, people spilled everywhere, smoking, eating, talking, drinking. Red plastic cups bobbed in a sea of chest-high hands, cigarettes tucked between two fingers.
Whiskey Sprite, said Fred Vann, a sophomore and a Phi Delt, of his cup. Most of us get the Jim Beam plastic-bottle fifth.
He produced one, as did two of the four friends he was standing with. If you drop it, it doesnt break, he said.
Susan Ashley Richburg, a sophomore standing with a group of sorority friends, when asked what was in her cup, said, Water you want some? The women exploded shouting.
Im 20 and Ill be 21 in September, Ms. Richburg said. WuuHUUU.
It is likely that Ms. Richburg will mark many events in her life under the same trees. The Grove is a grove of generations of Mississippi families who went to Ole Miss and who send their children there. Alumni and students, fathers and sons, old friends and new acquaintances, seemed inseparable last Saturday, as if they had walked out of the halls ringing the Grove and were meeting between classes, not between decades.
THE confluence of a peaceful setting and the presence of the right people is not ignored.
It is a tremendous network, that works, said Doug Hederman, class of 93, whose family not only owns a commercial printing company but also dominated newspaper publishing in the state for over 50 years.
What youll find here on a regular basis is presidents, C.E.O.s of Fortune 500 companies, Mr. Hederman said. Its a great opportunity to meet somebody youre not doing business with.
Plus you start thinking of the political influence here. Homecoming of last year, Senators Lott and Cochran were both here, and Governor Barbour. Its pretty powerful.
It is the site of powerful history, too. When Ole Miss was integrated at gunpoint in 1962 by federal troops, the rioting, during which two people died, took its last stand in the Grove before leaving the campus for Oxfords square. James Meredith, the African-American student whose admission precipitated the fighting, graduated in the Grove.
On Sunday, a monument to the chapter of history opened by Mr. Merediths admission, with a bronze figure of him striding toward a small stone temple, will be dedicated. It is placed behind the Lyceum, the schools oldest building, where bullet holes still mark the struggle in broken brick. A restoration in 2001 left them carefully in place.
Professor Sansing, the historian, called the day being commemorated the last echo of the last battle of the Civil War.
Down the hill from where he stood, the streets crowded as Ole Misss team made its march through the Grove.
Five hours later, the Rebels were defeated by Wake Forest in a blinding rain that pushed a 5 p.m. kickoff back to 7 p.m.
But the party in the Grove held its ground until midnight.