With my son as guide, on Saturday I ventured to ground zero of tailgating at UGA — otherwise known as the university’s original quadrangles on North Campus.
I thought I knew UGA tailgating, since I was familiar with the red and black tent set-ups in front of campus buildings like Myers Hall along Lumpkin Street, where you see a mostly family crowd and there’s still room for tossing a football or playing those beanbag games.
North Campus tailgating is on an entirely different level to that. My son warned me as we were about to enter the northernmost quad that it would be difficult to get around. “You have to be patient,” he said.
And how. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that many Georgia fans packed into a contained area that wasn’t Sanford Stadium. It took us quite a while to even find the tailgate party we were looking for, overseen by Al Skelton, my nephew by marriage who I had not seen in a number of years.
Since I’ve been parking off Lumpkin Street south of campus for the past dozen years or so, it had been a long time since I’d been on the quads on a game day. It was quite a contrast from the years when my wife and I used to stroll through the shade-covered greenspace on our way to the stadium for a game.
Back then, you occasionally saw someone picnicking on the grass, or more likely a student not interested in football studying under one of the stately oaks. But nobody bothered to tailgate there, probably because that would mean hauling the tent, grill, tables, food and so on from wherever you parked. Why do that when you could set up right next to your car, which quite often was pulled up on a sidewalk on one of the campus streets?
TAILGATE SCENE CHANGES
But as UGA banned most sidewalk parking and built new buildings on some of the prime real estate where folks used to gather before a game, tailgaters began looking for new places to set up, and North Campus beckoned. The set-up is, indeed, a hassle (especially since UGA doesn’t allow tailgaters to start before 7 a.m. on Saturday) and the breakdown is even more difficult, complicated by the postgame traffic jam downtown. But if you want to tailgate on campus, you don’t have a lot of choices these days.
Actually, the North Campus tailgating scene has exploded in recent years. Al told me that when he started setting up near the Chapel on the quad closest to the Arch about five years ago, there were half as many people tailgating on North Campus, and you could show up around noon and still find space. It was mostly alums back then, too.
Then UGA students got the tailgate bug in a big way. Back in my day, students didn’t tailgate. Fraternity and sorority members dined (and drank) at their chapter house before heading to the stadium and other students, well, didn’t tailgate. That was something our parents’ generation did.
That gradually started changing, and by the time my son started at UGA in 2003, student tailgating was fairly common. But about three years ago, Al said, the students descended en masse on North Campus in a tailgating frenzy. Al thinks it was inspired by seeing ESPN pregame shots of tailgating in places like the Grove at Ole Miss. “They saw that on TV and thought, ‘We should be doing that,’” Al said.
Last year was particularly wild, he said, because of Georgia opening the season ranked No. 1. If you didn’t show up by 8 or 8:30 a.m., you didn’t get a spot, he said. This year, it’s not quite a bad, though pretty much all the tailgating space was gone well before lunchtime.
Al’s tent was surrounded by scores of similar tents, most with grills going, tables spread with food and drink, ice chests everywhere and quite a few satellite dishes and big-screen TVs. But there was still room to move around, barely.
The quad in front of the UGA Library, a few hundred feet closer to the stadium, was another matter altogether. There, folks were crammed in with hardly any breathing space. The pathways, onto which some tailgates had spilled over, were literally shoulder to shoulder. The only opens space was the roped-off alcohol-free “family friendly” area, which was empty except for a handful of kids tossing a Frisbee and playing touch football.
TRIBUTE TO THE LITTLE ROUND MAN
Al’s tailgate spread certainly wasn’t the most elaborate I’ve seen — think candelabra-decorated tables at Chastain Park and you’ll know the extremes some fans go to. But Al doesn’t just settle for burgers or sandwiches, either. For lunch he’d served sesame pepper hot wings. In the afternoon he was dishing up hot peanuts freshly scooped from his on-site boiler and his version of a Pimm’s cup. Later, they planned on having cold fried chicken.
And one unique feature to his tailgate is the framed picture of legendary UGA football coach Wally Butts that sits on one of the tables. That’s Al’s way of connecting Mercer University in Macon, where he got his undergrad degree and met friends he still tailgates with, and UGA, where he got his MBA. Butts also was a Mercer graduate.
One time a couple of years ago a man who bore some resemblance to the picture came up and asked about it. Al told him that it was Wally Butts. “I know,” the man said, “he was my grandfather.”
IT’S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT THE GAME
When I was a kid, tailgating was mainly a way to enjoy a meal outside the stadium before going into the game. Nowadays, for a lot of tailgaters, the game isn’t even part of the routine.
Al said Saturday he didn’t plan on going into the game against South Carolina. “It’s just too much trouble to break all this stuff down and pack it up in time,” he said. Some folks simply lower their tents and leave them until after the game, but if you can do that you’re likely to find stuff missing when you return. “Especially any beer and liquor,” Al said.
Instead, my nephew and his party, including his fiancée, Betsy Woodruff, planned to watch the first half of the game on one of the big-screen TVs nearby and then pack up at halftime and watch the remainder of the game in a downtown bar.
Waiting until after the game to pack up is a problem, Al said. At one game last year the downtown traffic was so bad that the closest he could get his truck to North Campus was several blocks away and he had to haul all his stuff all in stages while Betsy watched over the rest of it on the sidewalk. “He wasn’t very happy,” Betsy noted.
Why go to all that trouble if you can’t even make it to the game? Part of the appeal is the easy camaraderie between tailgaters who don’t even know each other. Some students from Milledgeville dropped by at one point Saturday afternoon, saying, “Hey Al, come play beer pong with us!” I ended up chatting with them for a few minutes and asked how they knew my nephew. “Oh, we don’t,” one said. “We just met him this morning.”
And then there’s the chance to get together in a convivial atmosphere and catch up with old college pals, friends and even extended family.
Who knows, your cousin might even drop by and bring the uncle you haven’t seen for several years!