Stepping onto the Oxford, Miss., campus on game day is like stepping back into the glory days of college football — where the football team always won and the party would never end. Every Saturday, “The Grove” at Ole Miss transforms into one of the most famous college tailgating spots in history.
The Grove is quite literally a grove of trees. It is a 10-acre field in the middle of campus littered with oak, magnolia, and elm trees. A sidewalk winds through the middle of the field bearing the name “Walk of Champions” on a stone archway at its head. And instead of the traditional game day t-shirts and jeans, fans dress to the nines in crisp Oxford t-shirts, khaki slacks, dresses, and pearls.
Austin fans making the trek to Oxford for this weekend’s football game will get to experience what many call the “holy grail of tailgating,” an experience unlike any on the Forty Acres.
“Just be ready for what they call the best tailgating in the nation,” said current Ole Miss student Calvin Jarboe.
The game has been anticipated in Oxford since it was scheduled over a year ago and the turnout at The Grove is expected to bigger and more exuberant than ever before. This will be the first time the Burnt Orange and White will travel to Oxford. Two old and traditional football programs meeting for the first time at Ole Miss is expected to double the size of the 40,000-strong Mississippi town.
The legendary history of The Grove is so storied that the Texas coaches have been preparing their team for the atmosphere that they should expect when they touch down in Oxford.
“We’re going into SEC country, so it’s going to be a hostile environment,” said Texas senior Kenny Vaccaro. “[Strength and conditioning head coach for football] Bennie [Wylie’s] been talking all week about how crazy it gets down at Ole Miss. So we’re ready for it.”
Jarboe, originally from San Antonio, has experienced both tailgating scenes and insists that the Texas tailgating experience pales in comparison to that at Ole Miss. To many, The Grove is even bigger than the actual game itself.
“On Saturday, The Grove is the main event,” Jarboe said.
While Texas fans arrive to the stadium several hours prior to kickoff every Saturday, Rebel fans truly live up to the first part of Texas head coach Mack Brown’s mantra of “Come Early, Be Loud, and Stay Late.”
Students and alumni camp out all day Friday so that they can get prime tailgating locations — the most coveted spots being near or along the famed “Walk of Champions.” Even out-of-town alumni and fans find the time to come and camp out before every home game. Occasionally, daring visiting team fans will venture into The Grove to tailgate before the game.
The annual Grove Bowl, the pre-season blue and red scrimmage, even gets attention from tailgaters. This year over 23,000 people attended the Grove Bowl and showed up to party before hand — a school record.
At 9 p.m. sharp on Friday night, the individuals who have been sitting on The Grove all day are finally relieved as thousands of people stream from all directions to begin setting up tents, televisions, barbecue pits and other tailgating staples.
They call it “Rushing the Grove,” and it transforms the campus into a tent city. The campus authorities mean business when it comes to tailgating. Although they allow students and alumni to sit all day on The Grove to reserve spots, anyone caught with tailgating equipment on campus before 9pm face the confiscation of their belongings and possible arrest.
On normal game days in the past, over 25,000 people gather at The Grove the night before, a number that is expected to double when Texas comes to town for one of the most anticipated games in Oxford in recent history.
About two hours before kickoff, the “Walk of the Champions” takes place. Much like the recently established “Stadium Stampede” on the Forty Acres, the Ole Miss Rebel football team walks down the “Walk of Champions” through the middle of The Grove and receives good luck and well wishes from their fans.
Like any normal tailgate, fans cook large quantities of food, drink large volumes of beer, and watch many
minutes of football. The party lasts from the moment of the “Rushing of The Grove” until the final second of the game, and sometimes even later.
The level of reverence for a tailgating ritual is impressive, especially when the team has not had much success in recent years, winning their last SEC Championship in 1963 and last National Championship in 1962. You would not know that the football team has been experiencing several years of bad luck — the campus of Oxford parties the same as it always has.
“We might not win every game, but we never lose a party — that is widely accepted in these parts,” Jarboe said.