Forest of Dreams

The Grove at Ole Miss is to college football what Valhalla was to Norse warriors. There is no other place like it on earth.



“The Sound and the Fury”

Are … You … READY?”

Someone loudly calls out the question, from a dark corner in The Grove on the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford, and, ready or not, here comes the response from thousands of fans shouting in thunderous unison:

Hell yes!

Damn right!

Hotty toddy, gosh almighty

Who the hell are we? Hey!

Flim flam, bim bam

Ole Miss, by damn!

The chant’s cadence speeds up as it roars through the woods, like a running back hitting a hole in the defense and racing to score the winning touchdown. The unofficial fight song of the University of Mississippi can be heard most anytime a passel of Rebel fans are around. To hear “Hotty Toddy” as it should be heard, you’ll need to travel to Oxford, to The Grove, on a Saturday in the fall. There you will observe, in the midst of a stand of trees, in the center of a college campus, in the veritable heart of the South, “Hotty Toddy” in its natural setting.

“The Grove” is a synecdoche for the entire football game day experience at Ole Miss. It encompasses the mini-forest on campus actually called The Grove, but it also includes The Circle, a gorgeous green-laden roundabout adjacent to The Grove, a legion of parties, tents, and tailgaters stretching to all points of the campus, and the adjoining Rebel home-base of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The Grove is a noun, a verb, an adjective — possibly an adverb if you’ve had enough to drink. It routinely is named the best place to tailgate, anywhere.

I ventured into the wilds of The Grove this season, having never before been to Oxford on a game day. I came away appropriately awed, amused, and appreciative.

So: Are . . . You . . . Ready?

 

“Big Woods”

The Grove is a preternaturally beautiful spot of earth. And, though it may appear to the untrained eye to be a collection of roughly homogenous vegetation forming that vaulted canopy, there are, in fact, 38  species of trees composing The Grove and The Circle. The Grove began in the late 1800s, as Chancellor Robert Fulton planted trees and ornamental shrubs and a privet hedge around a section of campus.

Today, the trees present are: American Ash, American Elm, American Holly, Black Gum, Black Jack Oak, Black Oak, Black Walnut, Burr Oak, Chapman Oak, Eastern Red Bud, Flowering Dogwood, Gingko Biloba, Japanese Magnolia, Japanese Snowball, Leyland Cypress, Longleaf Pine, Northern Red Oak, Nuttall Oak, Pin Oak, Post Oak, Red Maple, Sand Hickory, Sawtooth Oak, Scarlet Oak, Shumard Oak, Southern Catalpa, Southern Magnolia, Southern Red Oak, Sugar Maple, Sweetgum, Sycamore, Umbrella Tree, Water Oak, Western Pine, White Ash, White Oak, Willow Oak, and Yellow Pine.

It’s a who’s who of American timber. The school takes its flora seriously: It has an official Ole Miss Tree Trail and boasts three Champion Trees.

Keeping it looking “au naturel” isn’t easy after the armies of fans visit on Saturdays. On Fridays, Landscape Services distributes 500 30-gallon trash cans and 200 cardboard boxes over the 11-acre Grove and Circle area, plus an additional 200 55-gallon barrels across campus. The school distributes garbage bags to each tailgater on game day, to help ensure that trash is disposed of correctly. Landscape Services estimates that 489 tons of waste was removed from The Grove during the 2012 season. The Texas game alone generated 87 tons, a weight heavier than an empty Space Shuttle.

 

“The Lay of the Land”

It’s a bizarre procedure, but how else do you propose getting so many tailgaters into The Grove in a method that wouldn’t mean mere anarchy loosed upon the world?

Sometime on the day before a game, “squatters” begin to appear in The Grove. Squatters are folks, usually students, paid to claim a space for a tent. Oxford businesses such as Grove Daddy Tent Co., run by Rob Koestler and John Jordan Proctor, hire squatters (shown right) for their customers, many of whom have been tailgating at the same patch of The Grove for years. Depending upon the size of the game, squatters will start appearing mid-to-late morning on Friday. They settle in for a long day of not leaving their spot.

Security guards keep all tents, tables, and chairs out of The Grove until 9 p.m. There’s usually an anxious waiting game until tailgaters or their emissaries can seize property. “Someone always tries to jump the gun at 8:57, and the cops tackle them and carry them off and everyone starts cheering,” Koestler says. At 9, they open the floodgates for prospective tailgaters to claim a patch of real estate for their tent. “Someone starts the ‘Hotty Toddy’ chant, and after that everybody starts screaming and running. The theory is, if everyone runs at the same time, there’s not enough cops to stop everybody.”

It’s a mad land grab, but there’s method to it. One might think that if there are squatters, what’s the rush to start setting up a tent there? But therein lies the rub: Squatters are not technically a legally binding instrument in The Grove. A squatter’s space is generally accepted, but sometimes  an interloper will ignore the gentleman's agreement and set up a tent in that spot anyway. “You still have to get there as quickly as you can,” Koestler says. Worst case: If you don’t get your preferred spot, you might have to move over a few yards.

Grove Daddy Tent Co. is one of a few student-owned businesses to go along with a couple large tailgating companies who will set up for customers on a single-game or season-long basis. Set-up doesn’t take too long for Koestler — he’s usually done preparing for his 40-50 customers by 12:30 a.m. — but breakdown after a game can last until 4 a.m. and even longer.

Grove Daddy Tent Co. charges about $200 per tent, more depending on what other services are tacked on to the basics. Do the math, and it’s a heck of a way to make some money while going to college. They employ about 16 people per game.

“I’m not sure if I’m working full-time and going to school part-time or the other way around,” Koestler says with a laugh.

 

“Homecoming”

Lee and Kim Gibson met as students at Ole Miss years ago. They got married, and the Mississippi natives moved to the big city in Memphis. They had two daughters, Elizabeth and Kimberly, who attended Hutchison. The Gibsons tailgated every season, and when it was finally time for Elizabeth and Kimberly in turn to choose a college, naturally they both picked the University of Mississippi.

Elizabeth is now a senior and Kimberly a freshman. Lee and Kim and several other parents of  Ole Miss kids devised an ingenious way to stay involved in their kids’ lives: join forces and host a tailgate tent in The Grove. So every Saturday the Gibsons and other Memphis grownups get to see their children and meet who they’re hanging out with or dating. It’s better than waiting to see if they’ll come home for the weekend. “We’ve been able to spend more time with them here than anywhere,” says Lee, a principal at Diversified Trust.

It may be a bit of a conspiracy on the part of the parents, but the kids don’t mind. “The parents put up the tent, so we’re grateful for it,” Elizabeth says. “It’s a place where you can feel at home.” It doesn’t hurt that the parents bring their kids’ favorite foods.

Drew Karban is another student whose parents, Larry and Renee, co-host with the Gibsons. “It becomes a family reunion,” Drew says.

Since The Grove magnetizes so many alum, game day also serves as a class reunion every Saturday. “I see old college friends I haven’t seen in years, all the time,” Lee Gibson says. Further, The Grove is a central meeting point for Mississippians from disparate corners of the state and the South. Often, tents are identified by what town its tailgaters are from. “You’ve got Nashville right there, and Jackson, Mississippi, right there, and there’s another Memphis tent right there,” Karban says, indicating those bordering his tent.

Kneeland “Neel” Gammill, who is also a principal at Diversified Trust, describes The Grove regionalism as a neighborhood, where everyone tries to get as close to their same spot as they can, week after week, season after season. “There are a lot of little towns from all over the place represented in The Grove,” he says. “It’s a legacy, and you try to return to the same patch of land.”

 

 

 

“(Some) Time to Kill”

Once you’re in The Grove, you’ve got to have something to do, and you won’t get much cellphone reception. In addition to cornhole or other games, for most people that means eating and drinking. Like any tailgating scene, The Grove features the standard fare: chips, dips, sandwiches, and barbecue. But if you don’t think The Grove hasn’t figured out how to take tailgating repast to the nth degree, you haven’t been paying attention.

This year, Chef Ryan Trimm of Sweet Grass, Next Door, and Southward Fare & Catering began catering for the tent Trimm co-hosts with friends, including the Gould family, who operate Gould’s Day Spa & Salon. Trimm roomed with Paul Gould at Ole Miss, and they have continued tailgating after graduation. He doesn’t get to every game, due to the nature of his job, “But I try to get to every game I can,” Trimm says.

Ryan Trimm’s menu for the Texas A&M game: Crawfish andouille remoulade, chicken salad, black bean hummus, pulled pork shank with a barbecue sauce made with coffee, biscuit crackers, pimento cheese and bacon, brownies.

Kim Gibson says many tents use caterers, but she and the other families she hosts with work a menu up by email in advance and take turns providing items. “Fried chicken is a standard pick-up item,” she says. They get it from one of several Oxford establishments that specialize in the Southern delicacy, such as Abner’s. There are also a couple gas stations that fry chicken on Saturday mornings in advance of the rush of tailgaters. Gammill specifies the Chevron Food Mart by the Oxford Square. “It’s like the BP place at Poplar and Ridgeway in Memphis that does the sushi,” he says.

Decorating your tent is vital as well. Many have clever names, kind of like naming a boat, and they’re appointed with comfy lawn chairs and tables to hold the spreads of food, naturally. There’s also all manner of décor, such as the tailgater who has a model of the Lyceum, red and blue everywhere, Colonel Reb, shark fins (“Fins up!” … it’s a long story), and on and on. It’s a nice backdrop for the elegant serving platters and dinnerware and the occasional chandelier. Red Solo cups do not clash with fine silver.

Here’s the surprising thing: Being part of a college campus, no beer or wine is allowed in The Grove. But liquor is. Chalk it up to Southern Bible Belt laws. But, it must be said, this doesn’t stop anyone from drinking beer, and lots of it. A few people said off the record that so long as you pour beer into a cup and don’t flaunt it in front of the authorities, they’re not going to bust you. No one seemed overly willing to challenge that, and I saw more than a few tailgaters who surreptitiously poured beer into a cup before quickly throwing the can away. Bourbon is the unofficial drink of The Grove.

Many tailgaters have figured out ways to watch football all day, too. Big-screen TVs adorn many tents, which are effectively just home living rooms transplanted to The Grove. There are more satellite dishes than trees in The Grove. It begs the question: Where does all this power and light to run them come from? Ole Miss does not provide electricity. One solution: TVs and other electronics are plugged into power converters  hooked up to car batteries. Each battery is good for 6 or so hours, so you might want to bring a couple. It’s an ingenious solution that, in a strange way, is a nod to the days when cars in The Grove were the source of all tailgating.

Don’t have a tent to go to? Don’t worry. According to Trimm, “The best thing you can do is get here and begin at the Student Union and start working your way through the tents and introduce yourself, meet people, stop and talk. You’re always bound to get some free food and free drinks out of it.”

 

“Men (with) Ties”

Why do so many students and alum dress so nice in The Grove, regardless of how hot it may be, and when did that tradition begin?

The theory I like goes that Americans used to always dress up wherever they went; they just never stopped doing that at Ole Miss.

However it happened, and regardless if things are getting more casual over time, a high percentage of the men and women in The Grove on game day are always dressed in stunning fashion. How do the men wearing coats and ties not boil?

How do the women in killer dresses and high high heels not melt?

The official colors of Ole Miss are Crimson (representing Harvard) and Navy Blue (representing Yale). A distant but solid third place for clothing color: Nantucket Red.

You don’t have to dress up to get into The Grove. But no one said there was a dress code in the first place, and it’s sure not keeping Ole Miss fans from being the best-looking crew anywhere.

 

“Intruder in the Dust”

Not everyone in The Grove on Saturday is a friendly. Because of its reputation, The Grove is a destination spot for fans of opponent schools. “We’re a favorite place for visitors to come see,” Gammill says. “People want to experience it first-hand. It’s different from what most people would define tailgating as.”

But just because the enemy is in their midst doesn’t mean Rebels don’t extend a courteous welcome. Taylor Williams, an Ole Miss student from Memphis, says, “When we’re playing Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M, whoever, it’s always fun to have friends from other schools here. They won’t be sitting with us at the game, but they’ll be in The Grove before and after the game, and win or lose we have a lot of fun. Visitors from Southeast Missouri and Texas A&M gawked and rubbernecked at The Grove bacchanal before their respective games in Oxford this season.

“It’s not a rivalry in the tent,” Williams continues. “It’s a rivalry at the football game, but other than that, everyone is here to have a good time.”

“Everybody is really friendly,” Trimm echoes. “It’s a laid-back environment.” He pauses, then adds, “Outside of playing LSU, we’re pretty friendly to everybody.”

The distaste for Louisiana State is near universal at Ole Miss. Not even rival Mississippi State garners as much hate from Rebels. “There’s so much family that has gone to Mississippi State, you end up having to deal with it,” Trimm says. “LSU, though: No one went there, no one wants them here, and they don’t want us down there, either.”

 

“The Worn Path”

About two hours before every game, buses stop on Grove Loop, and the Ole Miss football players, led by head coach (and former Memphian) Hugh Freeze (pictured here in the sunglasses), pile out. They walk under an arch emblazoned with “Walk of Champions” and into The Grove. Before them is a maelstrom of school spirit, and as they walk down the brick path, the red and blue sea parts ever so slightly to allow passage. Cheers erupt, cheerleaders stretch, and “Hotty Toddy” is sung. Camera phones go up. Little kids are held aloft on shoulders. Necks crane. It’s what everyone has waited for. The team is here.

 

“After All, It’s Only a Game”

Just prior to kickoff, a celebrity comes on the Jumbotron in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and leads the Rebel faithful in “Hotty Toddy.” “Are you ready?” ask the likes of Sandra Bullock, Betty White, James Franco, Jack Black, Tony Dungy, Steve Harvey, Vince Gill, the cast of Duck Dynasty, and former players.

Ole Miss fans have seen ups and downs over the decades. They claim three national championships and have seen outstanding football players such as Archie and Eli Manning, Frank “Bruiser” Kinard, Gene Hickerson, Patrick Willis, and Memphis’ Michael Oher.

On October 12th, Ole Miss hosted the reigning Heisman winner, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. He threw for 346 yards and ran for 124 more, picking up 2 touchdowns. He also orchestrated the game-winning drive, which culminated in a field goal as time expired. It felt like someone let the air out of Vaught-Hemingway, but the loss didn’t seem to leave as acid an aftertaste as you might think.

Ole Miss fans have a healthy approach to the game: It’s great to win, but it’s not everything. That’s easier to say when you have The Grove to fall back on. The common refrain in Oxford is some version of “we may not always win the game, but we always win the party.” And there’s always next week. (Case in point: Ole Miss’ stunning victory over LSU on October 19th.)

 

“North Toward Home”

Getting out of town and back to Memphis — or anywhere — is no joking matter. A few minutes delay in getting to your car after the game and to the highway before everyone else can mean hours waiting.

The Texas A&M game ended at 11:27 p.m., and I got to my car, right next to Vaught-Hemingway, at about 11:40 p.m. I know this because I pulled into a line of cars on Hill Drive and texted to my wife, “In car,” at 11:45 p.m. My next message to her was timed at 12:13 a.m.: “I’ve moved 30 feet since last text.”

I was in a no-exaggeration traffic lock. Everybody put their vehicles in park. Gibson had warned me earlier that getting out of Oxford can be a challenge depending upon the circumstances.

“If it’s a close game, leaving is going to be a zoo,” Gibson said. I cursed his accuracy.

I was on campus for so long that people were no longer streaming past my car — I had already seen the pedestrians leave the game and then even the Grove revelers who had time enough to break down their tents and tote out coolers and chairs. I felt high lonesome sitting there by myself, but then noticed: The coeds walking by were still dressed to the nines — unvanquished battleships of haute couture — but many had swapped their heels for sensible shoes or even bare feet. I felt a strange fascination, and for a moment I chased the idea that some magical veil was lifted and I was glimpsing a tenebrous coming of age both universal and inescapably Oxfordian. Then the traffic lurched to life and my reverie passed.

I finally got off campus around 1 a.m. My chosen route was to take Highway 6 west toward Batesville, then I-55 north to Memphis. Gammill advised that if you live west of Highland in Memphis, take this path, and if you live east of Highland, you should take Highway 7 to U.S. 78, and then your choice of north-south arteries into Shelby County, depending on how far east you live. I asked Memphians that day if there was a secret shortcut to and from Oxford. Everyone said there were only the two main ways, but the conspiracy theorist in me thinks they just don’t want the word to get out.

I pulled into my Memphis driveway around 2:30 a.m., exhausted, about 15 hours since I’d left home. My head hit the pillow, and moments before I dove into a dead sleep, two conflicting thoughts occurred to me: How does anybody do this every weekend? And also: When can I get back down there?  

 

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