Part Mardi Gras, part tailgate

BATON ROUGE, La. -- If you walked into an entrance to the exhibition hall of the Baton Rouge River Center on Wednesday, you'd have found everything you'd need to experience the Cajun football lifestyle, morning, noon and night.

There were Krispy Kreme donuts and the local favorite Community Coffee at two booths. There were bowls of jambalaya, beer served in plastic cups, burgers, hot dogs and soda. And they were all lined up, side-by-side.

And all of it was free.

That is, if you paid your $45 (unless if you bought ahead) to spend your day with 2,000 other LSU fans at the Bayou Bash, LSU's annual signing day party it claims is the biggest signing day event in college football.

It's hard to argue.

The Bash has begun bright and early every signing day for 18 years, and it ends after head coach Les Miles addresses the crowd around 5 p.m.

In between, fans can watch ESPNU's signing day coverage on a series of large screen TVs around the hall, cheer when a Tashawn Bower flips to the Tigers, jeer when a Robert Nkemdiche picks Ole Miss (which actually happened too early for Bayou Bashers this year) and eat, drink and be merry in between.

"It's actually like we're tailgating," said a Baton Rouge fan who said his name was Steven. He wore the purple-and-gold golf shirt and khaki pants that seemed to be favored by the crowd. He held a beer in one hand and a Styrofoam bowl of jambalaya in the other. "After the season's over, we don't get to tailgate, at least not for football, until September. We need something in between."

For the true LSU football fan, the Bash is it. Mixing the state's love for tailgating and a party -- it's right in the middle of the Mardi Gras season, just a few days after downtown parades passed right in front of the River Center -- with its insatiable appetite for all things LSU football, it's something worth playing hooky from work for on a Wednesday.

Outside the exhibition hall, a handful of radio stations did live broadcasts, a mini-replica of the famous "radio row" at SEC media days. Another did its show from inside the hall, a constant crowd gathered around to listen.

Other fans gathered around the TVs, where ESPNU's all-day coverage was mixed with LSU highlight videos.

"My only complaint," one Tiger fan said, with a laugh, "was paying for an LSU event and looking up to see Gene Chizik and Derek Dooley (ex-coaches of two of LSU's SEC rivals who worked signing on for ESPNU) on TV."

Not to worry, there were plenty of LSU-centric moments to be found, from national television interviews of Les Miles and assistant coach Frank Wilson at LSU's football facility about five minutes south of the River Center, to everything that surrounded the room.

There were silent auctions for memorabilia, posters of famous game covers provided by the Baton Rouge Advocate, college football video games set to pit LSU against SEC rivals (the game's maker, EA Sports, has its North American test center on LSU's south campus) and, of course, food and drink.

Lots of food and drink.

As the beer flowed and the crowd got more, um, enthused by the day's happening, the buildup grew for Miles' arrival shortly after 5 p.m., which in early February meant he got there just before the sun started to go down.

In that way, he was like his team, which takes the field at Tiger Stadium for its traditional evening kickoffs just before the sun goes down.

Miles arrived at the River Center to find himself in front of a crowd that, like at Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night, had been gathered all day, had consumed a generous portion of burgers and beer and was ready for the main event right at dusk.

In September, the team provides the headline act. At the Bayou Bash, it's Miles, who played up to the fervor to the crowd just like his team in September.

Sometimes Miles can play to that enthusiasm, like in 2012, when he gave his infamous "chest" observation on Gunner Kiel.

This year, there was nothing quite so controversial. He broke down the players in the signing class one by one and told LSU's fans the players the Tigers landed that day were "just what we needed."

And with that, the bash ended for another year, having provided LSU's fans, starved for a football experience during the offseason, just what it needed.