Vandy's dandy, devoted tailgaters
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Fans of the SEC, which has won five consecutive BCS championships, often argue they have the best football conference in the nation. They also like to claim the best tailgates, pointing to the LSU and Auburn crowds that camp out days before a game or the Florida faithful who cover their cars, trucks, trailers and children in layers of orange and blue. Vanderbilt University? Probably not the first school that comes to mind.
New football coach James Franklin hopes to change that. When he arrived on the Vanderbilt campus last December, Franklin brought not only hope for a new era of football (his 2012 recruiting class is ranked 23rd nationally), but major innovations to the tailgating scene. And despite university-introduced sanctions this past spring that altered tailgating for undergraduates, Vandyville (the Vanderbilt tailgating area's nomenclature) is alive and well.
I arrived in Nashville on a beautiful, blue-sky October Saturday for the Commodores' homecoming game against Army. With kickoff set for 6 p.m. CT, I walked toward the tailgating scene around 2 p.m. Vandyville officially starts at 3 p.m., but I spotted close to 150 fans who had already gathered, opening car trunks and laying out their tailgating spreads.
Before I reached Vanderbilt Stadium, which marks the beginning (or end, depending on which direction you come from) of Vandyville, I spotted several scalpers standing in front of a nearby Wendy's, selling game tickets. I overheard one asking two women where their tailgate was located. Apparently even scalpers appreciate a good tailgate once their "work" is done.
After passing the stadium on my left, I walked onto Natchez Trace and entered Vandyville, whose beginnings can be traced back to 10 tents in 2005.
Several of Vandy's pregame traditions, such as the Star Walk, began even earlier, in 2002. During the Star Walk, held an hour and 15 minutes before game time, the players walk across Jess Neely Drive and into the locker room -- a brief walk that's not very close to the tailgating. So this year, Franklin added the "Commodore Alley" march, down a quarter-mile stretch of Natchez Trace that leads directly to the stadium and passes through the main artery of Vandyville. The team, coaching staff, band and flag team walk the "starred" path 2 hours and 15 minutes before game time.
As the players marched that homecoming Saturday, the fans' cheers were enthusiastic; some players nodded, waved and offered high-fives while others looked straight ahead, iPod headphones on. Several fans wanted to shake Franklin's hand and/or offer him a high-five. Because it was homecoming, a small parade followed the Commodore Alley march. (You can watch footage of that afternoon's 'Dore Alley walk here.)
All along 'Dore Alley are the Vanderbilt-sponsored tailgating tents, which are rented out for $600 per season (a serving table is another $100) to either season-ticket holders and/or members of the National Commodore Club. Allison Bradley, Vanderbilt athletics assistant director of sales and marketing, reported that 50 Vandyville tents had been rented out this season, the largest number to date. Renters are guaranteed a prime tailgating spot along with two parking passes and can name their tailgate with signage provided by Vanderbilt (names included the "Gas Passers" and "People Who Just Really Like to Tailgate").
One such tailgater, 54-year-old Gary Brown has been attending Vanderbilt football and basketball games for more than 30 years. His tailgate boasts upward of 40 members and, earlier this season, won a local award as the tailgate of the week. For this Saturday's menu, Brown's crew prepared three kinds of chili (all were delicious -- they asked me to be a taste tester.) They had a large spread, including specially ordered Vanderbilt candies and embroidered black tablecloths. When asked what makes a good Vanderbilt tailgate, their answer was fairly universal: "Good food, good friends and cold beer."
Perhaps the most noticeable tailgate was that of 47-year-old Matthew Lascara, who parked inside a lot at the opposite end of the stadium down 'Dore Alley. His tailgate vehicle of choice? A fire engine. Lascara bought the engine four years ago in a government auction out of Georgia because, he says, he was tired of locking up his belongings before the game and wanted an easy way to clean up and head inside. What's simpler than buying a fire engine?
He's outfitted the entire engine to be the ultimate tailgate machine: a 32-inch satellite TV sits under one of the doors, and he uses the various cubby holes to store napkins, plates, condiments and snacks. He counts 50 friends as his "core group" of tailgaters but says the number can grow depending on the game. The engine is still equipped and ready to put out fires, although, Lascara said, laughing, "It's not for hire -- don't call me to put out a fire." He also drives the engine to his children's school parades and various events in his hometown of Goodlettsville, Tenn.
Mark Donnell, a 28-year-old Nashville resident and a "Double-Dore" (the nickname for those who earn their undergraduate and graduate degrees from Vanderbilt) said he'd already seen an improvement in tailgates this season compared with recent years. Donnell and his group hadn't rented one of the Vandyville tents; instead, they secured a parking spot on the top of a small hill directly adjacent to 'Dore Alley and set up their tent over several spaces. When asked about Vanderbilt tailgating essentials, his crew listed Jack Daniel's, hot chicken and lots of grilled meats. Music, too, though not necessarily the country tunes stereotyped as the favorite of Nashville residents.
Donnell grew up an Auburn fan and acknowledges that Commodores followers aren't quite as die-hard. "We might have less people, but we have a lot more concentrated space," Donnell said, referring to the close quarters kept by the tailgaters.
Indeed, revelers often chat with their tailgating neighbors, and share beers, snacks and brats. Southern hospitality reigned; at every stop, I was offered food (steaks, burgers, guacamole, tortilla chips and cupcakes) and drinks (high-quality beers, low-quality beers, Bloody Marys, Jack Daniel's, sodas and water).
A large high-definition screen provided by Vanderbilt stands toward the end of 'Dore Alley, broadcasting football games from across the country. The screen is a popular draw -- throughout the afternoon, close to 100 fans sat on the ground or in chairs nearby. Several tailgaters situated farther away brought their own HDTVs or DirecTV satellite dishes.
Several spots farther into the parking lots were claimed by Vanderbilt's graduate schools. The business school and law school each had around 75 to 100 attendees at their respective tailgates, with Top 40 music blasting and several stations of competitive cornhole taking place. Those tailgates appeared to have less food, more beer.
One noticeable absence was undergraduates, who aren't allowed to tailgate inside Vandyville. Their pregame revelry takes place mostly at fraternity houses on Greek Row (indeed, when parking my car inside Kensington Garage adjacent to the stadium, the music from the nearby SAE house was so loud that I could hear the party long before I saw it). About 200 people were gathered on the SAE lawn 3½ hours before game time. The apparent uniform for Vanderbilt women is cowboy boots and sundresses (despite the cool evening temperatures at kickoff). Some men opted for the bowtie and khakis look; others were more casual in T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops.
Last spring, the university mandated that students' pregame revelry be shut down 30 minutes prior to kickoff to improve game attendance. Students complained vehemently -- as one wrote in an Inside Vandy editorial: "During our brief stint in the national rankings, student attendance exploded. Exciting, competitive games breed fan interest, not the opposite."
Or, as another student wrote in his August op-ed piece on Tailgate-gate, "But shutting down tailgates is not the way to generate the spirit the school, the team, and the fans want. You know what might do the trick? Duh. Winning … [Vandy] is an SEC school and that means tailgates. Take those away and we may as well have just gone to Duke."
When it comes to the actual game, the student body is still sometimes known for "showing up at halftime and leaving in the third quarter," as one Vandy alum tailgater told me. More often, the stands are filled with fans such as 55-year-old Andy Beasley of Bellevue, Tenn., who's tailgated at Vanderbilt since 1977. His spread revolves around the grill: this Saturday, sausages; last week, plank salmon and ribs; pork chops in other weeks and chili once the weather cools. His crew usually arrives around 1:30 or 2 for a 6 p.m. game to scope out the best parking spots. He has seen tailgating evolve over the years and has noticed improvements this season. As Beasley said, laughing, "Usually the tailgate is better than the game, but we're hoping to work on that part."
My last stop took me to the parking lot directly across from the stadium where a huge banner read, "Vanderbilt Football Families Tailgate Party." Close to 150 family members of current players as well as alumni stood around several tents. "Tailgating has really ramped up," former Vandy wideout George Smith (now a resident of Philadelphia) said, pointing out that when he played, the tailgate crowds weren't as large and the players didn't interact as much with the fans.
So while Vandy tailgaters might not be camping out days in advance -- yet -- or serving jambalaya, duck and oyster gumbo or deer sauce picante like the folks in Baton Rouge, La., they're excited about the changes they've already seen. "People want to cheer for us," Smith said, pointing to a former teammate's T-shirt that read, "Why Not Vandy."'
Indeed. Why not?
Anna K. Clemmons writes for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
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