Taking a trip to Oxford and the University of Mississippi harkens back to a period when men were genteel and the ladies were impeccable hostesses. Images of a slower time seem to leap off the pages of a William Faulkner book and are displayed there in full color. Old Southern traditions reign, but with an eye towards the future. This video tells what’s great about Oxford better than I ever could.
University of Mississippi (Ole Miss)
For most Southerners, fall equals football. But this is not just football in the South. This is football in Mississippi, where the campus’ 18 miles per hour speed limit honors Ole Miss’ quarterback legend, Archie Manning. Oxford is a quaint town of 19,000 that easily triples on a home game weekend. Regulars pour in from far and wide to root for their Rebels, and outsiders stream in simply because they want a taste of Ole Miss’ much-heralded game day experience.
Justin Bugsy Sailor via Flickr
You don’t have to be a Rebel fan to thoroughly enjoy the atmosphere. Amongst unique game day experiences, this one stands alone; there’s no other place quite like it. It’s like an after-church social, a family reunion, fraternity party, and fashion show all rolled into one. Don’t think that the football game is just an excuse to throw a great party. Vaught-Hemingway Stadium is packed each season with pom-pom waving Rebels. The same passion that goes into presenting the perfect pre-game party is also directed to their team on the field.
When to go?
Mississippi’s summer is as long as its name. And while most of the country is beginning to cool off at the start of football season, Mississippi is still waiting for summer to end. It’s a hot, sultry, miserable time, but you wouldn’t know it from the 60,000+ sitting in the stands of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The great thing about the Southeastern Conference (SEC), the league Ole Miss plays in, is there’s no shortage of great games to see. Wait for summer to fade a bit, and you’ll have a much more pleasant experience.
Ole Miss has been playing teams like Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana State University (LSU) since the early 1900s, which is a sure-fire recipe for a rivalry. And don’t forget the bragging rights at stake. Each of these teams has found success on the field, most recently Alabama (2010 and 2012 National Champions) and LSU (2004 and 2008 National Champions).
• The Ole Miss/LSU game, dubbed the Magnolia Bowl after the flowering tree that populates each of the states, is played in November. This match-up even makes a cameo in Kathryn Stockett’s New York Times bestseller, The Help. And wouldn’t you know that those two schools don’t get along? In fact, they clash like polka dots and plaid; they just don’t go together. Of course this makes for great fun when you’ve got no dog in the fight. Forget the football game; watching these two opposing cultures interact is entertainment in itself.
• For over a hundred years, Ole Miss has played Arkansas. Not only are these two teams linked by their history and close geography, they’re also connected by a head coach. Ask any Arkansas fan, and they’re sure to give you an ear-full. In 2007, Arkansas’ head coach, Houston Nutt, resigned from the university only to sign a four-year contract worth $1.7 million with Ole Miss…four hours later! That’s like breaking up with your girlfriend and then taking her best friend to the prom. Aren’t sub-plots so much fun?
• When Alabama rolls into town, it brings with it an unmatched football pedigree, a recent national championship, a #2 pre-season ranking, and demigod, Coach Nick Saban. Both teams are founding members of the SEC, and started playing each other in 1894. Although Ole Miss has been on the wrong end of the scoreboard too much for their liking, it doesn’t take away from the true occasion that this game always is. After all, Ole Miss may not win every game, but they’ve never lost a party.
Elvis, Oprah, and the Grove are probably the most famous things born of Mississippi. Everyone knows Elvis and Oprah, and if you haven’t heard about the Grove, then you’ve just been missing out. The Grove, the ten acre, tree-covered heart of Ole Miss tailgating, has been known to turn Yankees and west coasters into bona fide Southerners, well, at least for a Saturday. What started as a pre-game picnic of sorts has erupted into one of the best-known traditions in all of college football.
Tailgating at the Grove is different, and not just for the fact that there are no actual tailgates. A rainstorm in 1990 put an end to cars in the Grove, which gave way to tents. Thousands of them. Red, white, and blue tents are neatly arranged amongst the elm, oak, and magnolia trees that give the Grove its name. Tailgating spots are claimed on a first-come basis, thus making the opening of the Grove on Friday night akin to the Oklahoma land rush. And much like Oklahoma, the Grove has plenty of its own “sooners.” Official opening time is 10:00 pm, but folks eager to claim their usual spots don’t pay much attention to that rule. Even police presence doesn’t deter seasoned Ole Miss fans from jumping the gun.
If you don’t have the time or the energy to fight the madness, just hire someone to do it for you. Some alumni pay industrious college students to claim their space. Also, companies like HottyToddy Lotty Doddy secure a space, and set you up with a tent, table, seven chairs, and a cooler with ice for $275 per game. The price goes up from there, depending on what you desire. So maybe you’re not the best cook. That’s ok, because Oxford is full of caterers ready to provide all the pimento cheese sandwiches, red and blue football-shaped cookies, shrimp and grits, deviled eggs, carved meat, and fruit plates you could ever need.
Along with cars, grills are also absent. Open flames and propane are strictly prohibited. Thus, your standard tailgating cooking techniques differ as well. Instead of throwing brats on the grill, chafing dishes keep pre-made food warm beneath chandeliers. Yes, that’s right. Fancy chandeliers grace tents along with white tablecloths and fine silver. Not to be outdone by the extravagant table settings, satellite dishes connected to flat screen TVs show other football games, while the surround sound makes it feel like you’re actually there.
An odd thing about the Grove is that you can walk around with a fifth of Maker’s Mark, but don’t dare have a Budweiser in hand. Beer is illegal in the Grove. That’s not to say beer is not present. Instead it is poured into a cup, preferably of the red or blue Solo variety. Filling your cup to the brim is a big no-no; it’s too easy for the police to see what’s inside. Beer also must be transported to the Grove in a cooler. And you’re going to need a cooler, since it’s illegal to sell cold beer (except at restaurants) in Oxford. Beer simply cannot be seen. In fact, no alcohol can be left in plain view or unattended since the law considers that distribution, and that’s sure-fire way to have all of your alcohol confiscated. But, really, why even mess with all that hoop jumping when the unofficial drink of the Grove (and the South in general) is whiskey and Coke?
Lots of whiskey and Coke.
The smell of whiskey lofts over the Grove like sweet smog. Plastic cups containing caramel-colored cocktails are melded to Rebel fans’ hands. And the cups appear to be bottomless thanks to Southern hospitality. A smile and ”Hotty Toddy” will get you a refill and all the chicken wings you can eat. Folks around here don’t have a “what’s mine is mine” attitude. Instead, “the more the merrier” is their credo.
The pomp and circumstance doesn’t end at the fancy tent décor. Probably the most eye-catching aspect of tailgating at the Grove is the way people dress. Men wear khaki pants, button-up shirts, and red and blue striped ties. There’s seersucker. And bowties. The stable of polo horses prominently displayed on men’s’ shirts would make Ralph Lauren smile (and an even richer man). This, after all, is an occasion.
Southern belles parade around in carefully chosen dresses. There are seven home games, all of which require a different, but equally fanciful frock. Ole Miss is known for their bevy of beautiful women, and they are all on parade on game day at the Grove. Sundresses and high heels abound. Damn their feet, because some things are more important than comfort, although some of the more sensible ladies will opt for wearing cowboy boots. The cooler weather brings with it tights, boots, and jackets to go with their dresses. You would think these impeccably dressed ladies were headed to church. Or a nice dinner. Or even to their graduation. Basically, your last guess would be a football game. Hair and make-up are just so, and accessories are coordinated perfectly. It’s a fashion show, and the Grove’s grassy path is the catwalk.
What you need to know:
• Hotels book a year in advance. Renting a house or condo could be your only option in Oxford. Don’t be shocked at the cost either. Prices can go into the thousands of dollars for one night.
• Single game tickets can be purchased online, but they go fast. Get tickets early for rivalry games.
• Two hours before game time is the Walk of Champions. The players and coaches walk from the Student Union under the Walk of Champions arch in the Grove to the stadium where the fans cheer them on. The Walk is often imitated, but the tradition started at Ole Miss. Folks get wild in Whiskey Alley, located towards the end of the Walk.
• The band plays in the Grove an hour prior to kick-off.
• Wear your own college team’s gear. You’ll surely be welcomed with a hand shake, a refill on your drink, and a smile.
• The Grove has the Hotty Toddy Potties, probably the best portable bathroom facilities in the nation. They’re located next to the Grove in front of Farley Hall.
• “Hotty Toddy” is a greeting used by Ole Miss fans to one another, and is taken from a cheer. When the words, “Are you ready?” are spoken, get ready to hear the crowd around you yell:
Hell yes! Damn right!
Hotty Toddy, Gosh almighty
Who the hell are we-Hey!
Flim Flam, Bim Bam
OLE MISS BY DAMN
• Get in the stands prior to kick-off. You might see the likes of Morgan Freeman, Snoop Dogg, or Russell Crowe lead the stadium in the Hotty Toddy cheer.
• Colonel Reb was the long-time, on-field mascot of Ole Miss. In order to distance itself from its Confederate past, the University voted the Rebel Black Bear as their new on-field mascot. Ole Miss will still be known as the Rebels, but the white-bearded, Confederate Colonel Reb will no longer roam the sidelines. Do be prepared to see Confederate flags (not to be confused with the red, white, and blue Ole Miss spirit flag).
• The Grove closes at midnight. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay there.
• On Friday night or Saturday night after the game, the Square is the place to be for food, drink, and people watching. It’s going to be packed at favorites like Rooster’s Blues House, Ajax Diner, City Grocery, and Bouré, so get there early.
• Go to Rowan Oak, the home of Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author, William Faulkner, for 32 years. Faulkner wrote his most famous books at Rowan Oak, including The Sound and the Fury and A Fable.
• Check out Oxford’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau Website for special events and other attractions such as the Blues Archives and the L. Q. C. Lamar House.
Combine a passion for football, Southern hospitality, university pride, and what you get is game day at Ole Miss. Somehow even the unusual finery of the Grove works. The dress code, catering trucks, and crystal are the cream cheese frosting on the red velvet cake that is football season at Ole Miss.
Are you ready?