On a grassy hill on a crisp fall day, more than 100 men and women gather under the large white tent, sipping champagne and munching hors d'oeuvres.
As more guests arrive, a valet directs them to park conveniently nearby and the professional hostess invites them to join the others. A feast is set: Cakes, cookies, pasta salads and candy cram a long table covered with white cotton linens. A chef cooks up hot dogs and hamburgers, made to order, on a giant, professional-size grill, and a silver punch bowl is filled with bottles of chilled wine.
It's breezy and cool, but three space heaters are ready nearby. Or guests can keep warm by dancing to the melodies from the five-piece band.
The spread, set outside Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium at this and every home football game, isn't your typical pretzel-and-beer tailgate party.
But then, its hosts aren't your typical Naval Academy fans.
"We're just a bunch of old joes," said Larry Nelson, one of the original hosts of the gathering, which began nearly 25 years ago. "Things have changed over the years. We've gotten a little older, a little smarter."
One thing has remained constant, however: The organizers and fans at this swank affair have no personal connections to the Naval Academy. They have no children at the prestigious officer training college, and they didn't attend the academy themselves. Nor did their fathers, grandfathers or any other family members. Hence, the name they have adopted and now fly proudly from a banner above the party: "Class of No Class."
"We just wanted a fun Saturday afternoon, so we just became supporters of Navy," said Ray Conrad, an Annapolis resident and loyal tailgater for 30 years, 25 with the group.
The membership has grown over the years, and so has the elaborateness of its activities. Its annual newsletter lists more than 100 dues-paying members. Each season, they agree on culinary themes for their tailgate parties--Italian for the Boston College game, German for last weekend's homecoming game against Akron. For the Nov. 13 game against Tulane, the Class of No Class will serve up a full Thanksgiving feast, with turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings.
"We just thought it would be fun," said Kathy Nelson, Larry Nelson's wife and one of the primary menu organizers. "It adds another dimension to the celebration. Everybody gets into the spirit of it."
Academy officials say Class of No Class is now the second-largest organized group at home games, surpassed only by the reunion classes that throw tailgates each season.
But it wasn't always like this.
It started out as two small groups tailgating out the back of cars. Conrad would go to football games to round up business for his tire service store by offering free repairs to fans.
Jim Foote, who owns several restaurants in Annapolis, would buy 96 football tickets each season and distribute them to his customers. Although he didn't know many people, he started having small tailgate parties, piling kegs of beer in the back of his van and bringing food from home. The more people he met, the more tickets he gave out and the more people came to his tailgate parties.
The two men often set up right next to each other. Then, in the mid-'70s, they decided to combine their parties.
Neither is originally from Annapolis, but like most local residents, Conrad and Foote became big supporters of Navy football. When they met families that were new to the area, they'd offer them free tickets and invite them to the tailgate party. Most of them stayed with the group.
Bill Hancock went to his first Class of No Class tailgate three years ago after a friend gave him a ticket to the game.
"I wasn't a Navy fan," he admitted, having no connection to the academy. "But I got hooked. I started coming [to the tailgates], and I got swept up in the whole thing. Now it's as if I've been here for 20 years."
Hancock even inherited an important duty. As a joke, a couple of Naval Academy students presented a Class of No Class member with an admiral costume, a jacket encrusted with pins and other decorations, as well as a hat.
"If we need someone to pretend like we are a part of the military, I put it on and walk around," Hancock said. "I'll salute the kids, and they get a real kick out of it."
Because of their location, just inside the entrance of the stadium parking lot, the Class of No Class tailgate always gets a lot of attention. Through the years, the group has even attracted some surprise guests, Conrad said. Once, the University of Pittsburgh team stopped by.
"There were about two bus loads," Conrad said, adding that they didn't mind the company. "They came over and dug in."
The Class of No Class is welcomed and even supported by academy officials. Many participants in the tailgate have started to sponsor Naval Academy students, volunteering to be their families away from home.
"We live here, we party here and we just want to support our local team," said Barbara Milloy, who has attended the group's parties for 12 years. "It's a diverse group of people here. You catch up on conversation, and it's like the social season is open."
Said Class of No Class member Sherry Greulich: "I'm fascinated with how far we have come. [At work] I go to my meetings and tell them about the band and all the food and the good time we have, and they look at me like I'm crazy. They don't believe that we have a good time like this."