The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the SEC, tailgating is almost as important as the actual football. This season, it’s in jeopardy.

Tailgating in the SEC at places such as LSU's Tiger Stadium is in jeopardy because of the coronavirus pandemic. (iStock)
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Of all the damned bloody lousy aspects of the pandemic that belong in the non-tragic category, one has begun trickling across the American Southeast. It’s the school-by-school cancellation for 2020 of on-campus football tailgating, that national art form of runaway merriment mingled with an alleluia of fat grams.

Auburn announced its cancellation Wednesday. Alabama had done so Tuesday. Mississippi State canceled its alumni-association tailgating back in early summer. These absences will double as rational and offensive to anyone who likes life, and if you move through those three places along the map westward, you begin to approach Shangri-La.

This thought must be a peerless bummer in tailgate Shangri-La: the University of Mississippi.

There hasn’t come any announcement from Ole Miss, that Sydney Opera House of tailgating, and there’s ample reason for reasonable procrastination like they’re doing at Georgia, where Athletic Director Greg McGarity took a wait-and-see Wednesday by telling reporters, “We’re not even out of August yet, so we’ve got plenty of time.” But in a league that plans to play a conference-only football schedule beginning Sept. 26 and for the Ole Miss people who arrange their autumn Saturdays around the rhythms of the 10-acre mirth mass called the Grove, there’s already cause to wince.

“Well, it’s not very fun,” began Colton Benford, an Ole Miss graduate who runs Tailgate Group, a company that furnishes every element of a tailgate from securing the patch of ground to filling the coolers for those who wish to revel without exhaustive preparation. He said he had fielded “five or six calls in the past 24 hours” from people saying: “Can we book this? Can we go here?” “I say, ‘No, let’s not book anything yet, because I don’t want to send your money back in two weeks.’ ”

For those uninitiated, the tradition of tailgating around football stadiums on Saturday mornings has blossomed from something that used to seem genteel to something that seems booming. Entire tent cities pop up. Grills and smorgasbords appear. Alcohol goes undiscouraged. Anyone walking through the makeshift town before the LSU-Alabama game in Tuscaloosa in November, for one example, would have felt a Woodstock minus most of the hippies. Occasionally, as at the Grove, you might spot china and chandeliers.

For an utmost nutshell of tailgating, check the photo caption this week in the Louisiana newspaper the Advocate. Accompanying a story about the LSU president saying he probably will discourage fans without tickets from coming to tailgate, the photo showed Tigers fan Denis Simon as he “checks on his bacon-wrapped alligator as it grills.”

The photo came from LSU’s usual, gigantic tailgate sprawl of Oct. 12, when the visitors actually were (Florida) Gators.

At Ole Miss, the Grove stands embedded both amid the oaks, elms and magnolias but also so deeply in the bloodstreams that one of the all-time tailgating titans, Jan Waddell of Tupelo, Miss., used the words “retired from” Wednesday. She told how she and her husband, Lamar Waddell, had opted to take a breather after 2019. For years they had organized a colossus of a tailgate, and Lamar had spent all day on Fridays intricately packing the car, and the couple would arrive on Saturdays before dawn.

Sometimes from departure at home to arrival at home more than 24 hours would elapse. They loved it but reached one of those points when people sit and say whew.

Said Benford: “We have people every year, and probably every week, say: ‘Oh, man, this is so great.’ ‘This is the best day of the year!’ ‘Thank you so much.’ ‘We’re so grateful.’ And I think, ‘Wow, and we just spent five minutes setting up a tent and chairs.’ ”

In terms of social distancing, social distancing is entirely not the point. “It’s 10 acres that is all that’s still good in the Deep South, meaning manners, charm, looks, clothes, food, drink, football,” Benford said. “Just the whole experience is heavenly to people who love college football and love to be social and have a good time.” He finds it “really sad to think people aren’t going to have the experience” but said, “But you put things in perspective, and it’s not worth it if 1 percent of the people showing up are going to pass away.”

His business began in 2011, his junior year at Ole Miss. Around mid-decade, it expanded. It’s up to six states, other schools, one of which has an associate athletic director who expressly asked Benford to try to make things resemble, as much as possible, the Grove.

But around the third weekend of February, Benford began to wonder. He noticed the novel coronavirus breakout in Italy and reasoned it would find its way through the flight paths across the Atlantic. “I just was hopelessly thinking that maybe I was wrong,” he said.

Like many in the many veins of life, he wishes the whole year will supply an enhanced gratefulness. If things can only improve, he said: “In 2021, there’s going to be a lot of pent-up demand. And next fall, there’s going to be a lot of fun because people will be so grateful for it.”

Meanwhile, it would prove fitting if Ole Miss became the last holdout in the gathering cancellation drift. After all, if you wished to encapsulate loathsome old 2020, you could do worse than a snapshot of a barren Grove.