Last Friday at 6:30 p.m., the University police officers told people to leave the Grove, even those who were only walking through to gawk at its emptiness. The Grove was empty, save for a few raised tents housing piles of tents and Grove essentials on a Friday evening.
This was an unusual sight to some who remember students and fans alike sitting past sundown to reserve spots in previous years. A large electronic clock sat in the middle of the Grove facing the Barnard Observatory. It counted down the passing hour until 7:30 p.m., the Grove’s opening time. As minutes ticked by, more and more people gathered in front of the Walk of Champions, the faculty lot in front of Barnard Observatory and at the Union.
Few stood at the edge of the Grove, their feet or knees barely touching the grass. A group of three sat right by the grass, holding small Persian rugs. Many stood back, curious about the impending speed dash for tent spots when the large clock ticked down to 00:00. Then the crowd began counting down. Six minutes after the clock struck zero, the number of tents raised went past 100.
Ole Miss football season began anew with not only three quarterbacks, but with new Grove tailgating rules. Some of the regulations were a noticeable change: no space saving, no amplified music and the tents must be 12 x20. The rules can be viewed in their entirety on OleMissFB.com.
The regulation concerning the amplified music was a change to the famous Zebra Tent run by Jane Foster, who brought a rock band to the Grove every year.
Jan Foster said, “I was very concerned in the beginning, but I feel Ole Miss has worked hard to smooth out the transition. I will really miss having the band once a year, but I understand why they had to make the rule.”
However, many Ole Miss tailgaters and fans remarked especially on the first listed regulation: the Grove clears out at 6:30 p.m. and reopens at 7:30 p.m.
A long time Ole Miss fan who tailgates under the tent named Delta Peach Rebels recently tailgated in the Grove after the rule change last week. To him, this past weekend “goes into the top two most aggressive runs for the spot on the Grove.”
Over the last six years, he and his family created a tent neighborhood of fellow tailgaters. He feels that due to the change in regulation with making the Grove a free for all could jeopardize that neighborhood.
He said, “(We) formed alliances and made strategic friends for that game in order to ensure we rebuilt the neighborhood we have been part of for going on six years. In our six years, there was only two times which we were not successful in getting ‘our spot’ on the Grove. We have shared purchases of satellite systems, music for the Grove and always have each other backs for any incident which may occur. We all share the same values and respect for each other. This is still in jeopardy!”
To him, the past weekend showed the Grove was a free-for-all.
He said, “This is not a gentleman’s sport. It was aggressive, pushing and shoving and of course, a shouting match for intruders in the traditional family spot. If you add in a competitive SEC team and double the people to find that prime spot, it likely will not be a scene which will show well on ESPN –like the running of the tents did in the past.”
The information on the new regulations were sent to tailgaters on small flyers, so small that one tailgater said in a phone interview that they were easy to miss.
The tailgater said, “I think it was ridiculous that people didn’t find out about these rules until about 10 days out from the first game. The rules were on a little card tucked inside our football ticket packet. I just happened to see mine. If I were to guess, most people probably haven’t even opened theirs and looked at that card yet. That is no way to treat people.”
At least eight people familiar with the Game Day committee and the new regulations voiced concerns about the unpublished Committee valuing smooth University operations over the energy and fan-created excitement that has made the Grove famous, but these persons would not go on record due to concerns of being treated “dismissively” or “harshly” by Gameday Committee leadership.
Michael Thompson, senior associate athletics director for communications and marketing, said in a phone interview that the Gameday Committee decided on the rule changes.
He said, “(The) Gameday Committee is comprised of 25 people from all walks of the university including alumni and faculty. There are representatives from everywhere from police officers and landscapers to alumni and staff.”
The Gameday Committee is a working committee consisting of 25 departments, created by Robert Khayat with Andy Mullins as its first chairman around twenty years ago. The committee has a website, but there is no published list of names or departments involved.
Larry Sparks, vice chancellor of administration and finances, has been its chairman for the past three years. He remembered that during his college days at the University of Mississippi, the Grove was full of RVs.
He said, “It was easier then when the crowds were smaller. The rules were sort of informal then.”
According to Sparks, the Gameday Committee meets in the Lyceum Room 200 to plan how to handle the masses during home game weekends. He said, “The room fills up quickly. At some of the meetings we have had some people standing because all the seats were taken.”
Sparks noted that a representative of the City of Oxford also attended the meetings since the city too was concerned with increasing number of people attending Ole Miss football games. He said, “It’s remarkable how there is increasing interest in a piece of land. (We) can’t do things that have been done in past few years.”
Sparks emphasized that the Gameday Committee thought of the rules as a way to streamline the crowds over the weekend. He said, “We came at this as a team. We have done a lot of studies. We want people to know that we wanted to make an improvement.”
Thompson had helped the Gameday Committee in respect to tailgating vendors. Sparks said Thompson volunteered his role in leading the “preferred tent vendor program.” In this program the tent vendors are allowed to set up their tents closer to the Grove so they may set up and leave quickly. The vendors are also responsible for immediate cleanup of the tents when the Grove closes.
Thompson said he sought input from outside the committee during “three years of intense, in-depth research” since 2012. He reached out to multiple focus groups including vendors, students and those who frequently interact with the Grove on how the committee could improve the tailgating experience for all.
Since the rules were made known, Thompson said they have received a lot of feedback on how the rules relate to space saving. The first rule stated the Grove must be cleared out at 6:30 p.m., a reset to allow equal opportunities to quickly find a spot for tailgating. This rule trumps a tradition of students and fans alike sitting in the Grove for hours to reserve a spot.
He said, “We want everyone to get their traditional space – those people who have been tailgating in the Grove for one to fifteen years and those who will tailgate for the first time (last) Saturday. The Grove at Ole Miss offers is the best tailgating experience in the world; pro teams can’t even do what we do. There is not a single bad spot to tailgate anywhere in the Grove. I think a lot of times people take for granted how amazing the entire Grove and they start fighting over a particular five to ten foot space. There are so many great spots in the Grove, and people should want to share that with those who are experiencing the Grove for the first time. There’s plenty of space in the Grove for everybody, and I hope that mentality starts to take hold.”
Sparks said the clear out was necessary because the tradition of space saving was academically disruptive since a number of students spent at least hours sitting in the Grove on Friday afternoons.
He said, “We know it’s a change, but we want everyone to have an equal chance. Everyone gets in at the same time at 7:30 p.m.”
Sparks pointed out that the opening time for the Grove was also different last year. It was at 8:00 p.m. instead of 9:00 p.m. then.
The first rule also stated that the Grove closes three hours after the game ends, and also at midnight. Thompson and Sparks assured that for games with morning kickoffs, that rule wouldn’t be enforced.
Thompson said, “Having people leave three hours after the game is more of a courtesy thing for our volunteers who clean up the Grove. We know that if we get people out earlier, then can get things cleaned up earlier and go home to their families.”
Sparks also noted this, adding that a small number of people would have remained that long in the Grove after the game ends. In speaking of the Grove clean-up, he mentioned Jeff McManus, the director of landscaping for the University of Mississippi.
McManus agreed that the three-hour time cap was a courtesy by the Gameday Committee, although he did not claim responsibility for the rule change although his department is noted by Thompson as part of the Gameday Committee. He said the rule change was a committee-wide decision.
He said during an interview last Thursday, “(The rules) are a learning experience. Everybody’s trying to get better. That’s what great about the university. We want to create a family atmosphere and a great experience for everyone.”
He said he liked some of the changes, especially the addition of new lanes.
McManus said, “The addition of lanes takes a little pressure off the foot traffic. Connecting the lanes to the streets connect the arteries, so to say, of people walking in from the streets.”
All in all, the Gameday Committee made waves with new tailgating regulations. As Ross Bjork said in the press release on August 31, “So we come together to what we think is a great game day experience already, and we will enhance it and evaluate how it works on Friday and Saturday.”
Those who wish to share their thoughts and statements on the tailgating regulations are welcome to contact HottyToddy.com staff.
Callie Daniels Bryant is the senior managing editor for HottyToddy.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.