By Dallin Turner
OXFORD, Miss. — There’s a saying at Ole Miss to the effect of, “We might lose the game, but we’ll never lose the party.”
Coincidentally enough, that was exactly what happened on Saturday during BYU’s 14-13 win at Ole Miss.
The tailgating party at Ole Miss is considered by many to be the finest tailgating party in the country and has even been called “the Holy Grail of tailgating” by Sporting News. After one visits the Grove, it becomes quite difficult to disagree with those statements.
On the night before game day, thousands of Ole Miss fans line up and wait for the “Mad Dash” after the Grove officially opens at 9 p.m. Some begin the partying that night, but most simply set up their blue-and-red canopies to claim their spot.
On game day, the Grove overflows with tailgaters, covering nearly every grassy surface of the Ole Miss campus with canopies, camping chairs, grills, tables, TVs and chandeliers.
“We like to party with class,” said Mississippi junior Steven Harris. “It’s a tradition to be trendy.”
Appearances are especially important at the Grove. A table isn’t complete without a centerpiece of some kind (usually flowers in a vase, but chandeliers and candlesticks are also common). Many tents have TVs and satellite dishes powered by generators or onsite power plugs.
“It’s not just a tailgating party — it’s a social event,” Harris said. “Everybody wants to look their best here.”
The men wear colored shirts (sometimes with ties), the women wear fancy cocktail dresses and the children play football on the rare patches of grass not occupied with tents.
Many visiting fans are overwhelmed with the endless sea of Ole Miss gear, but Rebel fans insisted the party on Saturday was nothing special.
“This is first game, we’re still getting back in the groove,” Harris said. “You should see it here for an SEC game. When LSU comes here, it’s eight times bigger.”
When asked to explain the phenomenon known as the Grove, most fans shrug and simply say, “It’s the Grove.”
“Everything here is about tradition,” said Ole Miss sophomore Chase Snyder. “Somebody just started this tradition and we keep it going.”
Many Ole Miss fans don’t even see it as tailgating, but call it “going Groving.”
The party starts early, with most fans investing the entire day to football, arriving before 9 a.m. and returning to the Grove after the game. There is live music, plenty of entertainment and generous amounts of hospitality.
Ole Miss fans pride themselves on their friendliness and are generally happy to see fans from the visiting teams. They treat visitors like guests instead of enemies, and eagerly offer water for those “not used to the humidity.” Some even jokingly offered free beer for BYU fans.
There is also a pervading sense of football excitement resonating from the Grove before the game.
Periodically, someone will yell out, “Are you ready?”, which will be answered by everyone in the affirmative (with some mild profanity) and the Hotty Toddy chant.
“Hotty Toddy” is a unique Ole Miss phrase, which is generally used to mean “Go Rebels,” but can also serve as a substitute for “welcome” and “thank you.” Most fans are unsure of the actual meaning behind “Hotty Toddy,” but some speculate it was based off a drink of whiskey mixed with tea, served warm.
Regardless of the meaning, the Hotty Toddy chant is constantly being shouted in the Grove, especially before the Walk of Champions.
About two hours before the game, the Ole Miss football team walks through the Grove along the brick path dedicated by the 1962 national champion team. Ole Miss fans crowd around the path to shower their team with cheers of adoration, as the players walk by in single file with their helmets off.
With all the generosity and friendly feelings at the Grove, there are, however, just two areas that cause contention: the black bear and LSU.
In 2003, Ole Miss decided to discontinue using the Colonel Reb mascot in all official matters. The school went for several years without a mascot, but always kept looking for one, even once attempting to use Star Wars character Admiral Ackbar. In 2010, Ole Miss finally decided to use a black bear as the official mascot, but many fans are still not sold on the idea, putting up “Bear-Free Zone” signs and even a petition to bring back Colonel Reb.
“We don’t care about being politically correct,” said Ole Miss freshman Randy Smith. “We just want to keep the tradition alive.”
The other topic that gets Ole Miss fans’ blood boiling is SEC rival Louisiana State University.
“LSU fans are a bunch of jerks,” Snyder said. “They’re rude and mean.”
Many Ole Miss fans had much more to say about LSU fans, but little of what they said is suitable for print.
Staying clear of those two topics, visiting fans will find the Grove a warm and friendly area to enjoy a pregame party. For Ole Miss fans, the result of the football game isn’t nearly as important as having a good time and making some new friends.