There are football tailgates; there are college football tailgates; there are Southeastern Conference (SEC) college football tailgates; and then there are SEC college football tailgates at the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss to non-academics, in The Grove, where oak trees are planted throughout the ten acres of green grass located in the heart of campus in Oxford, Mississippi. That, at least, is what the average football fan is told on Saturdays in the fall. While SEC fans claim they throw the premier party and cook the best barbecue before the big game, The Grove tailgate is supposed to be the exceptional SEC football event. The Sporting News labeled The Grove as “the Holy Grail of tailgating sites” and Sports Illustrated rated Ole Miss as the number one tailgating school in the nation.
The Grove’s tailgate identity distinguishes itself from other SEC and non-SEC tailgates with the self-proclaimed phrase “we may have lost the game, but we’ve never lost the party.” Other exceptional qualifications include southern hospitality and a fashion code where male students don ties, dress pants, and blazers instead of jeans, t-shirts and backwards baseball hats. Female students, alumni, and general fans sport “wedges and dresses,” a term noting the importance of wearing high-heeled shoes and sorority-formal attire for the ladies, who appear so physically attractive that one visiting female Tennessee fan remarks “there must be something in the water.” After attending the Ole Miss vs. Tennessee Volunteers tailgate and chatting with twenty different students, alumni, and general fans, I found the high-class party atmosphere with southern hospitality to be valid Grove experiences. Yet listening to the subjects describe traditions such as Tent City and the catch phrase “Hotty Toddy” revealed a construction of customs that are universally accepted but infrequently thought about.
Dressing up in The Grove distinguishes itself from other SEC schools. When asked why they dress up, one freshman female remarks “it’s kind of the tradition—it’s respectful, it’s classy.” Her friend, another freshman from a different sorority, says she starts a typical Saturday home game by waking up, doing make-up and hair, and then taking an hour to pick out an outfit. These young ladies say they are dressing as a southern belle, who they define as a classy, southern, confident, football-loving, respectful, and moral individual. A recent Tennessee alum who made the trip from Knoxville, TN, to Oxford, MS, confirms the southern belle image. “Every girl here is a southern belle,” she says. “Vol fans usually put on jeans and a t-shirt. Here I would need to get dressed up.”
The need to dress up also applies to undergraduate male students, especially those in fraternities. The freshman pledges, in particular, wear dress pants, a button-down dress shirt, a blazer, and a tie to “uphold how the fraternity looks to everybody else.” Students who are not involved with Greek Life also abide by The Grove custom. One senior broadcasting major says dressing up is how The Grove community demonstrates respect, acknowledging he “has always worn a button-down or a collared shirt.” To him, even a golf polo would seem to be a fashion faux-pas.
Yet the need to dress up does not apply to middle-aged male alumni. Two fifty-something alumni have worn the same shirt for the last three tailgates, with one admitting “Yeah I’ve worn the same shirt the last three games because it’s a good-luck shirt” He also notes a gendered difference within his own family, “My wife and daughter spend a week figuring out what they’re going to wear to the game to look just right.”
The man’s wife appears across the tent alongside cloth-covered tables supporting various food and drink options. Apparently, food preparation is also a gendered division of labor. “Just like any other southern home, the woman is the one who provides and prepares the food and sets it all up,” she says. “So yeah, the women have a big role.” There has long been a tradition of gendered hospitality in the south, as Historian Harvey K. Newman in Southern Hospitality: Tourism and the Growth of Atlanta argues southern women have been responsible for domestic hospitality from the colonial time period. The wife, a “walk-on” alumni whose husband and daughter are Ole Miss alumni, echoes the trope of southern hospitality. “Tailgates are extension of home—southern hospitality,” she says. “That’s what I love about the south, they never meet a stranger, everybody’s a friend.”
Ole Miss fans also emphasize southern hospitality to their opponents, who are seen as friends and not rivals, at least not until they enter the stadium. According to historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown in Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South, southerners have always stressed honor and graciousness for the region’s own identity and reputation amongst outsiders. The different groups of Tennessee fans I talked with confirm Ole Miss’s distinctive southern hospitality. One Volunteer fan who has attended a game in every SEC stadium says the Grove is a very hospitable place, much more so than the Universities of Georgia and Florida and Louisiana State University (LSU). A recent Tennessee alum who now works in Memphis says it’s much more hospitable than the University of Alabama, where his friend was allegedly subjected to a racist remark about his hispanic ethnicity. Another Tennessee alum noted the hospitality within the tailgating tents, as “everybody has been more receptive, helped with drinks.”
The construction and placement of Grove tailgate tents is another tradition that begins at 9:00 a.m. on the Friday before the game. At that point, the “tent run” officially begins and fans can race to their favorite spot on the Grove’s green grass to secure their placement of the tent. For alumni who cannot escape a Friday workday or students that have class commitments, “squatters” are hired to hold the spot or pledges are required to hold Greek tent spots. At 8:00 p.m. the physical construction of tents are allowed that transform the Grove from a grassy-park setting to a tent village. Twelve hours later the party begins bright and early at 8:00 a.m.
While younger students describe the tent run as a “Grove tradition,” older alumni remember a different set-up. A group of women who have attended Grove tailgates for over forty years recall a much different Grove tradition than Tent City. They nostalgically yearn for the simpler set-up where families conversed and tossed around the football, as opposed to the raucous and debauchery-filled party with over two-hundred thousand guests. “We used to pull our cars up and literally drop the tailgate down,” the woman said. “We didn’t have to wait in line to set up our tents. It was much easier.” According to her husband this tailgating atmosphere lasted until 1992, when cars were banned from The Grove because trees were dying from the soil that was dug up by car wheel.
Similar to the Tent City tradition, younger fans are ignorant of the origins of the “Hotty Toddy” rallying cry. Two sophomore ladies remark “It’s a tradition, everybody has always done it. I don’t know where it started, but it’s just what everyone’s done.” All the fans I conversed with could not pinpoint a specific origin of the term or a concrete definition, but it was apparent “Hotty Toddy” meant something to the Ole Miss community. Chants of “Hotty Toddy” were frequently bellowed out by fans of all ages while conducting interviews and walking past tent-to-tent. According to the Daily Mississippian, Hotty Toddy can be traced back to three different chants or songs dated prior to World War II. But it argues, ““Hotty Toddy” is recognized by those affiliated with Ole Miss as a greeting that shows allegiance and affection to the school, the team and the overall experience that sums up the spirit of Ole Miss.” The fans I talked with define Hotty Toddy as everything from “a drink,” “a rallying cry,” to a “lifestyle.” One student concluded, “I haven’t heard anybody describe Ole Miss without Hotty Toddy even though nobody knows what it means.”
The attitude that fans attribute Grove traditions without wondering where they came from can be disconcerting. Fans participate in rituals and traditions such as “Hotty Toddy” not because it means something, but because they are conditioned to believe it means something. And while dressing up in suits and ties and in sorority formal attire might separate The Grove from other tailgating settings throughout the country, one hopes those partaking in that tradition inquire why they are doing it Fans in the Grove should continue to celebrate their customs and traditions, but hopefully they will also become cognizant of the history behind it.
Matt Follett is a Public History PhD student at Middle Tennessee State University, where he focuses on modern southern culture. Feel free to contact him with any questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or @MattFollett.