Arkansas Razorbacks vs Ole Miss Rebels, 10/28/2017, 11am
Final Score: Arkansas 38 – Ole Miss 37; Attendance: 55,684
Weather: Sunny, 43; Ticket: Free, Face $90; Parking: $0
Review: “Miss, Understood” by Tree
Ole Miss is legendary for the tailgating in the Grove, 10 acres of bucolic green space on the campus. Located in the heart of the University, the expanse of trees becomes a small city of tents on game day. In theory, anyone can participate if they show up on Friday, pick a spot, and set up their tent(s). In reality, there are some longstanding norms that essentially protect spots for the established tailgaters. Additionally, the majority of sites utilize private, paid for support. At a minimum, folks will get a tent, chairs, table and tv (with cable hook-up) set up for them for about $1,000 a game. On top of that, there’s private catering, although it seems quite a few folks do it themselves (and do it very well). In some instances, the tailgates are over the top with real silverware, glass chandeliers, and linen tablecloths. Beer is technically prohibited in the Grove to protect the foliage. In reality, if it is brought in discretely no one is going take it away. However, liquor is featured much more prominently here than at other campus tailgates.
Our game was unfortunately moved to an 11am kickoff which put a little damper on the Grove atmosphere. I would say it was at about 75% capacity with a noticeable amount of empty tents. Since the best rates are based on an entire season contract, folks get tents for every game even if they aren’t showing up. It was a brisk fall day, but one that a Big 10 tailgater would classify as nearly perfect. A less than capacity crowd for a nice clear sunny day game against an SEC rival did not do much to reinforce the reputation of the Ole Miss experience. The charm of the Grove is the sheer mass of folks partying together so when that falters, it trends toward just another tailgate. It is well organized with plenty of trash receptacles and more importantly, easy access to port-a-potties. With it being so tight, it is missing some staples of college football such as playing corn hole, tossing around the pigskin and grilling burgers and dogs.
It would be unfair to criticize the slow and steady privatization of Grove experience. With every additional stadium I visit, tailgating becomes more and more privatized. The key to the Grove is to have a connection with someone who a regular such as a parent or an alum. Fortunately, I had that connection so my Grove experience was superb. My buddy Jeff, whose daughter Kelsey attends Ol Miss, showed us the ropes. We started by watching the Walk of Champions where the Ol Miss team makes the walk through the Grove on their way to the stadium. We then took a stroll in the Grove, taking in the sights. We had already warmed up with a morning beer and had already switched to mimosas and bloody marys. We hung out watching Game Day and chatting with tailgaters. The Grove does have a family feel where many of the tents are two to three generations deep. It is an easy and relaxed environment. Most of the denizens are dressed slightly more formal than a normal crowd. The freshmen of Ole Miss must wear blazers and ties and have a date to attend the game. The rest of the students are dressed down a little, but the women tend to wear more dresses than usual. To be honest, most of the other Southern schools look pretty much the same these days in that regard. It has been said that Ole Miss has the prettiest / handsomest student body in all the land. To that I will say this, go to any university and the majority of the kids are good looking. It’s one of the benefits to being young. Far be it from me to objectify women, but if you put a gun to my head, I’d still say the prettiest girls come from USC/UCLA.
We made the short walk over to Vaught Hemingway Stadium to catch last few bars from the Pride of the South, the Ole Miss marching band. The stadium itself is of medium size with a capacity just under 65,000. As a result, the sight lines are good just about everywhere. They are complimented with three video score boards so it is hard to miss the action. The ribbons on the stadium also show a generous amount of stats which is always a plus. The concessions have a nice local flavor and my souvenir cup had free refills. Alcohol is not sold in the stadium. The restrooms are the classic trough design updated with a couple of strategically placed dividers. We were sitting on about the 15 yard line about three quarters of the way up. Those tickets had a face value of $90 but you could get a ticket as cheap as $20 from scalpers and resellers right outside of the Grove. I can’t speak for parking, but I get the feeling you’d get away for $10 – $20 if you were willing to walk to the Grove. In general, the Vaught is really well designed; it is almost too nice for the quality of football that Ole Miss often plays.
Games start with the “locking of the Vaught” entrance where the players and coaches lock arms and sway back and forth prior to entering the stadium. It’s not bad as traditions go, but it can’t compete with Virginia Tech’s epic “Enter Sandman” entrance. Within the stadium, the most popular tradition is the Hotty Toddy cheer which is yelled whenever possible. If you want to participate, I suggest you practice a bit; I hadn’t quite mastered it despite the high frequency with which it is cheered. My pre-game Grove festivities may have played a factor in my ability to learn that little ditty. There is a generic “First Down Ole Miss” cheer which is indistinguishable to the cheer of dozens of other schools. More appealing to me was the Land shark fin motion used to fire up the defense. By the end of the game, I was happily rocking back and forth, using my hand as fin while the familiar bars of the “Jaws” theme blared on the stadium sound system. The Ole Miss band was very good but not the best I have seen.
The University of Mississippi is located in Oxford, Mississippi. It is about an hour and half from Memphis. Thankfully, I found the drive to be an easy one after little sleep from the previous late night on Beale Street. Oxford is a classic college town with a prototypical public square. The numerous bars were hopping on Saturday night despite a loss. Many of them had that classic mix of students and their parents enjoying themselves. It is a good vibe and it makes anyone feel welcome in the friendly confines. I found downtown Oxford to be as appealing as the Grove, maybe more so.
Ole Miss game came in as a four point favorite with Arkansas still recovering from their previous week’s beating at the hands of Auburn. With blood in the water, the Ole Miss Rebels err Bears err Landsharks pounced on Arkansas early and often. (They are still working on a politically correct mascot/nickname) They jumped out to 31 – 7 lead midway through the 2nd quarter. Arkansas had moved the ball with some success but had missed a field goal. Ole Miss was driving toward another score and getting ready to put their foot to the throat of Arkansas. My friends and I noted the only thing Ole Miss could do to let Arkansas back in this game was to turn over the ball, which they promptly did via a fumble. Arkansas responded by driving down and scoring a touchdown. Still, at that point it was 31 – 14 and Ole Miss could just run out the clock to end the half. Instead, they got greedy and threw a pick. Arkansas took all of fifty-five seconds to score right before the half. Now it was 31 – 21 and with Arkansas to get the ball to start the second half. I swear the entire stadium let out a sigh of resignation as if they could foresee the impending collapse.
The Razorbacks came out, drove down the field, and scored to cut the lead to 31 -28. There was more fretting in the stands but then Ole Miss steadied. They put together a couple of drives but only got field goals. However, the Arkansas offense had gone cold and Ole Miss found themselves with the ball on their own twenty-two yard with a nine point lead and six minutes on the clock. I don’t know what percentage of teams win in that situation, but it has to be pretty high. But, Ole Miss is not like any other team. They fumbled on the first play and Arkansas did the old scoop and score. The Rebel offense got the ball back, but went three and out. The Razorbacks got the ball on their twenty-two yard line and executed the type of drive Ole Miss could not. They drove sixty-two yards, gobbled up four minutes and kicked the game winning field goal with 4 seconds left. And that was all she wrote as Ole Miss continued to meet their fans low expectations.
The Ole Miss campus is very nice looking and easy to walk around. I found the fans to be friendly and generous sharing food and beverages at every turn. I noted that they only serve one flavor of ice cream in the Grove – vanilla. I have seen more diversity at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. They are trying to make amends at Ole Miss. I didn’t see any Confederate flags in the Grove. They have got rid of their mascot, Colonel Reb and they don’t play Dixie at halftime anymore. But, make no mistake about it; the only brothers and sisters you will see are on the field. It is not that way at Southern Mississippi which I visited a couple of weeks earlier, but here it feels like they still haven’t quite joined the 21st century. It’s probably why I heard a visitor from the north say to me “I am having a great time, but don’t quote me. I don’t want my friends to know I went to a game in Mississippi.”
Again, I had a great time at Ole Miss but to be honest, it was more likely due to the company I kept rather than the Ole Miss environment. The Grove has been selected as the best tailgating experience in all of college football by Sports Illustrated among others. I am not ready to give it that title although it is certainly among the best. As for the entire college football experience – the tailgating, the fans, the traditions, the stadium and the game, it is top quartile but not top ten. Unless you want to see Ole Miss beat up a cupcake, you’re more likely to see the home team take a beating from a SEC powerhouse. And if you don’t have an inside connection, the Grove may not be as fun as you think it would be. While the Oxford Square bars are a blast, the town is in the middle of nowhere. So ultimately, I classify Ole Miss as a conditional must-see. Those conditions are as follows: have a tailgate connection for the Grove, make sure it is a 2:30 kickoff against a middle of the road foe, and learn the Hotty Toddy cheer before you get there.