“The campus is closed off to traffic up ahead. A sign high above the street reads, “Welcome to Ole Miss.” Tents are spread out as far as you can see, and just as thick are the heady smells of cigars and stale, already, beer. The Grove.”
You can hear it. The muffled silence, the empty roads, something faint in the breeze like a breath held. It’s a Saturday morning, and not just any Saturday: it’s Game Day in Oxford, Mississippi.
Game Day—any day Ole Miss, or the University of Mississippi, plays football—means a few things: an influx of fans often triples the town’s resident population of 20,000, sometimes approaching 80,000; the literal pre-game at the famed Grove, ranked by ESPN in 2016 as the #2 college tailgating experience in the United States; and, perhaps the most relished and coveted feature of Oxford: the Square. The old fashioned center of this Mississippi hill country’s frontier town, where people have congregated since 1837, is literally a square of storefronts around the stately white columned courthouse which the Union Army burned down in 1864 toward the end of the Civil War. Rebuilt in the early 1870s, Oxford’s Square remains the hub of social and cultural activity in the town. One quickly realizes Oxford is a place of traditions. Football is one of those traditions.
Ole Miss will play Georgia today at 11:00 AM, an early game. Jessica and I pour a drink in a Solo cup (it’s legal to drink in public if your beverage is in a cup), and head out around 9:00 AM for the Grove. We’re soon walking through the Square. Old bars and storefronts feel, at this hour, more like art than what they are. We walk along the corridor of sidewalk underneath old wooden and iron-wrought balconies. These will be the pulpits from which tonight fans of the winning team will cheer and preach and proclaim, their voices hollow and hoarse, feeble against the bustling sounds of foot traffic and drunk talk on the sidewalks.
We pass a couple walking in the same direction, dragging a cooler and carrying folding chairs. The man tips his cooler and cans of beer and chunks of ice are rolling into the street. He chases after them, breathing heavy already, already drunk. It’s 9:00 AM.
We stop in at the only liquor store on the Square: Safari. Across the shop window reads “Hakuna Matata.” Here, you pay for the convenience of being on the Square, only a short walk from the Grove. I buy several airplane bottles of whiskey we’ll sneak into the game. Soon, we enter a stream of people heading to the Grove. The campus is closed off to traffic up ahead. A sign high above the street reads, “Welcome to Ole Miss.” Tents spread out as far as you can see, and just as thick are the heady smells of cigars and stale, already, beer. The Grove. There are so many people you can’t see the ground. Women in lacy dresses and high heels. Men in shorts and sneakers, khakis and loafers, jeans and boots. The dust like a golden aura hanging in the air under the giant oak and magnolia trees. Tents, touching, some ornamented with chandeliers and silver platters of food and widescreen TVs hooked up to generators. Satellites speared into the ground.
Our friend Meghan has invited us to her tailgate and to the game afterward. We don’t often go to games, because the tickets tend to be expensive (well over $50), but Meghan has season tickets. Every Friday night before a home game, at approximately 8:00, a police officer sounds a horn, and crowds joust for space in the Grove. In fact, even though it’s against Ole Miss policy, some lay out all day on towels or pay others to stake out coveted tent spots. For some, this is such a hassle they are willing to pay companies to do it. Meghan pays $1600 for someone to set up her tent all season. The price, per game, companies charge ranges from about $150 to $400. Many people who have tents consider this a worthwhile expense; they can keep their sanity.
Today, Meghan has prepared barbecue, coleslaw, beans, and the best banana pudding I’ve ever had. We lounge in the tent and have a drink (beer is not allowed in the Grove, for some reason, but wine and liquor are; don’t ask me why) and wait for the initial crowd to go into the game. Soon after the game starts, the ocean-sounds of the stadium descend through the treetops and into the dust around us, followed seconds later by the sharp cheers from groups clustered around TVs. It can mean only one thing: Ole Miss has scored a touchdown. Then the cannon booms. Yep. Touchdown. “Hotty toddy!” Ole Miss fans yell. This is a phrase from the Ole Miss fight song, and it is often used to greet other Ole Miss fans. We hurry to the game, heckled by men flashing tickets for sale. The stadium looms tall, like a concrete tower. The women go in through one line and have their purses searched, the men in another. This is the test. But Meghan and Jessica have successfully concealed the liquor, and we’re now moving into the crowded backside of the stadium where a water station and vendors selling beer and food offer respite from the brutal heat: 95 degrees and humid. The Grove is an indication, but it’s not until you walk through any given entrance to the stadium that you realize that here, at Ole Miss, football is not merely a sport, it’s a nonnegotiable element of the culture. One must witness the spectacle of the Grove—idyllic yet hectic, pastoral yet tacky—followed by the awesome immersion experience of the stadium in order to begin to appreciate if not the culture itself at least the omnipotence of it. It is one of those things that seems to an outsider trivial, but for some reason, somehow, a spirit has permeated the game of football and it has become the medium of fanatics. Indeed, in a town like Oxford, where real estate prices are directly influenced by the success of the Ole Miss football team, it has become religion.
We watch as Ole Miss demolishes Georgia, a win much needed after last week’s tough loss against arch rival Alabama. This game, quarterback Chad Kelly sets a record which seems almost sacrilegious because it outdoes Archie Manning. The record is for most consecutive games a touchdown pass has been thrown. In fact, Archie, father of Peyton and Eli (both NFL quarterbacks, like their father) is so beloved by Ole Miss that the speed limit on campus is 18, his jersey number. We watch today as Kelly plays a solid game, not only throwing touchdown passes but charging into the endzone himself. Ole Miss wins 45 to 14.
But you don’t have to go to the stadium to have a good time. We often go to the Grove and retreat to the Square to watch at one of our favorite bars. Frank and Marlee’s (tucked back behind Proud Larry’s) is a cheap and festive option with a big back deck (and swings), a pool table and a basement where bands sometimes play. Pitchers of Pabst Blue Ribbon go for between $4 and $8, depending on the night, and the food is good for the price. The half pound Cowboy Killer burger for $9 and buffalo style chicken wings ($4 for a half dozen) are popular options, but catfish sandwiches and PBR-battered onion rings are among others. Frank and Marlee’s is nothing fancy, but if you’re looking for a no frills, everyone’s-watching-the-game atmosphere where bartenders all wear football jerseys, it’s a fun place to spend the evening without spending too many dollars. If you’re looking for a bar that’s a step up, a good option is City Grocery (above the restaurant by the same name). A watering hole where locals’ names are etched on plaques on the bar itself, this dark-wood room with casks and pews offering seats gives an old feel that brings people back. The balcony here has some of the best views of the Square. This is a classy bar that’s not too snooty where you can get a good wine or a sturdy drink from bartenders who know what they’re doing. After the game, the crowd swarms out and back to the Grove or to the inevitable destination for the night, the Square. The balconies are already filled, music pours out of bars. The drunken spirit of celebration seizes almost everyone. It’s only 3:00 PM, and there’s only one guarantee: the Square’s going to get crazy tonight. You don’t have to have much creativity to imagine what Oxford gets like the night of a game. And you don’t have to reach that point where thinking stops and the dark night unwinds and changes in front of you. So we decide to fight this rowdy spirit and take a look around town instead. See Part II for the rest of the weekend, including a look at Oxford’s arts scene.
Although Ole Miss has lost football games, most Oxonians will stand by the claim that Ole Miss has never lost a party.
Ole Miss Fight Song (memorize in case of emergency or need of friends):
The cheer is initiated when someone says: “Are you ready?”
“Hell yeah! Damn Right!
Hotty toddy, gosh almighty,
Who the hell are we? Hey!
Flim flam! Bim bam!
Ole Miss! By damn!”
When in doubt, just yell “Hotty toddy!”