For fans, tailgating is a Saturday afternoon tradition

By TERESA KILLIAN TATE

As a WCU student, Rich Price ’88 considered tailgating as simple as picking up Kentucky Fried Chicken and dining out of the trunk of a car. As Price became heavily involved with the Catamount Club after graduation, his tailgating expanded to food and drinks, a few chairs and the radio tuned to a pregame show. Today, Price describes what unfolds in a parking lot in Cullowhee before Saturday football games: “It’s a full-fledged tailgating machine, complete with grills, canopies, portable refrigerators, satellite television with flat-screen TV, tons of WCU memorabilia, as many gadgets as my bank account will allow. It’s an event,” said Price. “It is so much more than just the game. It’s game day!”

Some trace the history of game-day tailgating in America to the first collegiate football game between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869 and perhaps as far as the Civil War, according to Stephen Linn in his 2005 book, “The Ultimate Tailgater’s Handbook.” “Consider the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Enthusiastic Union supporters from the Washington, D.C., area arrived with baskets of food and shouts of ‘Go Big Blue’ to watch the opening battle in America’s Civil War. Historians generally agree this was a case of the right idea at the wrong time, war not being a spectator sport. Still, for those who attended, there was socializing and tradition, tension and excitement,” wrote Linn in an excerpt from the book published in American Heritage magazine.

At WCU, tailgating was rare before football moved from the former Memorial Stadium, located near Hunter Library, to E.J. Whitmire Stadium in 1974. “We went to the games and were pretty much in the stadium before, during and, for a little while, after the game,” said Betty Jo Allen ’68, president of the Alumni Association. “Then we raced to the Townhouse for a hamburger and a Coke.” Although Memorial Stadium offered tremendous acoustics that Norman West ’68 said gave Western Carolina a roaring home-field advantage, the university did not have nearby parking lots large enough for tailgating. “People would bring sandwiches and maybe a Coke, and sit on the banks at each end of the stadium and eat. Behind the goals were several football games being played by little kids, and some would spend the entire night rolling down the banks,” said West, current president of the Catamount Club.

For West, tailgating did not become a tradition until the late Kirby Toney ’68 organized an event for friends and gave everyone assignments. “Mine was to bring the tablecloths – purple and gold,” said West. Their setup, which featured such details as candelabras with purple candles, was a regular winner of a tailgating award that entitled them to a free meal from KFC for their next game-day event. West did not know then how much those fall Saturday gatherings would come to mean to them.

“Under our tent typically are about 24 of my old, good friends, and if it was not for football, I wouldn’t see them, but because of our interacting, we’re still good friends, and we’ve got tailgating down to a fine science. Everybody knows what to bring. They show up and – poof – immediate tailgate party,” he said. “Tailgating is just good food, good friends, good people – a party for 10,000 people. You walk from table to table and see friends and people who feel about Western Carolina like I do. Over the years, we’ve seen babies grow into adults who are now coming to the games. It makes you feel old, but it’s nice.”

A few parking spots down from the space where West parks are Kevin Stanberry ’94, Lynn Stanberry ’99 and friends who host a tailgating party that has attracted as many as 100 visitors, with friends coming from five or six hours away. What started as just tailgating out of the back of a vehicle evolved into a grill, at least four tables and three tents. The rotating menu features burgers, brats, shrimp, pork tenderloin, steak, scallops wrapped in bacon and chicken wings. “We do have some secret recipes,” said Kevin Stanberry. New to the 2011 gatherings will be a tailgating trailer that offers enhanced beverage service, power for slow cookers and microwave ovens, and a side that flips up to expose a 42-inch TV with satellite. “I think it’s going to be a big hit,” he said.

Ask Stanberry why he, his wife and friends go to the trouble, and he says it’s all about school spirit. “I’m very proud to be a graduate of WCU,” he said. “I also love the people who coach at Western Carolina, and I want to support them and the players. All the people are amazing, my friends, the students and the administration. Lastly, I just love being outside on a football Saturday cooking, having an adult beverage and hanging out with my family and friends. It doesn’t get much better.”

In the student tailgating lot, alongside games of cornhole and Frisbee, sometimes stands “Grillzilla,” an oversized charcoal grill dreamed up by Keith Corzine ’82, director of residential living, and Tim Chapman ’02, associate director of facilities with residential living. It was welded into reality by David Burress, a WCU facilities management technician who also is a master blacksmith. “He’s really an artist in hiding,” said Chapman of Burress, who named the grill where hundreds of pounds of pork, hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken wings and pork loins have been cooked and given to students.

Tight-knit fraternities and sororities also host many tailgating activities. Janae McKinney, a senior from Columbus, Ga., and president of Pi Gamma chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority at WCU, said the chapter always invites alumnae to spend Homecoming day at WCU. “I love to see past members of our chapter fellowship with current members and just show that they still bleed purple and gold,” said McKinney. “Tailgating creates wonderful moments.”

Janine Rolison Bryan ’83 said about 100 Greek alumni from the early 1980s attended Homecoming in 2009 for a 25-year reunion that has become an annual event. “Tailgating together brought back memories of the good old days. In 2010, we did it again, and one of the Greek alumni rented a white tent where we all gathered before the game to celebrate. This year’s number is growing even more.”

Among the largest and longest-standing tailgating groups is the one whose dozens gather in the grassy area near Ramsey Regional Activity Center and call themselves “The Herd.” While a student and football player at Western Carolina, Tobe Childers said, he and his friends earned the nickname The Herd because “if you saw one of us, you saw us all.” The close-knit group started tailgating together regularly about 20 years ago. “It just grew,” said Childers, who initiated the weekend events that often begin the night before with a dinner and dance. Childers and his wife, Barbara, bring decorations and tablecloths, and order the food once they get to Cullowhee. “She’s been doing it so long, she knows what everybody likes,” said Childers.

A task force charged with examining how to protect and enhance WCU’s tailgating atmosphere has a major undertaking, as the bonds formed during such events are strong, said Price, who still misses the late Gus Henry. Henry enjoyed tailgating “as if it were Christmas every Saturday,” said Price. “Try as you might to get to the stadium early for setup, he and his lovely wife were always there ahead of you. I have traveled with him from Charleston to Cincinnati and from Birmingham to Raleigh to follow WCU football, and our strong friendship was a direct result of our love for game day. He is sorely missed by so many, and that’s why at every tailgate party I initiate, a special chair with his name imprinted on it is reserved, and his signature beverage is always placed in the seat in his honor,” he said.

“Anytime people can get together for good fellowship and food, it’s a wonderful occasion,” said Price. “Throw in a college football game and it become magic. These traditions are what make collegiate athletics much bigger than just the game. It promotes a camaraderie and loyalty that is for
a lifetime.”