The Grove at Ole Miss: Where Football Saturdays Create Lifelong Memories

Seph Anderson@@SephAndersonCorrespondent IIIApril 17, 2013

Welcome to the Grove at Ole Miss                                          Photo courtesy: Seph Anderson
Welcome to the Grove at Ole Miss Photo courtesy: Seph Anderson

At the Grove at Ole Miss, Saturday afternoons in the fall become memories that last a lifetime.

Until you've stepped onto the 10-acre plot of heaven on earth, you can't truly appreciate its splendor.

Assuming you haven't yet made the trip to the tailgating mecca, let me try and conjure up even more grandiose images in your mind. It'll only make you want to visit the magnificent Grove even more.

By the end of this article, you'll be checking the 2013 home schedule to find a time to come see coach Hugh Freeze's rising Ole Miss Rebels and experience the Grove for yourself.

A Brief History of the Grove

While the Grove has been in existence for over 100 years, it's evolved greatly over time.

A little-known fact many folks outside of Oxford don't know: the land on which the Grove now sits was set aside for recreation during former Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Fulton's reign from 1892-1903. It's safe to assume that Fulton could have never envisioned how significant the Grove would become in the world of tailgating.

It was not until November 11, 1893 that Ole Miss played it's first college football game. Nevertheless, Rebel fans were surely pleased with the 56-0 victory over Southwest Baptist College in Oxford.

While Ole Miss has played football since 1893, the Grove didn't become a central tailgating spot on campus until the middle of the 20th century. Prior to the 1950s, most Rebel tailgating took place at fraternity and sorority houses on campus. However, cars, trucks and RVs began to take over the Grove during the 1950s.

The tailgating setup worked well for red and blue fans until a 1990 rainstorm turned the Grove into a muddy mess. Ever since then, vehicles have been strictly prohibited on the hallowed grounds.

Instead, Ole Miss fans began to turn the Grove into a virtual tent city before every home game.

The New York Times fittingly commented on Ole Miss' Grove lore:

Ole Miss’s stadium accommodates 60,580 people, and devotees of the Grove argue that the Grove accommodates more. It is every kind of party you can describe, at once: cocktail party, dinner party, tailgate picnic party, fraternity and sorority rush, family reunion, political handgrab, gala and networking party-hearty — what might have inspired Willie Morris, one of Mississippi’s favorite sons, to declare Mississippi not a state, but a club.


The Walk of Champions

The unofficial entrance to the Grove at Ole Miss is the "Walk of Champions."

When Billy Brewer was hired as head coach of the Rebels in 1983, he really wanted to find a way for his players to take part in the excitement fans experienced in the Grove. The coach did just that, and he created yet another Ole Miss tradition.

In 1998, an actual "Walk of Champions" arch was built. Fittingly, funding for the arch was provided by members of the Rebels undefeated 1962 SEC and national championship team (Litkenhouse Ratings).

Roughly two hours before every home kickoff, Ole Miss coaches and players arrive in buses next to the "Walk of Champions." In front of thousands of exuberant fans and a boisterous "Are You Ready?" proclamation from the crowd, the Rebels make their way through the Grove.

Coaches and players throw high fives to fans young and old, as the team eventually makes its way to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. For Ole Miss fans, it's one tradition that simply never gets old.

National Tailgating Treasure

Whether a lifelong Grove patron or a Grove virgin making an initial visit to the tailgating mecca, what actually happens during the football game itself has little impact on the southern hospitality folks experience during their Grove experiences. Even fans of opposing teams leave the Grove having received a welcome and experience, totally unimagined.

Garrett Tenney of Fox News talks about the Grove's national recognition, "Sporting News has called it “The Holy Grail of Tailgating” and Sports Illustrated said it was "the number one tailgating" experience in college football."

The team at Burnt Orange Nation was so stunned with their experience when the Texas Longhorns played the Rebels in 2012 that they had this to say:

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have been to the land of Milk and Honey Boo Boo and let me assure you, all the Taiwanese tales of grandeur that you've heard regarding "The Grove" being the greatest tailgating experience on Earth are not only true, but probably grossly understated.

William L. Hamilton's New York Times article entitled "At Ole Miss, the Tailgaters Never Lose," adeptly describes the Grove atmosphere:

There are seven home-game weekends at Ole Miss. And people in the Grove know how to have a good time down there — they can stretch the party over three days, from Friday night into Sunday morning. It is pimento cheese sandwiches and silver trays, candelabra and fried chicken tenders, button-down shirts, rep ties and khaki shorts, pearls, expensive sunglasses and flip-flops in your purse for when your high heels become history.

After a single visit to the tailgating mecca, you'll be able to develop your own tag line. Trust me.

Family, Family, Family

First and foremost, the Grove is all about family. Make no mistake about it.

Sure there are college kids creating their own Grove memories (heck, maybe even being a little rowdy), but the Grove is a place where truly anyone and everyone is welcome. Folks that set up tents each week host extended family, co-workers, colleagues, old friends and even strangers lost in the Grove shuffle. A Saturday in the Grove is the true definition of "southern hospitality."

Upon making a fall visit to the Grove, visitors quickly find themselves enthralled by the "personal, family atmosphere" that's simply contagious among Ole Miss students, faculty, staff members, alums and just about anyone wearing red or blue.

In the Grove, there's no such thing as a visitor. Rather, the atmosphere is like one giant family reunion.

In a 1971 introduction of Ole Miss Chancellor Porter Fortune, unknowingly alum Frank E. Everett Jr. provided a description of his alma mater that is still quoted today:

There is a valid distinction between The University and Ole Miss even though the separate threads are closely interwoven.

The University is buildings, trees and people. Ole Miss is mood, emotion and personality. One is physical, and the other is spiritual. One is tangible, and the other intangible.

The University is respected, but Ole Miss is loved. The University gives a diploma and regretfully terminates tenure, but one never graduates from Ole Miss.

Having likely experienced the Grove many times himself, there's no doubt Everett had the 10-acre wonderland in mind when describing the mood, emotion and personality of Ole Miss.

Grove Memories That Will Last a Lifetime

I've been fortunate enough to call Oxford, MS and Ole Miss home since first arriving on campus as a freshman in 1999. Over a decade and two degrees later, I now reside in the sleepy college town with my wife and two young daughters. Easily one of the most special things we do as a family seven Saturdays a year is go "groving" together before home games.

Over the course of my relatively short time at Ole Miss, several fond memories come to mind.

October 5, 2002

Having not defeated a top-10 team since 1997, in 2002 the Rebels hosted No. 6 Florida in Oxford.

The Grove was its usual fun ahead of the mid-day tilt with the Gators, but what would come after the game was something to be remembered forever. Current New York Giants QB Eli Manning led his Rebel club to a 17-14 victory over eventual NFL-journeyman Rex Grossman and the Gators.

Fans stormed Jerry Hollingsworth field, and the goalposts soon made their way to the Grove.

November 22, 2003

On November 22, 2003, the Grove experienced it's most raucous party ever. In quarterback Eli Manning's final home game, the Rebels took on rival LSU for a shot to play in the SEC Championship. Between the two teams, an estimated 100,000 fans packed the Grove for a party that's still talked about today.

While the Rebels didn't prevail on the field, Ole Miss fans definitely won the day in the Grove.

Sharing the Experience

As an Ole Miss alumni, I've always taken great pride in making sure first-time Grove-goers receive the total experience. Several years ago, I was provided the opportunity to host an older relative (and lifelong University of Tennessee fan) on his first visit to the tailgating mecca.

As we walked and talked our way through the Grove, the lifelong Vol fan could barely believe his eyes. From the graciousness of people he'd never even met to the pride and pageantry of the whole experience, I'm proud to say he left campus that day with a special place in his heart for Ole Miss.

Not too many years after his visit, he passed away from a sudden illness. Years later, I still look back on our experience that day in the Grove as one of my all-time favorites. Again, making lifelong memories is what the Grove experience is all about at Ole Miss.

Texas Invasion

This past fall, Mack Brown's Texas Longhorns made their first-ever trip to Oxford.

Along with Bevo and the boys in blaze orange came around 15,000 Longhorn fans.

It was a Grove crowd that rivaled, if not exceeded, Ole Miss' 2003 home games against LSU.

For two storied schools that had never before met on the gridiron, the two passionate fan bases treated one another like they'd known each other for years. Longhorn fans from eclectic Austin, Texas left the Grove with an experience unlike anything they could've ever imagined.

Tent City Timeline

While tent space is technically reserved on a first-come basis, there is an unspoken gentlemen's agreement among Rebels that set up tents in the Grove. While a person may have his or her tent space moved a little every once in a while, especially with large crowds, respect and tradition reign supreme in the Grove.

Friday evenings before home games, the Grove officially opens at 9 p.m. CT.

Beyond simply enjoying the Grove, watching fans rush the Grove to setup tents on Friday night is a memorable scene in and of itself. It's worth checking out the next time you're in Oxford.

Only official university-sponsored groups may have "reserved" spaces in the Grove, so it's literally no holds barred as soon as the clock strikes nine. Within an hour or two, a virtual tent city is established.

Regardless of kickoff time the next day, fans live it up in the Grove for hours upon hours (before and after the game). 

On gameday, people from all walks of like descend upon the famed tailgating territory for a truly unique experience. Decked out in their Sunday best, male students show up in khaki's, button-down shirts and ties, while the females show up looking like they just walked out of a J Crew catalog.

Between the sounds of coolers rolling down the Walk of Champions, the smell of the south's finest home-cooking, bourbon and cigars and an infinite number of southern belles in their Sunday best, the Grove's officially open for business.

Ole Miss prides itself on having three of its own win the Miss America crown. A Texan with Vegas Insider suggested the following of Ole Miss coeds following a recent trip to the Grove:

Ole Miss, where they red-shirt Miss America's. The "talent level" at The Grove is second to none. They've got tall ones, short ones, blonde ones, brunettes, it simply doesn't matter, they are all drop-dead gorgeous. I'm from Texas, and we have some of the most beautiful women on the planet, but this was like walking around in Leonardo DiCaprio's dating recycling bin.

Easily the most amazing part of the tent city timeline is how quickly every square inch of the land is cleaned. Within a matter of several hours, a mixture of staff, students and various non-profit organizations make the Grove look as if nobody has even been there all day.

Putting It All Together

Are You Ready? 

That's a question sure to resonate throughout the Grove on Saturdays in the fall.

If you hear the question yelled from amongst the myriad of Grove-goers, here's how to answer:

Hell, yeah! Damn Right!
Hotty Toddy, Gosh almighty
Who the hell are we, Hey!
Flim Flam, Bim Bam

If you've never made a trip to the Grove at Ole Miss, you absolutely have to at least once in your lifetime. There's no ticket required for entry and you only need to show up ready to have the time of your life. When you make the trip, come back to this article and proudly share your own experiences.

Are You Ready?