I traveled down to Mississippi with my good friend and media colleague, Lonny Demaree (right). The Ole Miss fan in between us gave us a personal tour of “The Grove.” The people tailgating were super friendly. Unfortunately, there were just way too many of them.
(OXFORD, Ms.) – When Kentucky first released its current 2022 football schedule, there was one road game I circled immediately. Ever since I started this media gig, a trip to Ole Miss remained at the top of my bucket list of SEC venues to visit. Not only had I never been to Oxford, but stories I heard of tailgating in The Grove were legendary in my mind.
Described frequently as the “Holy Grail of tailgating sites,” The Grove takes on a life of its own during Ole Miss football Saturdays. Geographically speaking, it’s located right in the center of a picturesque college campus and consists of stately oak, elm, and magnolia trees providing the perfect mixture of ambience and shade. What really distinguishes it from any other park-like setting, however, is the massive mix of partygoers and football fanatics reveling within its boundaries on gameday.
When I first walked through the maze of tents, TVs, and tailgaters three hours before kickoff, I was a bit taken aback. I immediately sensed that this place was out of control. Because in my mind, I somehow pictured ornate canopies in spacious meadows filled with aristocratic gentlemen and southern belles. Everyone’s dressed to the nines with unlimited access to their favorite food and drink (think Picnic with the Pops on steroids).
Instead, I was greeted by a virtual madhouse of sweaty football humanity. Frat boys, slick donors, soccer moms, average Joes, grandmas, former jocks, and current drunks all crammed shoulder to shoulder under an assortment of cover you might find in the various tent cities of worldwide refugee camps. It’s only 8:00 a.m., and the area is already so jam packed that there’s no room to walk, turn around, or breathe. Fifty feet into the morass, and I had seen enough.
Life in the press box at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium turned out to be just as unpleasant. With their heartbreaking 22 – 19 defeat at the hands of their Rebel hosts, the Wildcats once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
What was maddingly frustrating for the 12 – 15,000 Big Blue faithful who made the trip down South was that despite the inopportune red zone fumbles, the lack of protection by the O-line, and the kicking game meltdowns, Kentucky still had a chance to win the game at the end. Sure, Barion Brown’s 245 all-purpose yards, Chris Rodriguez’s return to action, and the defense making some critical stops are continued causes for future optimism. But make no mistake—this loss hurts. It hurts really bad.
Many say to rejoice and be glad because Kentucky had never been ranked this high (No. 7 in the nation) before. I say cry and lament because it’s an opportunity squandered as the Wildcats may never find themselves in this lofty position again.
But I’m here primarily to report on the tailgating, so immediately upon hearing the final horn, I hightail it back over to The Grove to meet a few of my friends who have traveled down from Kentucky. It’s a miracle I’m even able to hook up with them amidst the exuberant masses pouring forth from the stadium exits.
We finally settle into our pre-purchased spot at The Grove, our feet navigating the mound of dry dirt and dirty straw masquerading as the plush carpet of green grass I had previously imagined in my dreams. As reality hit, I realized there would be no chandeliers nor champagne, no caviar nor Cuban cigars. Maybe I was still sulking from the Ole Miss beatdown, but to be honest, The Grove was ridiculously overrated. The tailgating around the bucolic rolling hills surrounding Kroger Field—with plenty of room for cornhole and tossing footballs—was far better in my mind.
Then suddenly, I noticed a subtle change in my mood. As I chatted with my friends and they introduced me to their friends, I discovered that the thoughts of despair surrounding Kentucky’s loss magically dissipated. This was exactly what the doctor ordered. No longer was I lamenting “what could have been.” Now I was savoring the moment—good times with good people, good food, and good conversations. The final score no longer mattered. Enjoying the journey is what ultimately counts.
Here’s what I learned on my trip to Oxford. When experiencing The Grove, it’s not about the fancy tents, or the majestic oaks, or the renowned party atmosphere. It’s more about the company you keep. Seriously, you can have a fabulous time tailgating under an asphalt bridge. Just make sure it’s with people you like and care about.
For that reason, I hereby anoint Kroger Field as “the mecca of tailgating sites.” I’ve been to the “holy grail.” Trust me, Kentucky Football tailgating is as good as it gets.
Dr. John Huang covers professional sports for Sports View America. He’s also a columnist for Nolan Group Media and serves as editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. Check out his latest Kentucky Basketball book, KENTUCKY PASSION, at https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669 . If you enjoy his coverage, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.