It may not seem like it right now, while we drown in the North Carolina Heat Index and wish that merciless August sun deeper into the southern hemisphere where it belongs, but college football season is once again upon us. And with it the triumphant return of tailgating. The following is the first part of a series by various SFN authors that touches briefly on how the previous administrationâ€™s negative perception of tailgating was short-sighted, and weâ€™ll propose that the new administration instead view tailgating as an unlimited opportunity to promote and grow the NC State brand.
Iâ€™ve tailgated across the ACC, and also in Oxford before the Georgia game â€“ every college football fan should make it a point to do this at least once â€“ and in Tuscaloosa before the Tennessee game. What I can most assuredly tell you is that what West Raleigh lacks in small-town SEC charm, we more than make up for with intensity and panache. Sure, the coeds in sundresses mingling about The Grove would make any red-blooded male strongly consider grad school at Ole Miss, and the sprawling enormity that unfolds from the epicenter of the coliseum-like Bryant Denny in Tuscaloosa is awe-inspiring. But beneath the canopies of The Grove in Oxford or The Quad in Tuscaloosa, youâ€™ll find an environment that is far too homogenous, pristine, catered.
Walking around either place you wonâ€™t catch even the slightest whiff of a Bojangleâ€™s tailgate special or the battle of aromas from pigs cooking in various homemade rubs. You wonâ€™t see many smokers or tables covered in shrimp. Every spot looks the same, as if the fans all read the same vanilla handbook issued by the athletic department describing the appropriate, most efficient tailgating setup: finely-dressed genteel folks sitting around flat screen TVs eating little pre-made finger sandwiches. Youâ€™ll never once have to cross through someone elseâ€™s Cornhole field of play, and since no cars are allowed in either The Grove or The Quad, you wonâ€™t have to move your entire setup to let that one last late arriver into the tiny spot you somehow managed to sneak past the parking folks.
Sure, I had a blast in both places and the game day experience was memorable â€“ one of the coolest moments in all my years of watching way too much college football was being in the middle of Rammer Jammer after Alabama beat Tennessee last year. But every time Iâ€™m on the road for a game, whether itâ€™s Ole Miss or Alabama, or Clemson or Virginia Tech, I canâ€™t help but wish that I was instead counting down to kickoff in my little corner of the Trinity Lot, where all seems right with the world, if only for those fleeting five hours.
Thereâ€™s a reason the SEC schools are famous for their tailgating. At its core, those SEC tailgates are a festive event for the fans, inseperable from the game itself. State fans feel no differently, yet unfortunately for us, weâ€™ve had â€œleadershipâ€ — pause here to scoff — over the past decade that has been too obtuse to recognize this. With new leadership to guide us, hopefully theyâ€™ll soon realize what most of us have always known: that tailgating has the unlimited potential to be an indelible complement to NC State football.
Iâ€™m not suggesting that tailgating is anymore apart of the NC State culture than anywhere else, but itâ€™s a real shame that for the past several years, our anti-leadership has failed, or perhaps simply refused, to recognize the opportunity to promote NC State football through its vast tailgating culture; instead, theyâ€™ve viewed it with contempt and treated its culture with disdain â€“ the problem in need of a solution. In no way am I making light of that tragic incident in 2004 that admittedly left our administration no choice but to somehow react, but over the years that response has proven misguided. My group was tailgating a Steve Videtich field goal away from where the shooting happened, and itâ€™d be irresponsible for me, or any of us, to suggest that the old Fairgrounds setup harbored anything short of an atmosphere where utter chaos reigned.
But in its aftermath, the administration chose to view this isolated incident as an institutional problem, which is disconcerting for those of us in the vast majority that felt punished for an environment that we never supported. Where our Sports Information Department should have chosen to highlight the positives to a media that we were allowing to once again villify us, the administration opted instead for ad hoc damage control â€“ after all, restrictions and limitations would surely curb future chaos by those evil NC State tailgating hoodlums. This kind of response simply proved a microcosm for how our previous leadership continuously failed to capture the spirit of the very fan base it was tasked to promote, and in the process they alienated the very folks they should have embraced. Tailgating was very bad and it had no place at NC State. That was the message they tried to shove down our throats as they marketed the brilliant racket of linking LTRs to season tickets and the uber-valuable parking passes.
They never figured out, or perhaps never cared, why contrived gimmicks like the Walk of Champions or the pre-game Fanzone were never more popular. Yet, itâ€™s a concept of which most of us have a keen appreciation: weâ€™re not simply investing in the game itself, but rather in the social event that is college football â€“ just like at Ole Miss or Texas or Notre Dame. Personally, Iâ€™m just as content watching the game on TV (itâ€™s why I donâ€™t have LTRs or season tickets for basketball). I doubt itâ€™s a leap to presume that very few of us invest, at the minimum, annually, $300 for WPC dues, $300 for LTRs and nearly $800 for two season tickets and a parking pass simply to have a spot in the bleachers for six or seven home games. No, we do it because on those six or seven weekends each fall, we get to spend time with our good friends, who come in from different places, and share that common bond of being State fans in a welcoming environment that reminds us all that sports indeed transcends life. And after that we still get to go watch our favorite team play.
When 60,000 folks gather in such a relatively small area, of course there will be problems. But that doesnâ€™t make the problems institutional. Thereâ€™s nothing nuclear about my tailgating family (except for my baby sister, the nuclear engineer); for the most part, itâ€™d be no easy assignment to pen the history of my groupâ€™s evolution over the years into the finely-tuned Tailgating Machine we are today. But we pretty much keep to ourselves in our own little corner, and thatâ€™s probably not atypical of each of your groups. Other than the usual friendly jab, we donâ€™t harass opposing fans as they walk by, and many weeks theyâ€™re tailgating as our guests. We open our coolers and offer up food to our neighbors or folks that stop by to say hello, and we let complete strangers have a turn at Cornhole. On hot days we even try to make sure the law enforcement folks working the Trinity Lot have water when they pass by our spot.
But Iâ€™m not suggesting that weâ€™re just more decent, classier folks than most others out there. On the contrary, we fit inside the rule; weâ€™re no different than any of the groups around us. State fans are generally just good olâ€™ folks enjoying the tailgating festivities, and we donâ€™t need the condescending W.I.T.H. program to keep us behaved. Thatâ€™s what’s institutional. Yet over the years this fact has felt lost on our administration. Theyâ€™ve never viewed tailgating as that aforementioned indelible complement to NC State football, but rather a nuisance theyâ€™ve had to tolerate in order to sell more LTRs and season tickets. Weâ€™ve even had a coach on the Jumbotron imploring us to be in our seats on time â€“ you know, at nearly $1,400 per year, instead of implying Iâ€™m a bad fan for missing the band enter or going out at halftime, a simple â€œthank youâ€ would suffice.
But Iâ€™m encouraged by our new leadership. Thus far, the actions and comments of both new chancellor Randy Woodson and new Athletic Director Debbie Yow have been both authoritative and positive in tone. My initial impression is that the latter came to Raleigh with a fundamental, if not keen, understanding of this fickle yet passionate fan base, while the former came with the openness to discover it on his own.
Iâ€™ve said before that State fans hold Jimmy Vâ€™s immortal words with such high regard because for the past two decades â€“ through incompetent leadership and underwhelming performance â€“ hope is all weâ€™ve had. But after far too many years, in the summer of 2010 I have a renewed hope that those of us weâ€™ve entrusted to lead our beloved alma mater will recognize the unlimited potential for opportunity within this fan base rather than simply exploiting our generosity.
We State folks pride ourselves on being innovators in the real world, and with the proliferation of technology thereâ€™s no reason we shouldnâ€™t be embracing every opportunity within the tailgating culture to promote the NC State brand.