In an ordinary summer Trentice Imbler, a Tupelo business leader and active Ole Miss alumna, would be looking forward to gathering with friends and family on fall Saturdays outside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The times, though, have been extraordinary – and not in a good way.
As Mississippi and the nation try to wrap arms and minds around society’s restart, Imbler hopes tailgating will still be a thing.
“I do hope that things will be better by September and that I would feel more comfortable in participating in game-day festivities,” she said. “Today, I would not be gathering.”
Mississippi State fans face the same challenges at The Junction and other popular spots on campus.
Success in tailgating may depend on humanity’s conscious.
“You have to count on people to be responsible and do the right thing, whatever that looks like when fall gets here,” said Tupelo resident Jim Davis, an MSU graduate. “Our people are rule-followers. Whatever the prescription is for keeping everybody safe by then, I think we’ll more or less try to accommodate that.”
Forming a plan to even have college football this season has been the primary focus of Ole Miss athletics director Keith Carter, along with athletic administrators and conference officials across the country.
Tailgating – even when it’s big business in places such as Ole Miss and MSU – has been a secondary consideration, if that.
National media outlets have included Ole Miss among college football’s top tailgating experiences. Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News have called Ole Miss the best.
Carter wants to make sure games are played, but if they are, can he save the Grove?
“Obviously people want to come and that’s a big part of our game-day tradition, 60,000 or 70,000 people out in The Grove. What does that look like? Can we even have The Grove this year, or is it at 50 percent capacity?”
Both of Mississippi’s SEC schools have been working on plans to create a safe environment inside the stadium, plans that will lean on social distancing where possible and could include the wearing of masks by fans.
But how do you monitor social distancing in outdoor tailgating areas with no true entries and exits?
“It would be like herding cats,” Davis said.
Sid Seal, an Oxford resident, sees a key event on the local calendar as helping guide Carter in handling the Grove.
The popular Double Decker festival was moved from its spring date to Aug. 14-15.
“Something like that will be a marker,” he said.
Local businesses are watching those markers, too.
If you’re looking for that rare lull in a Chick-Fil-A drive-thru line, reduced tailgating could create that.
Jonathan Rogers operates the Starkville location where folks can hear cow bells ringing from Davis-Wade Stadium less than a mile away.
“We can be pretty overwhelmed on Saturday game days. We actually restrict the number of orders we take so we can continue to serve our drive-thru guests,” Rogers said.
Nugget trays are a huge seller when the Bulldogs are in town, and game days make catering about a third of Rogers’ business. Other times it might make up five percent of business in a month.
“Our business would be OK because we can adjust, but we won’t hit some of the same sales targets. Although we do a lot there may be some businesses that do more catering than we do on a regular basis. For some it might be a core part of their survival. We’re not necessarily one of those,” he said.
Bernard Bean of the Eat With Us Group is watching the in-stadium plan as much as what happens with tailgating.
The Group’s Sweet Peppers Deli could feel a loss if tailgating takes a dive, but the bigger hurt could be the loss of in-house business for Bulldog Burger, which is much closer to campus, and its other restaurants.
“Our business really depends on how many people are in the stands,” Bean said. “If they open up at (only) 50 percent that will reduce our business by 50 percent. We just hope they’re able to do it in a safe manner.”
Seal has been an Ole Miss season-ticket holder for 25 years and has been tailgating “forever.”
He and Imbler are both part of groups who tailgate in the circle outside the Lyceum, the school’s main administration building.
“It’s the Grove suburbs,” says Seal, who also tailgates at baseball games.
The visiting, the sharing of lives that takes place around sporting events are “part of our lives in the South,” he said. “It’s who we are.”
Imbler has one daughter who is a recent Ole Miss graduate and another who will begin there this fall.
If tailgating does happen, she’s rethinking her food presentation.
“I would not want food just sitting out for people to graze over,” she said.
Imbler is also concerned about the well-being of older fans. She has parents and in-laws who are 40- and 50-year season-ticket holders.
Seal says he’ll mask up for the Grove if necessary but acknowledges others may not be so willing.
He remains optimistic.
“I know Keith has a big burden on his shoulders right now, as does John Cohen at Mississippi State and everybody else who is trying to figure out what to do,” Seal said. “I think tailgating will go full force. The Grove may not be as packed as it has been. Unless it gets a lot worse, I think it will be a good tailgating year.”