By Steve Kelley
BATON ROUGE, La. — The motor homes and buses will start lining up outside the RV lots at Tiger Stadium even before the gates open Friday at 5 p.m.
A conga line of Louisiana State fans in vans rolls into town ready for a weekend of food and drink, friendship and folly that, six or seven times a year, wraps itself around an important college football game.
“About a half-mile from the stadium, a little city emerges,” said Greg Morrison, who runs a trucking business in Baton Rouge and has been a Tiger season-ticket holder since 1990. “Really, it’s just one big neighborhood.”
Busses and vans are painted purple and gold, the colors of LSU. One bus called itself, “Tiger Touchdown.”
Let the good times roll.
All around Tiger Stadium, which on football Saturdays becomes the sixth largest city by population in the state, the cooking begins early Saturday morning, as more tailgaters in more conventional vehicles pull into their assigned spots.
Some armies aren’t as well equipped as LSU’s tailgaters. Some restaurants don’t have the kind of elaborate cooking equipment you’ll find in the lots around Tiger Stadium.
One group used to hang a ceiling fan from a nearby tree. The administration asked that the fan be taken out of the tree, so now it hangs from a pole.
This is Saturday Night (And Day) Live at the place the locals call “Death Valley.”
“After one game I watched these people back up their pickup truck,” Morrison said. “I looked at all of that equipment and I thought there was no way they would get it all back in the truck. But they knew exactly where everything went. It was like a science to them.”
Even though the game Saturday against Washington won’t begin until 6 p.m. local time, the air will be filled with the smells of Cajun cooking as early as noon.
“It really gets rockin’ and rollin’ around 2 o’clock,” Morrison said. “We grind it from 2 until kickoff.”
It’s a feast before football. Fried chicken and catfish. Jambalaya. Red beans and rice. Shrimp. Gumbo. Whiskey and beer.
“There’s the smell of whiskey and Cajun food in the air,” Morrison said. “That’s what we like.”
Cheryl Taplin is an assistant to Washington coach Steve Sarkisian. She is a member of LSU’s athletic Hall of Fame, a 16-time All-American sprinter and a three-time NCAA titlist. She speaks of the tailgating at her alma mater with great reverence. College football is, after all, religion in the deep South.
“Everybody should have an opportunity to experience it,” Taplin said. “Everything in Baton Rouge stops.”
Unlike many places, Taplin said, tailgaters at LSU share their bounty. If you’re wearing Husky purple, you still will be offered a bowl of gumbo or a chicken breast as you stroll through the parking parties.
“The people there are so giving,” Taplin said. “They don’t care if you’re part of the visiting team. They’ll yell to you, ‘Come try my jambalaya.’ It’s just one big party. It’s unreal. When I look back on my first experience there, yeah, I was blown away.”
Morrison said that after the games he’ll often offer visiting fans some beers.
“Especially if we win,” he said. “Now, if you’re from Florida or Alabama, of course, I think I have to be really pushed to give you anything.”
Washington’s athletic director, Scott Woodward, sold peanuts at Tiger Stadium when he was 10 years old. He once met Bear Bryant, Alabama’s legendary coach, and shook hands with him in the end zone.
“It’s a special place,” Woodward said. “There is the tradition of playing night games that gives the fans enough time to get good and lubricated all day long. It’s a raucous place and a fun place to watch a ballgame. It’s an enclosed bowl. The fans are on top of you, and there’s 92,000 fans. It gets a bit loud.”
A bit loud?
“It hurts your ears,” Morrison said. “There’s lots of times I have to put my fingers in my ears. I’ll be yelling, ‘This is killing me.’ It’s loud and hot and ugly for visiting teams. And it’s always rockin’.”
There are moments from this stadium that are part of Louisiana history.
Woodward remembers the pass with one second left from Bert Jones to Brad Davis in 1972 that beat Mississippi. It was dubbed, “The Day That Time Stood Still.” Jones threw an incompletion that should have ended the game, but curiously one second remained on the clock.
After that game, a sign appeared at the Louisiana-Mississippi border. “Welcome to Mississippi. Please set your watches back three seconds.”
He remembers the pass from Tommy Hodson to Eddie Fuller against Auburn in 1988. The stadium shook so wildly an earthquake was registered at the school’s geoscience complex.
In the week after the upset victory over Florida in 1997, Morrison met a man at a construction site who also was at that game. The man stealthily removed a wooden match box from his pocket.
“I want to show you something,” he said.
“Oh, no,” Morrison thought. “I hope he’s not going to try to sell me some dope.”
The man pushed open the match box and Morrison saw what looked like green grass inside.
“Don’t you recognize that?” the man said. “You see those little flecks of purple and gold. That came from the field, midfield, after the Florida game. I tore up a little patch of turf as a remembrance.”
Morrison said he looked at the man, shook his hand and thought, “That’s big. You’re my man.”
He laughs now at the importance of LSU football in his state.
“At the end of the day it’s a sport, period,” said Morrison, whose father Lowell was a high-school coach who mentored Terry Bradshaw and Joe Ferguson. “But we just go out and have a lot of fun. We’re naturally jolly and happy.”