By Jodi Mailander Farrell
Fall is the time for tents, college tailgates and smack talk in Florida, where the southern ritual of pregame partying is steeped in tradition and some of football’s fiercest rivalries.
Fans start polishing their custom koozies early here for elaborate game-day celebrations. The sun-drenched pastime puts Florida football in a league of its own.
“Oh yeah,” said Jessica Thomas, the Gainesville general manager of Tailgate Guys, which has turned the art of tailgating into a thriving business. “Some people start gearing up for next season before the last game of the season ends. The sheer number of people makes it lively, but it’s really about camaraderie, being around family and friends or sharing your love of football or a team together. The only task on game day is to enjoy yourself.”
You don’t have to follow the scent of barbecue to find a Florida college tailgate experience. We’ve made it easy for you with this guide to some of the state’s biggest football towns and traditions.
Tailgating at the University of Florida, Gainesville
As the Mecca of Gator Nation, Gainesville draws hundreds of thousands of University of Florida football fans annually for pilgrimages to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, better known as “The Swamp.” The Gators have a storied football history of more than 100 years that includes eight Southeastern Conference championships, three national titles and three Heisman-winning quarterbacks.
Whether they’re winning or losing, Gator fans show up in force, with as many as 80,000 “tail-gators” at a time firing up their grills and honing their cornhole-tossing skills on Reitz Union Lawn, just south of Florida’s largest stadium.
“There is no better place than The Swamp,” ESPN College Football Analyst Lee Corso has said – a bold statement coming from a former quarterback of rival Florida State University.
“When the Gators run out of the tunnel, it is absolutely the moment of moments in college football."
The labor-intensive tailgating rituals of devoted Gators span generations and have been the focus of academic research studies. “People bleed blue and orange around here,” said Thomas at Tailgate Guys, which will be outfitting groups of 11 to 1,500 people with tents, coolers and catering.
If you want to fit in, purchase an alligator head and perfect your “chomp,” the practice of extending your arms and clamping them together like a gator’s mouth. Along with Tailgate Guys, there are numerous outfitters and tailgating experts, including GatorTailgating, which hosts forums and message boards that share everything from recipes – gator bites and beer brats anyone? – to ticketing and event opportunities.
Traffic to campus gets heavy around 10 a.m. on game day. Before 9 a.m., parking can be found on campus on grassy spots that aren’t marked off with tape or cones. Along University Avenue, parking at a house costs between $20 and $40, depending on proximity to The Swamp. There’s a big RV and motorhome scene, which requires a stadium parking permit from the University of Florida Transportation Department and stretches as far as 20 minutes south to Grand Lake RV & Golf Resort, at 18545 NW 45th Ave. Rd. in Citra. Another option: Arrive on foot by catching a park-and-ride shuttle to the stadium.
For hotels, motels and other accommodations, go to the Alachua County Visitors Bureau’s Visit Gainesville site, www.visitgainesville.com.
Tailgating at the Florida/Georgia Game in Jacksonville
One of college football’s biggest tailgating events takes place on neutral turf. Since 1933, the University of Florida Gators and the University of Georgia Bulldogs have met in Jacksonville to play football while their fans enjoy “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party,” a term coined by a Florida Times-Union sports editor in the 1950s. (The city of Jacksonville and SEC stopped using it as a slogan in the 1980s to curb alcohol-fueled antics, but the name persists.)
Tents, live bands, games, temporary tattoos and a UF-UGA Hall of Fame are all part of the experience. Touchdown Showdown is a free interactive attraction run by the city of Jacksonville outside of the field’s south end zone. It features games and activities, jumbo screens, merchandise sales and food, with separate “Swamp” and “Dawg House” entrances. People without tickets can stay here through the end of the game.
R.V. City is a staple of the Florida-Georgia football experience. Three days before the game, RVs starting lining up in Lot E on a first-come, first-served basis. (There’s a $125 per day fee.) Live entertainment and a campground decorating contest are part of the fun. The tailgating event extends to boats on the St. Johns River.
If you miss the big game, tailgating Jacksonville-style goes on all season with the pros at EverBank Field, where the Jacksonville Jaguars play.
There’s also the annual college football bowl game, the TaxSlayer Bowl, originally named the Gator Bowl. It’s been held in Jacksonville continuously since 1946, making it the sixth-oldest college bowl, as well as the first one televised nationally. The bowl features a team from the SEC against an opponent from the Big Ten Conference or the Atlantic Coast Conference, which includes the University of Notre Dame.
More info on lodging and things to do around Jacksonville: Visit Jacksonville, www.visitjacksonville.com.
Tailgating at FSU in Tallahassee
Multi-team rivalries, a long and storied history in American football, and iconic traditions make the Florida State University Seminoles’ Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee one of the best game-day atmospheres in the country.
Sanctioned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida to use the Seminole nickname and the famous warrior Osceola as an official symbol, FSU home games start with a representative of the Seminole leader charging down Bobby Bowden Field riding an appaloosa horse and hurling a burning spear at midfield. The Seminole War Chant, a fight song first used in 1984 by the 470-member Marching Chiefs, the world’s largest collegiate marching band, fills the air while crowds practice their tomahawk chops.
The Noles have won three national championships, 18 conference titles and six division titles. They have achieved three undefeated seasons and finished ranked in the top five of the AP Poll for 14 straight years, from 1987 through 2000. The team has produced three Heisman Trophy winners. The Biletnikoff Award, presented annually to the top receiver in college football, is named for Florida State Hall of Famer Fred Biletnikoff.
There’s field cred here.
FSU’s arch foes are Florida and Miami, with both games considered among the greatest rivalries in college football. Recently, another rivalry has developed with Clemson, with both teams competing yearly for the ACC Atlantic division.
The 82,300-seat stadium, the largest in the ACC, is on campus. Get to games early for the “War Path,” a spirit walk that has the Marching Chiefs and Golden Girls dance team marching and greeting fans from the College Town district on Madison Street to the stadium.
FSU’s tailgating scene is spread throughout the campus, with hot spots primarily in the booster lots outside of the stadium. Indian Village, a student apartment complex at 423 Indian Village Trail, across the street from the south side of the stadium, has been notorious for big, rowdy game-day parties, although recent wristband restrictions have tempered that.
More info: Visit Tallahassee, www.visittallahassee.com.
Tailgating at the U, Miami
Sun, swagger and Miami. It’s a perfect combination for college tailgating.
Miami waves off southern formality for swag and bright colors. RVs are replaced by fleets of Range Rovers, Caddy SUVs and Porsche 911s snaking their way to Sun Life Stadium, 347 Don Shula Dr., in Miami Gardens. Grills become caja chinas, roasting boxes for Cuban-style pig roasts, and instead of barbecue, the aroma of churrasco fills the air.
During college football season, it’s all about “the U.” The University of Miami – winner of five Associated Press national championships and the college with the most players active in the NFL – plays with a crazy amount of hype and scrutiny. The Miami Hurricanes, who enter the stadium through a cloud of smoke and the soundtrack of a tropical storm, have two Heisman Trophy winners and nine members in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Since the school lost the Orange Bowl in 2007, it has played home games at the 75,540-seat NFL stadium 21 miles north of the university’s main campus. Tailgating is limited to four hours before game time. Most UM students make the 30-minute commute on free shuttles offered by the school. For everybody else, traffic updates are posted on electronic signs on the Florida Turnpike and Interstate-95, as well as 560 WQAM radio.
Instead of the Chop or Chomp, UM fans throw up the U, a two-handed gesture credited to a theater student, Juan Valladares, who first brought his thumbs together at the Miami-FSU game in 1984. The Canes’ Ibis – an Everglades bird known to be the last sign of wildlife to take shelter before a hurricane and the first to reappear after the storm – is one of the most recognizable college mascots in the United States.
Be prepared to join Hurricane fans and players in holding up four fingers at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The gesture indicates their belief that a game is won in the crucial final period.
Sun Life Stadium also is home to the Miami Dolphins. Dol Fans start partying three hours before the game in the orange, blue, maroon and purple lots around the field. With Miami home to many transplants from other football cities, parking-lot bravado heats up when the Dolphins play their biggest rivals, the New York Jets, the New England Patriots, and the Buffalo Bills.
The stadium also is host in January to the Capital One Orange Bowl, an annual college football bowl game that has been played here since 1935. One of the second-oldest bowl games in the country, along with the Sugar Bowl and Sun Bowl, the Orange Bowl is host to the Atlantic Coast Conference champ, unless that team is in the national championship game.
Most of the successful college programs and players in the country have seen their history intertwined with the Orange Bowl. Bear Bryant won an Orange Bowl. Joe Namath was an MVP here. Orange Bowl Committee members, easily spotted in their orange jackets, are treated like royalty in Miami. Orange Bowl sailing regattas, tennis and golf tournaments, even paddle board championships are planned year-round to benefit the community.
On game day, a fan zone, typically set up near the stadium’s Gate G, features live music, interactive games, sports memorabilia, food and drinks, and appearances from the competing teams’ bands and spirit squads.
Tailgating at USF, Tampa
One Florida’s youngest college football programs, the University of South Florida Bulls began playing in 1997, reportedly holding their first team meeting under a shade tree because they had no football facilities on campus. Today, the Bulls play at Raymond James Stadium, or “Ray Jay,” where they have built a record that includes one streak of 21 straight victories at home.
The stadium, at 4201 N. Dale Mabry Hwy. in Tampa, is across the street from George M. Steinbrenner Field and Hillsborough Community College. Its parking lots open 3½ hours before the start of games.
Pregame festivities begin with the Herd of Thunder – the school’s marching band – calling college tailgaters to the stadium with a parking lot concert, “Road Show,” which takes place in the Bulls Zone in Lot 6D, along with other activities. Fifteen minutes before game-time, the band’s trumpets perform the "Call of the Bulls", which signals the entire band, cheerleaders and Rocky the Bull to stampede the field, followed later by the team to the tune of "El Toro Caliente" and the USF fight song.
USF’s most noteworthy rival is the University of Central Florida Knights.
The 2002 Super Bowl champs, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, also play here. Huge grass lots on the north and south end of the 66,000-capacity stadium are made for comfortable tailgate partying. Lot 1 features the most excessive tailgating experiences, with lots of grilling going on. Lots 2, 3 and 4 are typically more kid-friendly, with games of cornhole and horsheshoes, and less alcohol in circulation.
If you’re still in party mode after the Bucs play, stop in at pubs around the stadium to grab drinks and a game recap. Green Iguana, Rick’s on the River, Leeroy Selmon’s are all sports bars and restaurants that cater to game-day crowds.
Among Bucs rivals, the Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons will be big home games.
More info: Visit Tampa Bay, www.visittampabay.com.