I’m a writer and Georgia man who didn’t leave our state all summer. I asked editor Vance Leavy if I could do something a whole lot different and write about my first impressions of the town and tailgate scene in Oxford for Bulldawg Illustrated.
Home to a huge literary community and ranked but sub .500 football team, Oxford seemed like the perfect place for me to get out of Atlanta, while writing a book on the last fifteen years of Georgia football. My “Richt Era: 15 Years in Athens” retrospective debuts at Avid Bookshop in Athens on 11/11, and I begin co-hosting big home game parties at The Max Canada bar there in the Classic City on October 1st, but all that was off on a nearing autumnal horizon. I just hadn’t been able to take nearly as much time as usual to dedicate to writing about current college football this season. Nor had I seen a live game, while my onetime classmate Kirby Smart’s Dawgs were eking out tough wins to (vaingloriously) reach the early height of 3-0.
If dark horse Heisman candidate Nick Chubb could shake off a couple average games and simply return to the consistently dominant form he showed throughout his career up through his utter gashing of UNC to start the 2016 campaign, UGA could maybe keep the explosive Rebels offense off the field and take us to 4-0 for a second straight year. We had the number one pass defense in the nation last year and got everybody back, after all, and we were ball-hawking big takeaways lately.
My cool Ole Miss friends Brett and Holly Byrnes drove me across two states and into the rolling country hills of northern Mississippi. We finally entered the charming little town often called a smaller version of Athens and found free parking, after a brief scuttlebutt that could have resulted in us getting towed.
At Proud Larry’s having a bourbon beverage and a shrimp salad, I first realized the thing about Brett Byrnes and Oxford: everywhere he goes somebody knows him, usually pretty well. A UGA graduate, too, Brett has unusually huge academic numbers. He holds six degrees total, three from Ole Miss, where he also worked. Here he told me to “hit that guy on the back.” I resisted, then I finally did, and a member of his pledge class and a charming wife were soon at our table hovering and chatting amicably.
Behind me and near sat that once-pledge’s father, Bob Seibel, a former president of the University of Mississippi alumni association, saying, “The thing about The Grove is you get to see it all in one area.” Next thing I know, I’m sitting next to William Faulkner, well, a life size statue of the great Southern writer. He picked the Rebs. “We’ve won ten straight over you, Uncle Bill,” I mumbled to him. “But every dog has their day. We’re probably going 1-1 these next two; we’ll need the next one more.”
Rowan Oak, his beautiful old home, is illuminated at night by the university, which now operates it, and we walked all the way up to it alone, just the three of us, and maybe a few of the fabled ghosts of Mississippi. He was still at the Square, I suppose. Or was that a shadow of a man seated at a desk with a pen moving I saw flitting across the wall of the writing room? It was probably just my imagination, y’all.
Before that brief mansion visit we checked out the campus, where the tailgating begins in earnest on home Friday nights with the land grab. “Get out of The Grove!” an intimidating cop with a ferocious German shepherd yelled to any who dared to enter before the red scoreboard clocks struck zero. The hottest female cop I’ve ever seen buzzed us back in her car, telling us she “just wanted us to move back a little.” Brett didn’t like that at all. I did. The clock struck zero, and they were off, racing at full speed to claim their tailgating spots. I’d never seen anything quite like it, but it reminded me some of the running of the bulls.
Holly Byrnes is an Oxford born and bred Ole Miss alumna who was in the band. She used to be a Prater, which means something around these parts. Her folks’ place is just outside the corp. limits of Oxford. They are good family people, big family, and her dad Gil and his wife June’s place is so hospitable that they even have the perfect room for away fans. I finally got to sleep in an Ole Miss bed, where any fantasies of beautiful belle Miss Americas seemed so far away. I drifted off looking into the eyes of Eli (0-4 against UGA) and his dad Archie Manning in a framed picture, in an Ole Miss themed room. And the morning came quickly.
Near the famed Zebra tent in The Grove, Gil and his crew had quite the spread. The claim that “Ole Miss never lost a tailgate” was evidently accurate, and the much talked about skimpily clad coeds didn’t disappoint. Some seemed to be wearing mere strings rather than actual dresses. My wife wasn’t around to slap me.
Gumbo Jim is moving to San Diego and Gil Prater said, “He’s gettin’ old and he can’t take it,” at and of his longtime friend. It was wet. The air with humidity, the cups overflowing with booze. “I heard you were a tailgate master,” I uttered to Gumbo Jim. He: ” I’ve just been at it awhile.” Brett said to him: “When are you movin’?” He: “My goal is to be there by the time we play Cal. I told ’em I’d retire or transfer. We play Cal in September, so I’ll be there for it to be an Ole Miss home game.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him exactly how far the Bay Area is from Diego, though I knew well from writing a book on my California travels (“Golden State Misadventures”).
I was the only away fan at our tailgate most of the time, but a cool BAMA guy named Trey was there with his Ole Miss wife. He said it was a split marriage and, “We do the Mississippi rule when pouring [me a] bourbon. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three.” I doused it with cold Coke, and he said, “That’s way too much Coke.”
The verdant canopy cover gave way to the sheer Southern sun sear, the heat of the day inside their cute little stadium. And I could write long here about the game, but instead I will give my only negative impression of Ole Miss besides the fact that it is way too homogenous. The student section was practically empty the whole football game. It was hot. Like crazy Deep South badly burning your face hot. And it was 11:00 a.m. local time. But that wouldn’t happen at a real historic winning football school like Alabama or Georgia or Tennessee. It’s supposed to be about football.
The lack of execution by our team misrepresented us as a tradition up in Oxford…and yet we are playing for first place this Saturday, against a real rival.