Pigskin Pursuit

An eight year odyssey across the backroads of America during the ultimate College Football roadtrip.

Tag: SEC (page 1 of 6)

LSU vs Texas A&M – Johnny Football swamped in Death Valley…

People often ask me about the best college football destination in the country. I’m usually reticent to answer because there are so many variables to that question, and, depending on the circumstances, there are a handful of places across the country that could be considered the “best” on any given week. Invariably, however, I always list LSU as one of the most sublime places in the country to spend a college football Saturday. Having caught a few games here before, I can personally attest that between the Cajun food, ample drink, authentic hospitality, a rabid fan base, ear splitting 93,000 seat stadium and smash mouth SEC football, LSU is one of the premiere destinations in the land.

So when my friend, and Texas A&M ring bearing alumni, Federico texted me over the summer about the November 23rd matchup in Baton Rouge, I immediately circled my calendar. While he had done the circuit of Big 12 destinations back in the Aggies long forgotten past, with their move to the SEC conference came a whole new list of road destinations for him to experience. Appropriately, LSU was at the top of that list.

I fly in to New Orleans early on Friday morning to give myself a day of exploration in the city. Despite the breadth of my travels, I had never actually visited NOLA before. While the allure of the infamous French Quarter and a few giant Hurricane drinks has a certain croc wearing, touristy appeal, I opt to spend the day a bit more tastefully. I pull into the National WWII Museum on Magazine Street as the doors are opening for the day, and shell out eight dollars for parking. An avid WWII history buff, I’ve traveled to sites of historical significance all over the world, but this museum in New Orleans is reputed to be among the best.

It costs me $32 for an all access pass for the day, which grants admittance to all the features spread throughout the several buildings on campus. Up first is the 4D movie “Beyond all Boundaries”, a 40 minute historical overview of both the European and Pacific campaigns that was produced and narrated by Tom Hanks. As the film plays on the screen, guard towers and gun turrets rise out of the stage, and later smoke fills the entire theater as a bomber fuselage is lowered from the ceiling as part of the “4D” effects. I spend the rest of the afternoon casually wandering the extensive displays and historical artifacts spread throughout the galleries. In addition to some of the smaller pieces, the museum boasts an impressive collection of recovered machinery. In the US Freedom Pavilion alone, a Sherman tank sits proudly on the floor while a collection of old warbirds hang from the ceiling; including a B-17 Flying Fortress, B-25 Mitchell and the seductive, sweeping lines of a P-51 Mustang, among others.

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I break only for lunch, and take a quick stroll down the street to Cochon Butcher – a casual lunch offshoot of the infamous Cochon Restaurant. Translated literally “Cochon” means “Pig” and, accordingly, the small café features a bevy of house made charcuterie offerings available plain, or stacked into well crafted sandwiches. Naturally, I opt for both; the ever popular pork belly sandwich and a personal charcuterie sample platter. The rich belly sandwich is served with mint and cucumber, the crisp flavors offsetting the unctuous, fat laced pork into a perfect balance. The charcuterie sampler features a range of their daily specials, neatly arranged on a wooden tray: duck liver mousse, country terrine, soprasseta, duck pastrami and coppa di testa. It’s a carnivores dream come true.

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After my WWII touring is done for the afternoon, I brave the rush hour traffic in New Orleans to pick Federico up at the airport, as a log jam of cars flows out of the terminal. From there, we hustle west an hour along I-10 and pull into the overstuffed parking lot of Mike Andersons in Baton Rouge. Evidently, we aren’t the only ones with the same idea, as the Cajun seafood joint is jammed for the big game, and it’s an hour and a half wait for a table and oyster po’boy. The A&M faithful have come out in droves, and when the Aggie War Hymn pipes in over the loudspeakers, more than half the restaurant collectively rises to their feet, locking arms and swaying while they confidently belt out the chorus. From there, we enjoy a few nightcaps at The Chimes pub on the outskirts of the LSU campus, edging past a few collar popped frat boys squabbling on the sidewalk. I work my way through a handful of the flowing Chimes taps, opting for a selection of the local Abita seasonal brews while Federico samples from their equally impressive whiskey selection.

As the gameday morning rises, the weather turns foul and an ominous mist hangs in the sky like smoke. We slip into some free parking on Lake Shore Drive, and shuffle over to campus, passing by Mike the Tiger’s plush habitat as hordes of onlookers try to snap a photo of the LSU mascot. It’s there that we meet up with my friend Mandy, the same host from my visit back in 2010 and a die hard LSU fan. Soon after we shake hands, we’re corralled onto the median of the street as the crowd parts for the LSU player walk (which like every other SEC school, LSU claims to have invented). Blue lights flash and police sirens whale away as two busses pull up, the doors swaying open as the crowd roars. Head coach Les Miles steps off first with a police escort, followed by two single file lines of players from each bus – offensive players on the right, defensive players on the left. Garbed in neat coat and ties, the players walk purposefully towards the stadium but stop for the occasional high five and handshake with kids. The famed, and highly talented, LSU Golden Girl squad follows after the players. Teeth chattering as they promenade, their scantily cut leotards do little to allay the drizzle.

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Following the player procession, we meet up with Mandy’s aunt Karen, host of the infamous Van Geaux tailgating rig. If there is such a thing as professional tailgating, Karen would rank among the best, and she welcomes us with the same gracious hospitality I enjoyed back in 2010. Their converted DHL truck overflows with provisions, and I make several raids on an overflowing tray of incredible home made tamales. Soon, the weather grows angry, and ask the sky turns fowl and we’re forced to find shelter and take refuge under a bus shelter as an afternoon of blissful LSU tailgating is ruined.

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We file into Tiger Stadium early to escape the deluge, huddling into the crowded concrete concourse as it’s mobbed by thousands of others retreating from the rain. Fed buys a flimsy plastic poncho for $8, and I hunt down the boudin vendor for a tube of the Cajun meat delicacy. It’s a safe bet that Tiger Stadium is the only college football stadium in the country that offers fresh boudin and jumbalaya among its food vendors. Waiting until only a few minutes before kickoff, we finally emerge from the tunnel and are blasted by an icy wind that whips the drizzle in sideways. Fed’s cheap poncho is immediately tattered, revealing his crimson Aggie shirt to bare in a sea of purple and yellow slickers – Louisiana natives all better prepared for the elements. As the ball slides out of receivers hands during the final minutes of warmup, the greasy weather portends a miserable afternoon. Fed and I shiver in the mist, an unseasonably cold fall afternoon in the giant belly of Death Valley.

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True to form, the game proves a tough one for the visiting Aggies. Already nursing a hand injury, electric Aggie quarterback Johnny Manziel is stifled by the misty weather. He sails errant passes over the heads of his receivers, the ball fluttering in the mist as he completes only 16 of 41 attempts. On the ground his feet slip on the grime, failing the normally surefooted and elusive captain, and he is stuffed into the turf repeatedly by the dogged LSU pass rush. It’s one of the worst performances in the Heisman winner’s short two year career, as he tosses two interceptions against only 224 yards, and the imposing confines of Tiger Stadium lay claim to yet another victim.

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The LSU offense proves better built for the elements. Pounding the ball on the ground relentlessly, the Tigers amass 324 yards of rushing offense. Senior running back Terrence Magee chews up 149 yards alone, averaging over 11 yards per carry as he streaks through the porous Aggie defense. Quarterback Zac Mettenberger plays a serviceable, mistake free game – flipping short passes to his receivers who break free of the flimsy Aggie arm tackles for extra yards. In the end, LSU walks away with a confident 34-10 victory, eliminating any last hope for a Johnny Manziel appearance in a BCS bowl game.

Thank you to Mandy and Karen for their always gracious hospitality and incredible setup!  Hope to see y’all again next year, and folks like you are the reason LSU is such a special place!!!

Special thanks to my friend Federico for making the trip down to Baton Rouge.  Can’t wait to hit another game with you next year man!

Tiger Stadium Wide

Full Clickthrough Gallery Below:

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South Carolina vs Florida – New Englanders invade the heart of Dixie…

Shortly after an epic weekend in Morgantown, West Virginia last year (story here), my friend Tyler immediately set his sights on one of the premier destinations in the SEC for a 2013 college football excursion.  During our epic run through the Mountain State, we sampled jarfuls of moonshine, slammed beers out of giant fishbowls, and waded through the near riotous tailgating of the infamous “Blue Lot” before witnessing an incredible shootout in Milan Puskar Stadium.  Clearly, the expectations were set high for 2013.  And, perhaps even more inexplicably, his wife Kristi even allowed him to come along for another adventure this year.

With only a narrow weekend open in November, the South Carolina versus Florida matchup looked to be the most compelling SEC tilt we could find as we poured over the conference schedule early in the year.  At least it was the most compelling when we first picked the game about nine months ago, as it would likely have implications in the SEC East Division race.  While the Gamecocks held up their end of the bargain through the first few months of the 2013 season, Florida had floundered.  Fresh off a 34-17 drubbing at the hands of Vanderbilt, the Commodores first win in Gainesville since 1945, the Gators were sporting an unsightly 4-5 record.  What was supposed to be a marquee matchup in Columbia, might now turn into a lopsided affair.

As Tyler, a nuclear engineer by day, shared the upcoming football exploits with his Connecticut co-workers, a few eyebrows were raised.  College Football in the Deep South has a shadowy, mysterious intrigue to native New Englanders – a barren college football landscape dominated by professional sports.  As legends of raucous 80,000+ seat stadiums, tailgating lots filled with inebriated, unruly southerners and stunning, sun dress draped coeds were told; so to did interest grow in Tylers adventure.  Before long, six of his pencil necked engineer coworkers had signed up for this excursion, and planning reached new heights of detail.  Spreadsheets were created, as well as timelines, stress tests and contingency planning.  Hell, there was probably even a regression analysis and some six sigma witchcraft thrown in there for sport too.  In one particular stroke of genius, they even rented a thirty foot RV for the pilgrimage, and the full blown excursion was on.    As a true marketer by trade, I booked a plane ticket and a rental car, and left the rest of the meticulous planning to the experts…

I meet up with the merry band on Friday afternoon at our hotel, after they had driven the RV through the night from Connecticut and played an early round of golf at the Oak Hills Golf Club.   The round of golf was mostly obligation I presume.  You see, for native New Englanders, there’s no such thing as a trip to South Carolina that doesn’t involve golf or fireworks (or both).  They arrive at the hotel in the afternoon already sporting a handful of rosy, sun burnt faces, and shoehorn the RV into a dedicated lot out back.     

In the hotel Tyler first introduces me to the other 6 members of the crew (and I’ll use nicknames and/or aliases here because frankly I don’t even know their real names): Kirby, Stack, Meat, Dave, Thibs, and, predictably, Murph – because in any group of guys from New England there always has to be at least one token “Murph” or “Sully”….it’s the rules.  We swap a few beers and stories, while a few of them gingerly sample the apple pie moonshine I had bought at Palmetto Distillery in Anderson, South Carolina earlier that afternoon.

After a quick break, time enough for Tyler to put his face on, we hit the town on Friday night.  Strategically located only a few blocks from our hotel, many of Columbia’s finer watering holes line the streets in the shadow of the state capitol building.  We start the night with dinner and house microbrew at the Hunter Gatherer Brewery & Alehouse on Main Street, crowding around a few creaky wooden tables in the rustic reclaimed warehouse building.  From there we move to Flying Saucer, one of a small chain of pubs famed for having hundreds of beers on their menu.  For those brave (and wealthy) enough to try 200 of them, your name and accomplishment can be forever enshrined on a golden saucer tacked up on the walls.  We take country tours of the offerings from Germany, Belgium and the good ole USA, all of which flow continuously while we bounce a few quarters off the wooden tables.  After the Saucer, we bounce to a handful of pubs until the revelry ends in a fog in the early hours of morning.

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The wakeup on Saturday morning is a bit groggy for Tyler and I, but we’re pleased when a few early rising go-getters have already loaded the RV down with provisions for the afternoon ahead.  The rest of us soon pile in for the short 1.5 mile ride to Williams Brice Stadium, making a quick stop at a campus book store on the way for some black and garnet South Carolina garb.  Having northern accents is bad enough, but the last thing we’d want is for anyone to mistake us as infiltrating, jort wearing Gator fans…

We park in the fairground lots across the street from Williams Brice, one of the few lots accessible to RV’s.   Forking over a jaw dropping $150 for an RV parking hang tag, the attendant waves our lumbering fiberglass palace into the grassy field.  As the orange vested attendant guides us in, he notes the young (and inexperienced) looking Dave nervously gripping the wheel.  Peering through his mirrored aviator shades, the attendant sizes him up…

“Can you back this thing up?” he chides…

“Yessir” Dave responds. 

“Yeah, but can you back it straight?” The attendant fires back in a thick southern drawl, as a sarcastic smile flashes across his face. 

After some final fidgeting, we maneuver the whale into position between the white lines painted carefully onto the grass.  While in the hotel parking lot our thirty footer looked like a luxury palace, once flanked by some of the opulent land yachts that lumber in beside us, it suddenly looks like a toy.  We’re immediately struck with a case of RV envy, as the garish, coach bus sized, mobile estates unfurl carpets, outdoor kitchens and satellite connected flat screen TV’s.  Inside, they’re luxuriously appointed with marble floors, granite countertops, leather upholstery and every posh modern convenience you could possibly imagine.  From what I’m told, the American Coach behemoth next to us retails for nearly $500,000 alone. 

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While our crew may be newcomers to the nuances of RV ownership (or rental), they certainly aren’t rubes when it comes to tailgating.  They unload an impressive spread from the various storage compartments of the RV, with every detail considered.  After setting up the requisite tent, tables and chairs, we set to work tossing bean bags into a custom ordered “Gamecock” cornhole game.  Dave puts together an impressive four course feast for the day – burgers, home made chili, pulled pork and grilled chicken – an aromatic lineup which got him accosted by hungry admirers as he scurried it out of the hotel elevator.  The coolers brim with refreshing domestic light beer, and a few intellectual bon vivants exchange a riveting squabble over the merits of Miller Lite versus Bud Light.  75 degrees and sunny, a crystal blue sky sets in for the afternoon, and with a 7:00pm kickoff time scheduled, we have plenty of time to put in a solid shift of tailgating.    

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Despite a big time SEC conference adversary in Florida, the parking lots are surprisingly quiet on this pristine afternoon.  We take a stroll close to stadium, along some of the prime tailgating real estate lining George Rogers Blvd only to find the lots half vacant, the entire atmosphere noticeably subdued.  Even the infamous “Cockaboose Railroad”, a collection of old cabooses converted to extravagant tailgating rigs, is nearly deserted.  The sun decks and patios on them are vacant, and the entire area surrounding the East side of Williams Brice Stadium is uninhabited.  It’s inexplicable.   

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As the afternoon winds on, consumption accelerates and details become foggy.  The few hours leading up to the game devolve into aggressive bouts of beer pong, flip cup, shot gunning beers, and daring, outlandish physical challenges – like who can climb onto the roof of the RV without a ladder.  Before long, the jar of Palmetto Distillery moonshine is produced, and we swap pulls straight from the jar like a band of misfit hillbillies.  What started as a clean cut band of genteel engineers has now deteriorated into a disheveled   rabble of drunken degenerates.  In other words – fun.

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As often happens with great tailgates, the time passes in an instant.  Before long, the sun dips below the horizon and our beer supply dwindles.  We ransack the RV, searching every last crevice for a few remaining drops of alcohol.  The inside of the unit now resembles a meth house after all night rave.  Cushions and cans are strewn about, and the bathroom door lies defeated on the floor – ripped off at the hinges.  I swish my hands through the icy slush remaining in the final plastic cooler, and, after coming up empty, decide it’s time to head towards the beckoning lights of Williams Brice Stadium.  Fortunately, one member of the group had procured 8 consecutive seats ahead of time, so I could bypass the impossible task of trying to scalp 8 tickets off the street.    

The inevitable downside to finding 8 consecutive seats, however, is that those seats will be nosebleeds – a far cry from the front row 50 yard line seats I swindled during my last visit to Columbia in 2010 (Story Here).  In the towering concrete grandstands of Williams Brice stadium, sitting in the third deck would be like watching the game from the moon.  Upon entering the gates we begin our ascent, winding up the dizzying corkscrew ramp into the high night air.  I’ve hiked to Macchu Picchu before, and that was childs play compared to this….

Panting and lathered in sweat, we find our seats just in time for “Cocky” the South Carolina mascot, to make his signature entrance to the theme song of “2001 Space Odyssey”.  As tension builds and the symphony reaches its crescendo, Cocky bursts out of his cage while red fireworks explode skyward, 83,853 thousands fans maniacally erupting.  Shortly after, as kickoff looms, the entire crowd bounces and waves white towels to the pumping beat of the jock rock anthem “Sandstorm” while rhythmically chanting “U…S…C…U…S…C”.  While it may seem contrived, South Carolina simply has one of the most energetic entrances in the sport.             

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Despite the Gators injury riddled, lackluster season thus far, the game proves a lot closer than anticipated.  With starting quarterback Tyler Murphy injured, Florida pounds the ball on the ground in the first half, piling up 169 yards of rushing.  Gator running back Kelvin Taylor streaks through great gashes in the Gamecock defensive line for a pair of touchdowns, while standout Defensive End Jadaveon Clowney is nowhere to be seen.  The South Carolina offense is stymied for the entire first half.  Quarterback Connor Shaw sails the pigskin over open receivers, and the Gamecocks manage a measly pair of field goals.  At the half, they trail 14-6.

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In the second half, the “Ole Ball Coach”, former Heisman winner and Gamecock head coach Steve Spurrier makes a few defensive adjustments.  While usually known for his offensive schematics, in the second half the South Carolina defense takes charge.  They hold the Florida ground attack to only 31 yards in the second half.  Quarterback Connor Shaw finds a bit of rhythm for the garnet and black, connecting for a 32 yard score – the only touchdown of the day for the Cocks.  Kicker Elliot Fry is the true hero for South Carolina, however.  He continues his field goal onslaught, booting another pair of them in the 4th quarter, one of them from 43 yards, to give the Gamecocks the lead.  Ultimately, South Carolina squeaks out a 19-14 win over the reeling Gator squad, good enough to keep them in contention in the SEC East Division.

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In the end, this was one of the best weekends on the season.  A primetime tilt in the heart of SEC country is one of the great experiences in the sport, and this game proved far more competitive than expected.  But ultimately, it’s the people that made the weekend such a memorable one, and a reminder that college football is best experienced in large groups.  To a man, the entire Connecticut crew was a welcoming, raucous, fun loving bunch that put on a helluva show.  For most of them, this was their first experience in the SEC. Witnessing the sheer delight and joy spread across their faces under the lights in Williams Brice harkened back memories of my own first SEC experience, a misty Saturday night in Baton Rouge that’s had me hooked ever since.  Welcome to the SEC gents, can’t wait to hit another one with you next year…    

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Thanks to the Connecticut crew for making the weekend such a memorable one, and hope to share another one with you next year!

Special thanks to my friend Tyler and his ever patient wife Kristi for connecting for another year of adventure.  It’s not often you get to spend weekends with best friends, and I’m glad we can make this an annual tradition.  Can’t wait to see you again on the road next year man!

Williams Brice Wide

Full Clickthrough gallery below:

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Tennessee vs South Carolina – Finishing the SEC in Volunteer style…

Friday morning my father wrangles me out of bed at 5:30 AM. As I wrestle with consciousness it eerily reminds me of high school.  An early riser, he’s already spit polished and ready to roll, wide eyed and giddy for a day of bourbon tasting.  We jump into our silver Nissan Altima rental, a “double upgrade” according to the good folks at Enterprise at McGhee Tyson airport, and speed northward into the morning black.  Winding up I-75 in the dense fog of early morning, we twist and turn through the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. On a clear day, with the sun poking over the mountains just beginning to rust with the color of fall, this would be a spectacular drive.  But blanketed by fog, and dodging eighteen wheelers chugging up the hills, it’s a tedious ride.

Although were visiting the University of Tennessee for the weekend, my final remaining venue in the SEC, first we’re on a run to experience the “Bourbon Trail”.  A collection of whiskey distilleries in the heart of Kentucky Bourbon country just south of Louisville, the trail connects a handful of the most iconic Bourbon distilleries in the country.  Located about three hours from Knoxville, we’d been planning this trip for nearly a year.  Buffalo Trace is our first stop, and we take a full tour of the grounds – the only free tour offered at any of the distilleries.  Walking through the old brick warehouses, the wooden barrels arranged neatly in racks, the aroma is an intoxicating mix of whiskey, charred oak and sawn pine.  The barrels here rise six full stories in the warehouse, left in the dark for years to slowly age into the caramel colored nectar.

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When we finish in the tasting room, I ask the shopkeeper if they have any stray bottles of Pappy Van Winkle 20 year tucked away in a closet somewhere.  Considered by many to be the finest bourbon made, it typically retails for over $250 per bottle – assuming you can ever find a bottle for sale.  Figuring the best place to ask would be directly from the source at Buffalo Trace, perhaps I might win the lottery…

The shopkeeper chortles at my silly question: “You’d have better luck going into the woods and getting your picture taken with Sasquatch” he retorts.   A simple no would have sufficed…

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From there, we make a stop at Woodford Reserve and their immaculate grounds before motoring down the Bluegrass Parkway into Bardstown for lunch.  The quaint little downtown is a haven for whiskey heads, as pubs tout long bourbon menus and a handful of liquor stores dot 3rd Street.  We settle into Mammy’s Kitchen for lunch, a converted turn of the century drug store with small tile floors and decorative square ceiling tins.  I order up a “Hot Brown Sandwich”, the signature Kentucky dish that traces its roots back to the Brown Hotel in Louiville (see my original blog post about it HERE).  Naturally, I order the dinner sized portion, and the gluttonous affair is a decadent pile of turkey, bacon, ham, and tomato all served open faced on toast points and smothered in rich parmesan sauce.

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As if the massive sandwich weren’t enough, the waitress sells us on a slice of their scratch made chocolate cream pie.  A recipe handed down from her great grandmother “Mammy”, the chocolate is so rich and intense that it resembles a gelatinous brownie, topped with a generous dollop of whipped cream.  Both chocolate fiends, my father and I slash forks for the last few bites so aggressively it makes Game of Thrones look like a Pixar movie.

After lunch we hit Willett distillery, turning up a rustic gravel drive into their parking lot.  One of the few family owned distilleries (most of the others are owned by “big liquor” companies such as Jim Beam, Brown Forman, etc.), Willett is noticeably more rough around the edges.  The steel clad warehouses show rust around them, there are tractors hauling grain around and the grounds aren’t the pristinely manicured putting greens like the other places.  But they make a damn fine bourbon, and I grab a bottle of their elusive, limited release, 10 year old Single Barrel Family Estate to smuggle back to Saint Louis.

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From there, our final stop on the day is Makers Mark. In a clear fall afternoon, the drive down the rolling green hills of State Road 49 is spectacular.  Unfortunately, the iconic Loretto, Kentucky distillery is a mob scene when we get there.  Hoping for a quiet Friday afternoon tour, the place is overrun with joggers decked out in silly outfits.  Evidently, Makers Mark is a key stop along the “Bourbon Chase” an annual two day, team relay race that trots through the heart of Kentucky Bourbon country.  We take a quick self guided tour of the operation (there are no formal tours because of the race), doing our best to avoid the fluorescent spandex garbed hordes pouring out of every building.  We dip our fingers into the massive Cypress wood mash tubs, licking the sweet “beer” before it ferments into alcohol.  After a quick glimpse of a 100 year old label cutter, we conclude the tour on the finishing line, where workers dip full bottles of Makers Mark into their signature red wax seal.

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*****

Saturday morning proves to be yet another early wake up call, as the good folks at the SEC scheduling department elected to kickoff the Tennessee vs South Carolina matchup at noon EST.  As you’ve heard my familiar refrain on this blog before, noon start times are a pox upon the festive world of college football, and a complete atmosphere killer.  They are especially egregious at a preeminent destination like Tennessee, where pre game tailgating and traditions such as the “Volunteer Navy” are such an integral part of the game day experience.

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I circle a few side streets on the hunt for free parking, but given the tight confines of urban Knoxville, I’m forced to pull into the Knoxville City-County building for $20.  As a uniformed police officer waves me in, he asks to search the trunk of the vehicle.  “Why do you need to search the trunk” I respond, curious about the questionable 4th amendment breach.  “In case you have any explosive devices in the trunk” the officer responds matter of factly.  Although I typically mock overzealous security measures, evidently the building has been subject to a handful of bomb threats over the years, so the procedure is not entirely unfounded.

As we head towards campus, we walk past pockets of tailgating, orange tents and tables are shoehorned into every small parking lot and lawn between buildings.  A few parties even spill out of the large parking garages dotting the city.  Given the tight urban constraints of Knoxville, there simply aren’t the large swaths of parking and lawn that you’ll find surrounding other stadiums in the SEC and Volunteer fans are forced to squeeze a party into any small corner they can find.  We stroll further down Cumberland Avenue, the major thoroughfare bisecting the UT campus, and the sidewalks grow thick with orange garbed gameday pedestrians.

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The scalpers are out in full force too, but with tickets still available in the box office for face value, they have little room to negotiate.  After surveying the market a few times and getting cussed out by one grey bearded old timer for bargaining too hard, I nail down a pair of seats on the 30 yard line for $80 apiece (lower than face at the box office).  While I certainly could have done better if only looking for myself, negotiating pairs of tickets is a harder game to play.

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Approaching the impressive brick façade of Neyland Stadium thousands of fans form a gauntlet on both sides of Phillip Fulmer Way, while the “Pride of the Southland” Tennessee marching band toots away on the steps of the Hearing and Speech Building.  The street, named after national championship winning former head coach Phil Fulmer, is the site of the Tennessee Volunteers player walk.  In keeping with many other SEC institutions, players walk down the avenue en route to the stadium while fans cheer boisterously alongside.

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As we enter the cavernous bowl of Neyland Stadium and assume our seats, the atmosphere is noticeably subdued.  The dreadful early start time coupled with a lackluster season thus far, clearly has the Volunteer fan base aloof.  Players finish a few last warm-ups and head into the tunnel while the band takes the field.  The band runs through a few formations, and belts out “Rocky Top” to pump the crowd up, the defacto fight song for the Volunteers.  Finally, they assemble into their infamous “Power T” entrance, and shortly after the players burst out of the tunnel and run through the formation on their way to the bench.  A quick coin toss and we’re ready for game time in Tennessee…

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And what a hell of a game it is.  For the 5th game in a row, I catch an absolute barn burner of a contest.  On paper, the game was supposed to be a blowout, as the South Carolina Gamecocks came into the contest ranked #10, and had reasonable expectations to win the SEC East Division.  The match even starts out tenuously, as on the second Tennessee possession from scrimmage wide receiver Alton Howard gets absolutely annihilated by South Carolina’s sensational defensive end Jadaveon Clowney for a loss of 5 yards.  As Clowney struts around, the restless Tennessee crowd shifts nervously in their seats on the play, wondering if this will be the start of a VERY long day.

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But the Vols stand their ground.  Quarterback Justin Worley fires crisp passes down the field, and the Tennessee defense shows remarkable resiliency.  At halftime, the Volunteers own a 17-7 lead and the crowd swells with energy.

After the Pride of the Southland band performs their impressive halftime routine, the Gamecocks come out with renewed zest in the third quarter.  Quarterback Connor Shaw leads Cocky on a pair of touchdown drives, and the South Carolina squad regains a 21-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter.  The crowd deflates, Tennessee fans have become all too cynical over the past decade, and fourth quarter collapses have become the unfortunate norm for the prestigious program. A couple particularly pessimistic fans even head for the exits, confident they already know how the story is about to unfold.

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Today, however, things are different.  After booting a field goal with ten minutes remaining, the Volunteers have pulled themselves to within a point.  Then, the Volunteer defense takes over.  They stymie the Gamecocks on three separate drives late in the 4th quarter, stuffing QB Connor Shaw into the turf on one such drive and knocking him out of the game.  The defense shows remarkable poise each drive, stifling Steve Spurriers potent offense.  Willed by the growing electricity in the stands, the orange garbed faithful rise to their feet.

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As Tennessee assumes the ball with 2:48 remaining, they initiate their final offensive drive.  After a few incompletions, Worley connects with wide receiver Marquez North on an incredible 39 yard bomb deep into South Carolina territory – well within field goal range.  After a few running plays to squeeze the final ticks off the clock, Tennessee place kicker Michael Palardy nails a 19 yard chip shot to win the game as the clock expires.  95,000 fans erupt in celebration as the Volunteer bench empties onto the field.  It’s the biggest win for Tennessee in since 2007, and the euphoric crowd belts out “Rocky Top” with a fervent muster pent up for nearly a decade.

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In the end, after such a thrilling and intense game, Tennessee is unquestioningly one of the premiere destinations in the SEC.  It’s a tradition rich program, in a fun town, with an enormous stadium and passionate fan base.  While my visit was noticeably subdued, largely a function of an early start time and mediocre team, this is a program ready to bounce back.  It has all the ingredients to reassert itself in the top echelon of the SEC, and with some of the right personnel decisions, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it rebound in the next few years.  And I for one can’t wait to head back to Knoxville for a huge tilt when the Vols are sitting atop Rocky Top once again…

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Special thanks to my father for joining me for another year of adventure.  It’s always a special weekend to spend with your Dad drinking whiskey and watching football…

Neyland Stadium Wide

Full Clickable Gallery Below:

 

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Ole Miss vs Texas A&M – Aggies quell the Rebel uprising…

It’s late Friday afternoon, and four of us are cramped into my friend Colin’s Audi A4 barreling south down I-55 from Saint Louis.  We’re on our way to Mississippi this weekend, for a healthy dose of SEC football and southern hospitality.  Colin mans the wheel while I navigate, our friends Elon and Chris are camped in the backseats and the trunk is loaded with tailgating provisions.  Living in the metro Saint Louis area it’s easy to forget just how rural the rest of Missouri is as we wind our way through fallow cornfields and limestone rock faces carved into the undulating landscape.  Out the window a giant wooden sign in a cornfield reads “vote for anyone but Obama” in hand painted black and white letters.

South of Memphis we exit the interstate and jaunt down state road 161 towards Clarksdale, Mississippi.  Nestled in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the birthplace of blues music, the city is a mecca for musicians and aficionados of the genre.  The city has its own Delta Blues Museum, and is one of the integral stops on the developing Mississippi Blues Trail.   Red’s Lounge specifically, is our destination, reputed to be one of few authentic “juke joints” surviving in the South.

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We spot the place easily enough; when cars line both sides of the street on Sunflower Avenue and the thump of drums can be heard through the walls.  As we enter the ramshackle brick building, I spot a black iron smoker chugging away out front, the sweet aroma or pork wafting through the air.  It’s a $10 cover as we enter, and the place is packed to the gills.  The band plays in the center with a worn out Persian rug marking the stage area.  Plastic covers a few missing ceiling tiles and mismatched chairs are strewn about haphazardly. A cloud of blue cigarette smoke hangs from the ceiling like a fog, and the walls are covered with concert posters of old blues legends like Big Jack Johnson.

I elbow my way to the bar and order 4 Budweiser heavies, which the barman pulls out of a plastic cooler – there are no refrigerators here.  They serve 18oz bottles exclusively, a bargain at $3 apiece, and you get to screw the cap off yourself.  Robert Bilbo Walker wails away into the microphone while the tin notes of his electric guitar ring through the humid crowd.  Draped in a three piece suit and sporting an oily Jheri Curl hairstyle, Walker is a typecast Delta Blues musician.   The mixed audience of dancing locals and camera toting tourists alike bob their heads and sing along to a few of the better known melodies.  There are only two rules here as far as I can tell: 1. Don’t cause no trouble and 2. No taking video.  The second is strictly enforced by a heavy set bouncer soon after a foppish out of towner starts recording on his iPhone.

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When the 76 year old Robert Bilbo Walker takes intermission for a few minutes, I sprint to the smoker outside for a little midnight snack.  Arranged inside the barrel smoker in foil trays, the pitmaster walks me through the menu of hogs feet, chicken wings, pork steak and ribs.  Smoked over a mix of pecan and oak, I settle for a half rack of the meaty spare ribs for $13 – hold the sauce.  He slices them up on a plastic cutting board while the open flame crackles away, sparks dancing skyward into the night air.  After the first bite, it’s obvious that a deft hand tends the smoker here.  The pork pulls gently from the bone, giving way to rich, unctuous, perfectly rendered fat.  With a rib in one hand, and a cold beer in the other, the four of us soak in another hour of the blues at Red’s Lounge before calling it quits for the night.

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Saturday morning is an early wake up call, and we shoot an hour east across the flat expanse of the Mississippi Delta as white blanketed cotton fields stretch towards the horizon in every direction.  Getting into Oxford, we make a bee line for Big Bad Breakfast, one of the premier breakfast haunts in the city known for their house cured meats.  Evidently we weren’t the only car load of hungry patrons with the same idea, as the hostess jots my name down and informs me of the two hour wait for a table.  But the delay gives us a chance to run a few errands, stocking up on ice and beer for the afternoon ahead.

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Once we’re finally seated, we collectively order about half the menu at BBB.  I opt for two full entrees; a giant egg sandwich topped with their house cured tobasco bacon, and then a full three egg breakfast skillet loaded with bacon, sausage and ham.  Munching on a few biscuits with house made strawberry and grape preserves; it’s an agonizing wait for food, but given the massive influx of game day traffic, completely understandable.  After gorging ourselves on the hearty breakfast, we settle up and head out the door, ready to hit the pristine Ole Miss campus.

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Heading towards campus, the streets grow thick with heavy gameday traffic.  As the infamous “Grove” is off limits to vehicles, cars line up along the street waiting for their chance to offload tailgating supplies to be toted into the growing tent city.  From the outside, it looks like a refugee camp with a southern gentile twist, as floral arrangements and candelabras are tucked beneath the tents.  Amidst the bustle, everyone seems to be carrying something, either trays full of sandwiches or pulling wagons loaded with coolers.  After unloading our modest set up, we locate some scarce paid parking a few blocks away in the First Baptist Church of Oxford for $20.  Some recent city wide ordinances have made parking anywhere near campus a nightmare on game days, and judging by the standstill traffic in all directions, it looks like they still have a few kinks to work out.

As the four of us tote our setup down the sidewalk and into the throngs spilling out of The Grove, we spot a small unoccupied stretch of grass to claim our own.  One of the most remarkable features of this most hallowed tailgating ground is the fact that it is free to all, on a first come first serve basis.  A stark contrast to the $50 bucks I had to shell out a week prior for a small stretch of asphalt next to Jerryworld in Dallas.  There are no preferred spots or choice areas only available to a few wealthy donors here either, anyone is free to claim any open space they wish.  Plopping down our minimalist setup of a lone cooler and four lawn chairs, we get the festivities underway quickly amidst the shadow of the best tailgating spot in the country.

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Despite an all clear weather forecast, not long after we set up, ominous black clouds move overhead.  As the sky darkens and thunder looms in the distance, one of our neighbors fortuitously needs to move an extra tent into the area, and ours is the only space available.  In affable southern fashion, we oblige him, and no sooner huddle our chairs beneath the new nylon canopy before a downpour begins.  Watching the deluge from the comfort of our new shelter, feet resting comfortably on the cooler, other tailgates struggle to keep from getting swamped.

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After a few minutes the rain passes, and a clear sunny day moves in overhead.  We spend the afternoon attacking a cooler full of Coors Banquet beer, while soaking in the splendor – and ample coed talent specifically – of the Grove around us.  Ole Miss fans are quick to tell you that they have so many beautiful women on campus that “we can redshirt Miss America’s here”.  And looking around, the claim is well founded.   A few hours before kickoff, the “Walk of Champions” – the Ole Miss player walk through the Grove, strolls by a few feet from our tent. Fans line the walkways three deep, high fiving players as they pass by in team issued sweat suits, heads bobbing in their gaudy Beats By Dre headphones.

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As the afternoon winds on towards kickoff, we visit another friend Sam, who’d generously tracked down four game tickets for us.  Against a premier opponent like Texas A&M, the $75 face value is more than a fair price, and in Section P we’ll be staring straight down the 30 yard line.  We share a few microbrews at Sam’s tailgate before parting ways and heading towards the beckoning lights of Vaught Hemingway stadium.

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On paper, this game was supposed to be a blowout.  Judging by the conciliatory attitude of most Ole Miss fans during the afternoon, it seemed that most were resigned to that outcome.  But shortly after the first snap, the Rebels make it clear that they will not roll over easily.  What follows is an incredible back and forth contest that pits the Ole Miss defense against the heralded Heisman winning QB Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M.  Having seen Cam Newton live, I can say that Manziel is actually even more impressive in person.  Watching him dance around the backfield, he makes defensive ends look foolish, often simply out sprinting them to the corner for an easy first down.  Unlike some of the big dual threat quarterbacks in recent memory like Vince Young, Tim Tebow or Cam Newton – Manziel is incredibly accurate, firing the ball downfield with ease to open receivers.  Say what you will about some of his off field antics (which candidly, I could care less about), his exploits between the white lines are simply a joy to watch.

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During a break in the action, scores from around the country flash across the jumbotron.  I make a remark to Elon about the significance of #5 Stanford getting beaten by Utah, a remarkable feat that is sure to shake up the BCS standings in a few short weeks.  In typical SEC homer fashion, an Ole Miss fan in the next row fires back “Stanford?  Who the hell cares about the Pac 12 anyway?…”.  SEC fandom at it’s finest.

Vaught Hemingway Wide

As the game presses deep into the fourth quarter, the teams are locked into a fierce battle for control.  For a few minutes, Ole Miss takes a 7 point lead with 10:36 remaining as QB Bo Wallace fires one of his three touchdown passes on the day.  For the next seven minutes, the teams exchange three touchdowns in a flurry of scoring.  Each of the squads march unimpeded down the field.  Ole Miss takes the lead one minute, then A&M responds to knot the score.   This is one of those games where whoever has the ball last is going to win…

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At 3:07 remaining, the momentum finally swings.  With the score knotted at 38-38, the Ole Miss offense takes control with another chance to secure a lead, and possible victory.  But their offense stumbles, after three quick incomplete passes, they are forced to punt into the awaiting Aggie offense.  When Texas A&M resumes control with 2:33 remaining needing only a field goal to win, the entire Ole Miss fan base already knows the outcome before it plays out.   Johnny Manziel streaks down the field with remarkable ease on a few successive runs deep into Ole Miss territory, well within range of the leg of place kicker Josh Lambo.  After a few running plays to milk the final few seconds off the clock and center the ball between the hashes, Lambo boots the 33 yard game winning field goal through the uprights.  Texas A&M skates away with the victory in anti climatic fashion, and holds on to their lofty top ten ranking for another week. The Ole Miss crowd files solemnly out of Vaught Hemingway, seeking solace in the dwindling bustle of the Grove as the tent city slowly dismantles into the night…

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Special thanks to my friends Colin, Elon and Chris for making this an awesome spur of the moment trip!  Hopefully you guys are now as hooked on SEC football as I am.  Let me know when you’re ready for the next one!

Full Clickable Gallery Below:

 

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