When LSU kicks off the 2020 football season at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against Mississippi State, coronavirus-inspired changes inside Tiger Stadium will be obvious to the national TV audience: only 25% the number of usual fans, a pared-down Golden Band from Tigerland, crowd noise far below the stadium’s famed reputation.
But the biggest change will be outside the stadium.
Tailgating — a tradition that probably wasn’t invented in Baton Rouge but may have been perfected here — will not be permitted on campus. How big a deal is that? For some big games in recent years, university officials have estimated more people were in the parking lots during games than inside Tiger Stadium, which seats 102,321.
That’s a big adjustment for thousands who have made LSU football more than a game but a multi-day happening.
“I told my wife yesterday, ‘You know what? I feel sick,’” said Gene Plauché, 50, of Baton Rouge, who has had season tickets for 26 years and is part of a nine-family group that bought a motorhome as the base for tailgate parties in the Touchdown Village 2 RV lot.
“On a Wednesday of game week, I am normally prepping. What are we cooking? Who’s cooking? What are we doing? How many people are we feeding? When you do a tailgate of our size, that’s not something you wake up Saturday morning and say, ‘Let’s do this.’ You’ve got to have some planning and some prep done. This year, to know that there’s a game going on in that building on campus and I’m not going to be there is not sitting well with me. This sucks. This really sucks.”
Most in Plauché’s group rolled their season tickets into 2021, so they’ll move their eating, drinking and game-watching tradition to parties at members’ houses this fall.
So will Gerald Bahlinger. Part of a group that tailgates outside Peabody Hall, he’ll host his friends at his house, using a covered outdoor area for the television.
“We can socially distance outside so we don’t have to sit 12 people in our living room or den,” Bahlinger said. “We’re going to have jambalaya. We’re going to do all the stuff we do. People are going to bring stuff like they would in the tailgate.”
But it won’t be the same. Part of the allure of tailgating is the ebb and flow of other fans. Plauché and Bahlinger say they routinely have 100 or so people drift in and out of their tailgate parties, enjoying refreshments and sharing the anticipation of the game. That’s true even when the fans are wearing the other school’s colors.
“Twenty years ago when we were younger, we started giving them a bunch of grief,” said Bahlinger, 60. “Now, we invite them in for beer and food. We welcome them to campus. We’re happy they’re here.”
As the name implies, tailgates originated out of the back of cars and trucks and were fairly small affairs, but many have grown into mega-productions. Those with RVs or, like Bahlinger’s group, a trailer carrying a 20-foot-by-30-foot tent, generator, tables and a flat-screen TV, arrive the night before games to set up. The TV is tuned to ESPN’s “College GameDay” in the morning, to other games throughout the day.
Otey White, 59, is part of a group known as the “Party Box” that uses several motor homes and is best known for a ceiling fan they used to hang from a live oak limb. Unlike most of his group, White will attend the game, but he plans to eat at a restaurant and show up afterward.
“This is going to be the first time since 1987 we will not be on that corner of Nicholson and South Stadium. To say we’re all kind of having withdrawals goes without saying,” White said. “It’s an early kickoff, so that helps eliminate some of the malaise that would be setting in otherwise if it was a night game.”
Bahlinger, Plauché and White say they understand the decision to ban tailgating and express hope that conditions will change to allow it before the season ends. Until that happens, it won’t seem like football season.
“It’s going to be a hollow, empty feeling, kind of like a spring game,” White said. “But at a spring game you can at least tailgate. We’re going to have to figure it out, and I’m sure there are going to be a lot of folks ready to talk about their experience, how it was and wasn’t, what they did to make their game-day experience whole.”