Zach Rau expected this decision. Based on public health trends, bar shutdowns, restaurant restrictions and the absence of a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, he doubted his tailgate — much less football season — would look anything like years past, if it existed at all.

Still, Rau felt disappointed when LSU announced Wednesday the school won’t allow tailgating on campus during the 2020 football season. Rau had structured his fall schedule for eight years around pulled pork and a 400-square foot patch near the Indian Mounds. He’ll spend his Saturdays this season at home.

Tailgating at LSU has formed a reputation separate from that of the football team or university. Opposing fans travel just to experience a scene unlike any other in college athletics. It’s rowdy and loving at the same time, with children dressed in purple and gold, shots spilling down ice luges, crowds of old friends and the occasional stripper pole.

“We don't do this because people pay us,” Rau said. “We do it because we love it.”

But like every other Southeastern Conference school that has announced finalized plans, LSU prohibited tailgates in its game day protocols around Tiger Stadium. In order to comply with public health guidelines, LSU stopped a practice designed to bring people closer together. The school encouraged fans without tickets to watch games at home.

“The paramount and most important thing is that we’re scheduled to play football,” LSU athletic director Scott Woodward said. “That’s a reason for celebration. Hey, let’s do it in this proper fashion so we continue to do it.”

As part of its announcement, which included 25% capacity in Tiger Stadium, LSU banned all the trappings of a large party. Fans who attend games can’t bring trailers, tents, decorations, buffets, coolers, tables, chairs, generators, fences, televisions, grills or audio systems separate from their built-in car speakers.

The school will allow fans to gather around their car with the people they rode with to the game, permitting small, tame gatherings that hardly resemble a typical LSU tailgate.

“LSU not having tailgating except for eating and drinking at your vehicle is going to make it basically like most other universities,” said Luke Williamson, who organizes The Usual Suspects, a tailgate near the Indian Mounds. Williamson laughed. “LSU fans are still going to drink, and frankly, 25% of Tiger Stadium will still be louder than some of the stadiums I've been to.”

Williamson and his friends have tailgated since their first year of law school. What began as a 12-pack of beer and a bag of Doritos has evolved into a full-blown party with a DJ, two bartenders and catered food. Thirty-one couples fund the event, spending about $55,000 combined every year. Williamson hasn’t missed a tailgate since 1994.

“LSU tailgating is passed down generation to generation just like gumbo recipes,” said Williamson, a Baton Rouge attorney.

Williamson understood why LSU prohibited tailgating during the coronavirus pandemic. He anticipated the announcement. He even thought LSU’s undefeated national championship season was worth a year without tailgating.

Williamson felt disappointed all the same Wednesday. The pregame tailgates brought together family members and longtime friends, forming weekly reunions. The coronavirus ripped that away.

“It's going to be significant withdrawals for me,” Williamson said. 

The absence of tailgating at LSU will also trickle through the Baton Rouge economy in unpredictable ways. Visitors for football games spend an estimated $60 million in Baton Rouge during a typical season, according to an impact study conducted by Dr. Loren Scott, a Baton Rouge consultant and professor emeritus of economics at LSU. Football games push money through multiple local industries, forming a lifeblood of revenue for some businesses.

Mark Suchanek of Bin Q said the Perkins Road liquor store will miss the sales generated by LSU tailgating, but it won’t devastate the business. LSU home games account for five to six days a year. Plus, Suchanek said, sales at Bin Q are up 40% over last year because bars have been closed for nearly six months.

“Since they started selling so much alcohol at the stadium, it’s not such a big event for us,” Suchanek said. “Three years ago, it would have been sorely missed.”

Donald Olinde, owner of Catering Kegs, said he normally sells about 30 kegs for LSU football games, so losing tailgate parties will result in a $5,500 loss in gross earnings per game.

“It’s been a terrible year,” he said. “2020 sucks.”

While tailgating will disappear around Tiger Stadium, some parties may shift to people’s homes as they watch games on television. Williamson and his friends have discussed tailgating at someone's house. So has Rau.

Usually during football season, Rau tailgated before every home game underneath four white and purple tents. He served a menu filled with 60 to 80 pounds of pulled pork, smoked chicken drumsticks, grilled sausage, dirty rice, corn grits, baked beans and smoked macaroni and cheese. He made jambalaya when he expected smaller crowds.

Rau prepared food throughout the week, buying supplies every Sunday. People heard about his tailgate through word of mouth or social media, and they congregated around the food and drinks, getting to know one another. Anywhere from 20 to 120 people came by his tailgate, depending on the game. Lines formed for his buffet.

“Making game weekends memorable for people,” said Rau, who works in public finance. “I think that's the thing I'm going to miss the most.”

Instead, Rau and some of his closest friends will watch games together at their apartments. They typically gather for away games, arranging six or seven screens to follow the best matchups. They will use the set-up for every LSU game this year.

Without dozens of people to feed, Rau plans to hone other cooking techniques. He has baked pizza and prepared handmade pasta since a trip to Italy with his wife last fall, learning humidity corresponds to the quality of his pasta. So until LSU lifts its ban, Rau will continue cooking as he waits until his next tailgate.

Staff writer Brooks Kubena contributed to this report.


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Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com