On football Saturdays, a sport of another kind is played outside college stadiums, complete with quarterbacks and huddles, spread formations, triple options. And wide-open receivers, of course.
It’s not just sitting on the back of a truck with a chicken leg and a beer anymore for the pregame feeding. They might as well call it tail-catering, with all the menu planning, transportation, setup and variety of food involved.
But the fans who carry the fanfare to the extreme, well, they are loving every minute of their play-action feast.
Take The Citadel’s “BITES” group or Bulldog-Inspired Tailgating Enthusiastic Seniors. Organizer Gil Pohl may be a mild-mannered work engineer for the Charleston County Facilities Department by week. But by week’s end, he is helping to mastermind an outlay of food for a small wedding, 75 to 100 people for each of the Bulldogs’ home games.
For example, on one recent Saturday, BITES cooked 24, 16-inch pizzas on the grill. On another, it was about 250 wings and 40 pounds of chili cheese fries, plus ribs.
They do a Mongolian barbecue with about 20 different vegetables, four types of meat, and sauces, stir-frying right on the spot. “That’s a pretty elaborate one,” Pohl concedes.
Still to come is a pulled-pork and Frogmore stew spread.
They are no slackers on the drink side, either. “We used to have soft drinks and beer. Now we have a full bar,” Pohl explains. Then there’s the margarita slushee machine, bloody marys and the requisite beer, wine and soft drinks.
Being a BITES member is a badge of honor. “We have printed T-shirts with our names on them and ‘We tailgate harder than your team plays,’ ” Pohl says. “It’s a huge production.”
No kidding. Menu planning begins in January. Each game requires three pickup-loads of equipment, including chairs, coolers, tables and such. Grills are towed in by trailers.
To think, all this started rather innocently. Pohl, 58, bought season tickets some years ago while living in Virginia. Then he happened to meet fellow Citadel alum and one of the future BITES quarterbacks, Ed Carter. The two are part of a core group of four organizing the tailgates.
“We started out very small in 2005, just eating off the back of our tailgates,” Pohl explains. “We would just buy a box of chicken.”
But then they started to get into it, deeper and deeper. Pohl is reluctant to say how much he personally spends each year, but acknowledges it’s in the hundreds of dollars. The organizers pay for everything.
But in only seven years, BITES has claimed two titles of its own, winning two of four yearly tailgating championships at The Citadel within the past five years (the contest skipped one year).
Nothing to it, Pohl says, except the love of socializing with friends and pulling together for the Bulldogs.
“Our wives think we’re nuts at times.”
Clemson fan-atic Shannon Weeks Taylor of James Island is a caterer by profession, doing business as Smart Cooking With Shannon. The 43-year-old is a 1990 graduate who describes herself as an “extremely loyal” Tiger supporter.
To say the least. Taylor commands a large tailgate at every home game but will travel, too. She flew to Boston for Clemson’s most recent game.
When she and her husband, Charles, married in 2008, they had a “tailgate wedding” at their house. She sported a sequined tiger paw on her dress. There were orange and white flowers in the backyard and a tiger paw ice sculpture. The groom’s cake was a tiger helmet.
“It was awesome,” Taylor says. “We did tailgate food ... marinated shrimp, fried chicken, boiled peanuts, tiger paw pasta (orange and white) and tiger paw biscuits. We’re extreme.”
What’s more, the Taylors sprung a surprise on their guests: a visit from the Tigers’ mascot, who drove down from Clemson to be at the reception.
This level of Tiger and tailgating fever goes way back in her family. Taylor’s grandfather and father also were Clemson graduates (’26 and ’64), and Taylor has been tailgating with her kin for her entire life. The family has four tailgating spots together today
“The baton has passed. Our parents did it, now we do it. My brother and I head up the tailgate,” Taylor says.
Game time determines which of three menu options will be served. A noon game will bring on a big breakfast of casseroles, sausage and biscuits, washed down with bloody marys and mimosas.
A 3:30 p.m. game calls for breaking out the grill or a big pot of Beaufort stew.
And a night game sets the stage for an unapologetic fry-out. Taylor’s brother brings up the big fryer and “fries anything anybody wants to bring,” she says.
Shrimp, home fries, chicken wings and nuggets, mozzarella sticks can pack the cooker.
“If we’re going to fry, by God, we’re going to fry,” she says.
Submarine sandwiches, fruit and veggie trays, and chicken salad are guaranteed players at the table, regardless of game time. Also popular are Taylor’s specialties: sweet potato ham biscuits and a Mediterranean pasta salad with olives and feta cheese.
Coming from James Island, game day can start as early as 5 a.m. for the Taylors.
How has tailgating changed over the years?
“I think it’s become more complicated, more cumbersome,” Taylor says. “When we were growing up, it was just a card table. Now it’s the table, banners up, it’s just a lot of stuff.”
And the televisions and technology that have come to tailgating have made it like being in your living room, she adds.
Still, the Taylors don’t miss many opportunities to tailgate, football or elsewhere. “We tailgate at concerts. There’s a cooler in my car right now. It does not matter. We just love to tailgate.”
A member of the Class of ’92 graduate school, Meredith Nelson admits she is more of a Carolina Gamecock fan by association. But she says her husband, Mark, Class of ’88, is “off the charts.” He doesn’t miss a home game.
On a scale of 1 to 10, “Mark is definitely 12 to 15 plus. ... He can tell you all the stats, where everyone went to high school.”
The Nelsons have the digs as proof. They are co-owners of one of 22 stationary railcar cabooses known as the “Cockaboose Railroad.” It’s the ultimate in tailgating real estate at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Sometimes their Cockaboose hosts as few as 10 people for smaller games but up to 30 or so for larger ones, like this week’s showdown between South Carolina and Georgia.
Nelson coordinates the food fare with her husband’s sister, but one thing is for certain, there will be fewer unhealthy food penalties with Nelson on board.
She has one tailgating food rule: “It has to be healthy but good.” Only makes sense; Nelson is owner of PrimeTime Fitness on Sullivan’s Island.
It’s not the usual stuff of tailgating food, but Nelson’s quiche is a standard on their brunch menu. Made with egg substitute, low-fat biscuit mix, diced ham, low-fat cheese and Tabasco sauce, it definitely offers positive yardage on the better-for-you side.
Nelson also likes to come up with “designer” dishes in the same healthy vein: For the recent USC game with the Missouri Tigers, she planned a salsa dip with strips of pita chips as tiger “whiskers” and a skewer of marinated yellow peppers and black olives as tiger “tails.”
Is there a must-have at every game? “No, other than alcohol,” she says.
Looks like a goal-line stand for the healthier food.