Small Towns, Big Tailgates

Regional Schools with a Tailgate to TellIMG_6391

written by J FREDRICK CLARK with special reporting by COLLEEN ANN McNALLY |
photos courtesy of Eagle Creek Brewing Co., Georgia Southern University; The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga; Jane Scott

It’s the most wonderful time of the year … and no, we aren’t talking about holidays. The weather is finally cooling off, white is out and football is back. It’s tailgate season, of course! Amdist the landscape of large, powerhouse universities, we peeled back the rind on football programs in our region where fans love their their tailgates just as much as they love their teams. We began outside of Savannah, then traveled northwest just past where the northwest Georgia border meets Tennessee and finished with a trip up I-85 to South Carolina. Don’t be fooled by size —for many, having the best tailgate in town is a competition of its own.

Team with Eagle
With a fan base that’s coined the phrase, “we pregame harder than you play,” Saturdays are no joke for true-blue  tailgaters dressed in Sunday’s best when the boys play at home. Conventional wisdom for visitors and parents in for the weekend is to stay, dine and play in Savannah, just 45 minutes away. However, in the past five years, Georgia Southern University (GSU) student population has soared upward of 20,000 and the football team has been in arm’s-length of national championships before jumping up to join the Sunbelt Conference. Paulson Stadium has expanded to make room for all the new fans, their families and friends –and downtown Statesboro  is undergoing revitalization, too, without losing its small-town feel. While a handful of chain hotels can keep you comfortable, a lucky few this fall will book a stay at Georgia’s Bed and Breakfast for an authentic “Boro” experience. It’s places like this that no doubt contribute to recognition as one of the 50 quarter-finalist towns in the America’s Best Community competition.

Opened by Helen Cannon in January of 1992, this lovely home represents the South’s unique blend of casual elegance and charming hospitality. Cannon spends a great deal of time in the kitchen, but invites all her guests to sit down to a glass of Southern ice tea and lots of conversation –a great introduction to the town’s history, considering the inn dates back to 1890. In walking distance of Georgia’s is Main Street, and a handful of local flavor by way of Sugar Magnolia Bakery, 40 East Grill, The Daily Grind and the newest kid on the block, 441 Public Kitchen. Owner and chef Seni Alabi-Isama has witnessed the downtown’s tremendous growth since he came in 1997 and has added a sense of cosmopolitan among the cotton fields with his restaurant menus at South & Vine and now 441 Public.

IMG_6404Alabi-Isama has also participated in the thriving game-day scene with neighbors. “Georgia Southern tailgating is a little different than a lot of other places,” he said, noting school traditions and the regulars who routinely bring monstrous RVs and rolling barbecue rigs.

One tradition is now commemorated in a can. Owned by Statesboro native Franklin Dismuke, Eagle Creek is the local brew for your blue-and-white koozie to embrace come game day. Visit for a tour and taste, then put your souvenir six-pack in the cooler and head toward the family-friendly tailgating spots surrounding Paulson, where you’ll pass the brand-new neighborhood of 400-square-foot “mini-mansions.”

IMG_9204Affectionately named “The 1981 Club,” honoring the year football was resurrected at Georgia Southern, the collection of individual suites comes  complete with a rocking chair front porch, a cozy, temperature-controlled interior suite with a private restroom and an outdoor shaded entertainment area. The individual suites offer many luxury home amenities such as hardwood floors, a vaulted ceiling, stainless steel appliances, four HD televisions as well as access to the outdoor entertainment area. Introduced in June, the space is unsurprisingly booked to capacity this season.

Regardless of where you chill before kickoff, cold beverages are a necessity in the South Georgia heat — and continue well-after the sun goes down. Refuel post-game at Dingus Magee’s or Gnat’s Landing (yes, as in the buggers you’ve been swatting away all day) located across from the actual “Eagle Creek” for local bands, grub and of course, more libations. A step up from typical bar food, Gnat’s menu includes standout shrimp and grits, memorable cheesy chicken nachos and homemade salsa, served in an atmosphere that one can really only find in a tailgating town with a studying problem. As a proud alumnae, I can say that… and Go Eagles, of course!  –– written by Colleen Ann McNally

With an ambition to become the next Terrell Owens, who also graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC), Kwento Ikwuezunma chose to play football for the Mocs. After graduating in the summer of 2006, the “Nigerian Nightmare” — as he was docketed by fans when returning punts — Ikwuezunma has turned from star player to star tailgater. He took us through the typical game-day experience beginning on Friday and ending with the Saturday night after-party.

“Over the years, the pep rally has taken place in the courtyard of the campus athletic dorms and/ or the pavilion by the student union,” Ikwuezunma recollected. “The dorm setting is always the most energized because the community celebrates near the athletic quarters, which brings about [an entirely different] ambiance.”

As a player, he remembered Friday being mostly about business with every activity geared toward game preparation. On Saturdays, Moc fans, as well as other football fans, begin to fill downtown’s Market Street and Broad Street bars.

One of Ikwuezunma’s go-to spots is T-Bones Sports Café, where local favorites range from smoked pork and smoked chicken nachos to homemade chili. According to owner Susan Danner, who has managed the restaurant for 13 years, their wings and tenders are the most popular. Guests can order them smoked or fried, and they have a choice of mild, hot, lemon pepper or dry rubbed. T-Bones is cattycornered on the opposite side of Finley Stadium and is the nearest restaurant to the football field. It’s positioned perfectly to watch the Moc Walk, where the football team marches past before entering the stadium.

Meanwhile, the First Tennessee Pavilion — the official Mocs tailgate area — operates on a firstcome, first-serve basis, quickly filling with tailgaters and entertainment seekers. Ikwuezunma tailgates between the skate park and dog park. He and his group of friends enjoy eating “anything that can be cooked on a grill: chops, steaks, shrimp, seafood or kabobs.” When they see the Moc Walk, they know football is about to begin.

As Ikwuezunma puts it, game-day weekend does not officially end until the post-game celebration. Mocs fans will return to their tailgates or head downtown until nighttime. “In most collegiate settings, the success of the after-party is typically determined by the outcome of the game. When you’re in the Moc’s Nest, win, lose or draw, we party!”

Wofford IMG_0462-print
Up I-85, past Athens, past Clemson and Greenville, about 170 miles from downtown Atlanta, Wofford College sits in beautiful Spartanburg, S.C. Gibbs Stadium resides on the
northeast side of campus just o of gorgeous Cummings Street, which is fl anked by shrubs, trees and other greenery. Wofford is essentially an arboretum with many old trees.

“When you step foot on Wofford’s campus, you fall in love,” gushed Jane Scott, an alumnae who earned her bachelor’s degree in biology in 2003. She and her friends and family love the Terriers, and it shows with their tailgating.

“Our friend Adam lives in Greenville so he’s normally in charge of food. He has a major grill attached to a trailer, so he cooks burgers, hot dogs and sides … out-of-towners bring dessert,” she explained.

Scott, her sorority sisters and their husbands meet in the shaded President’s lot underneath stately trees. Choosing a prime location near the sidewalk, Scott and her group try to snag old classmates and friends on their way to the stadium.

Wofford IMG_9813-editedKids run around and throw the ball before the game, and then practice sliding down a small slope near the parking lot on cardboard boxes in preparation for a school tradition doing the same down a big hill behind one end zone during the game.

For Scott, the biggest game of the year for her beloved Terriers is against the Citadel, which is an historic rivalry between the first two schools in the state.

“It’s a game that always has the most attendance and energy,” Scott said, remembering her first rivalry game. Her older brother attended The Citadel and her father attended Wofford, so she recalls ribbing her brother with her alma mater’s victory that first year. The following year, she met her husband, a free safety on the Wofford football team.

These days, with two young boys, they aren’t able to make it to every game, but without fail, they attend The Citadel/Wofford game even if it’s in Charleston — but there’s nothing like game day in Spartanburg.

  1. Andrew10-01-2015

    Beautifully written. I wouldn’t trade my 4 years at Georgia Southern for anything in the world. You just can’t beat the city of Statesboro, beautiful campus, gameday atmosphere, and the most amazing people. Hail Southern and no place else!

    • Points North10-06-2015

      Thank you Andrew for your comment. Associate Editor Colleen McNally agrees with you!