IU fans never lose the tailgate: A closer look into dedicated Hoosier tailgaters

BLOOMINGTON — The bacon on Chuck Dixon’s grill sizzled with vigor, a minor menu adjustment of breakfast fare for tailgating instead of brats and burgers because of Indiana’s noon kickoff against Rutgers.

Smelled just as good.

Three hours before the Hoosiers football game was a go inside Memorial Stadium, the fans limbered up with their own calisthenics, much of it relying on fire. Hundreds of early arrivals accentuated with everything from football tossing to beanbag tossing, from imbibing of beer to downing a Bloody Mary, from listening to the deep echoing sounds of bagpipes to reverberating rock and roll.

What takes place in the stadium is monitored by the Big Ten. What occurs amidst the crush of recreational vehicles is a bonus, a gathering of major-league partygoers turning home game Saturdays into holidays.

Win, lose or draw, the shindig goes on. Just as well, since by the end of this recent summery-type October afternoon with temperatures in the 70s and sunglasses-required brightness in the sky, IU football was sitting on a 2-5 record. New Year’s Eve is not postponed because of a blizzard. Thanksgiving is not if a grocery store runs out of turkeys. Nor is tailgating abandoned because the home team is in a slump.

In the words of Carmel’s Angie Park, part of three couples who have consistently upgraded their tailgating into a super-sized RV and a restaurant-sized spread of eats over a dozen-year period, “We’ve never lost a tailgate.”

Tailgating goes way back

Football games last about three hours. Fans with strong allegiances and free time have transformed their connection to their team into weekend commitments, the stadium’s parking lot turned into the equivalent of a Department of Natural Resources state park campground minus the trees.

One definition of “tailgating” is driving too close behind another vehicle and is the type of traffic infraction that can earn you a ticket and a fine. Sports tailgating, in the words of “Wayne’s World” and “Saturday Night Live,” is “Party on!” You may be parking close to another vehicle’s behind, and it is protocol to have a ticket in possession to attend the game, but it is a complementary activity to football, not to highway mayhem.

Tailgating is most closely associated with football games, even said to exist with chuckwagons prior to the first college football game in 1869 between Princeton and, coincidentally, Rutgers.

Rather astoundingly, it is said that in 1861, at the Battle of Bull Run in Virginia during the Civil War, spectators showed up to picnic while cheering for soldiers of the Union and the Confederacy. Some might call that lunacy, but some historians have labeled that tailgating.

Flash forward to the ascendancy of the automobile when it became a challenge to jockey for a parking space at a football stadium, so fans arrived extra early, bringing their own food. Tailgating tradition eventually spread to other sporting events, even those not attracting 50,000 or so spectators.

Indiana University has designated parking areas for football games where big rigs can be parked, beginning Friday night leading to Saturday games, with the vehicles staying over to Sunday.

Randy Park, Angie’s husband, operator of their RV headquarters that seems as large as a railroad car, said he is charged $100 per game, and it is an all-in-one season parking cost.

Randy and friends Doug Castor and Jeff Biggs began tailgating together at IU about a dozen years ago using a pickup truck at first. Things have escalated. Between the trio, they have four enrolled students at IU, so they are being true to the school.

Their food spread, which included 100 pounds of chili brought by Castor, was arrayed outdoors much of the length of the RV. Adjacent was a sort of IU living room, a canopy with a fire going, more for ambience than warmth, and included 14 canvasback crimson- and cream-colored Indiana chairs and a few IU logo tables. They did not raid a furniture store on a Labor Day.

“Nah,” Randy said, “one by one.”

Castor’s cohorts made fun of him for bringing so much chili. Biggs said at the end of the weekend, they should give leftovers to the needy in Bloomington.

It was too soon to tell what volume of chili, or anything else, from Halloween candy corn, popcorn or other goodies might remain. Almost no one else had shown up to party yet. Randy said their college kids and friends were no doubt sleeping in until the last minute.

“Just wait,” Castor said of the anticipated attendance.

Start early

Chuck Dixon of Crawfordsville, a decadeslong tailgating aficionado, does the grilling. Wife Von is OK with that.

“Grilling is a guy thing,” Dixon said.

He was working a double grill, one side covered with that juicy bacon, the other by a mix of warming vegetables.

The Dixons used to be from Ohio, but, “I don’t like Ohio State,” Chuck Dixon said.

Ohio State Buckeye fans take their tailgating to the road. When the team visited IU to start the season, there were many RV campers with Ohio license plates. It is just 225 miles from Columbus, Ohio to Bloomington. Rutgers is located in New Jersey and it was not likely a large crowd would make that 750-mile drive.

However, Michael Kerner, 68, and wife Cynthia, flew to Indianapolis and rented a car. Wearing a Rutgers baseball cap, he was the only one visible wandering the parking lot so-identified, weaving between IU fans wearing their team colors or sitting on lawn chairs.

The Kerners were on the prowl for a designated Rutgers reunion about a half-mile-plus away where they were to meet up with ideologically similar believers.

“We go to all the games,” Michael Kerner said, meaning home-and-away. “IU has the nicest people.” None of the thousand or so people surrounding them booed them.

Parked only a few feet from the Parks’ vehicle was a just-about-as-big RV hosting another gang that included grandpa Craig Overway carrying their youngest IU supporter, 20-month-old Harrison.

Overway did not make strong claims about Harrison’s football allegiance since one of the young man’s few words thus far is “Hi.” Overway had two sons attend IU and has tailgated for eight years.

“He likes grandpa’s RV,” Overway said of the soon-to-be-napping Harrison. “He makes it to halftime.”

During dismal contests, many older Hoosier fans may make the same claim. In the morning, though, that did not stop them from asking to pass the biscuits and gravy.

Camp till ready

Tod Brown 27, of Butlerville said his family has been tailgating for IU games his entire life, although he is currently working in Chicago and must wake at 4:45 a.m. central time to make these type of noon contests.

“You’d hate to miss the one time they beat a good team,” Brown said.

Brown was performing an impressive magic trick, holding a can of beer in his left hand while throwing and catching a small football with a cousin using only his right hand.

“I am a long-time suffering fan,” Brown said. “I’ve seen many heartbreaks.

Although the football periodically bounced away from Brown, he never spilled a drop of beer.

Nearby, the Southern Indiana Pipe and Drums bag-pipe group, fresh off an appearance at Oktoberfest in Seymour, revved up. Several players wore “Hoosier Nation” T-shirts. The group played one song, marched along, and played another. Game repertoire generally includes the school’s alma mater and a fight song, to get tailgaters in the mood to cheer, or party, if encouragement was needed.

Learning local tailgating ropes was Wade Jennings. He and wife Sharon are from Mishawaka, and are long-term Notre Dame fans. However, they now have a freshman son at IU.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been to a football game at IU,” Wade Jennings said.

He went all in, splurging on new Indiana fan gear, a cap costing $35 and a pullover jersey costing $90. The items were very shiny.

The Jennings took time to participate in a bean-bag toss, one of the regular games indulged in by fans in-between bites of food leading to kickoff.

One area of the parking lot had a row of automobiles where fans raised flags of support for IU athletics, with some variation. One car hoisted a Taylor Swift flag along with an IU flag, both of them rippling nicely in the mild wind.

Across the foot path, things were a little more complicated for Greg Tomaszewski, who raised two flags, one of them supporting Indiana, the other the University of Michigan.

Tomaszewski grew up in Michigan and roots for the Wolverines. His wife is a Hoosier and they live in Plainfield with a daughter attending IU.

“It is a house divided,” Tomaszewski said. He doesn’t rub in IU Michigan football defeats like this year’s 52-7 result. “She gets me back during basketball.”

Tomaszewski also wore double layers on his torso. His sweatshirt read, “My daughter and my money go to IU.” Beneath that was a T-shirt with the words and a symbol: “I married into this…IU.”

The borderline IU fan did not indulge in the Indiana athletic support advertisement of red-and-white, candy-striped farmer overalls. Those $70 pants are seemingly ubiquitous among students.

There was a game?

An hour-plus before game time, large groups of red-clad fans began moseying from parking lots to stadium seats. Soon, inside, Rutgers dominated IU, winning 31-14.

By 5 p.m. most tailgating cars had departed the parking lot. RVs remaining were diehards, planning to camp another night. Just about the liveliest area was the Parks’ RV, where 20 or so people still danced and ate, chili included. The hosts were surprised that about 85 pounds of chili had been devoured.

Randy Park said probably 140 people had tailgated at their little spot. There was a mishap or two. A batch of cooking hot dogs was forgotten and scorched black. Also, fire drifted to the furniture and torched the back of one chair.

“By the way,” Park said, “did we win or lose?”

Huh? Park was so busy tailgating he never entered the building to watch any of the game live.

The party continued. The defeat was shrugged off. Noting the group’s tailgating philosophy, Castor said, “We hope for the best and we prepare for the worst. We don’t let it affect our mood.”

Given that outlook and Indiana’s football struggles, Angie Park said it was a grand idea to stitch the motto about never losing a tailgate on their IU canopy.

After all, they are undefeated at tailgating.