Illinois Football will be good soon enough, and now’s the best time to start investing your time into the team and tailgating experience. With the team sure to show improvement, buzz will start to pick up. Don’t be the last one to the party!
For a team that hasn’t won eight games in a season for 10 years, Illinois has a pretty vibrant tailgate scene over on the west side of Memorial Stadium. The addition of Grange Grove was a huge boost to the gameday atmosphere, and although we’ve yet to see its full potential realized due to an underperforming football program, what we’ve seen so far suggests that a good foundation has been laid. If we can win a few games late to establish some momentum going into 2019, the hours before each home game will be a huge party at 1st and Kirby.
But it’s 2018 now, and we’re at the bottom, ready to start the climb. So why not take this season to perfect your tailgate setup?
Why Tailgate Illini Football?
If you’re reading this, you probably understand why people would do such a thing. However, tailgating is better the more people you have, and before you invite your friends and acquaintances to show up to the stadium area hours early, you’ll need to be prepared to answer this question.
If you’re a student, the best way to convince people to go to a game with you is to point out that this window is their only chance to go to a major college football game as a student. Don’t they want to see everything on campus before they graduate? This is an integral part of the experience!
If you just want people to go to your tailgate, make sure they know that drinking is not policed in tailgating lots like it would be any other time you’re outside. Everyone likes a good darty*, right? The tailgate scene is just a big outdoor darty, with the theme being “Illinois Fighting Illini.” Grange Grove has even had a series of free concerts. The event it’s leading up to is where a bunch of the best athletes in the immediate vicinity, representing the University of Illinois, march through the crowd and into the stadium to prepare to do battle. Fun stuff, huh?
(*darty (n.): day party)
Where Do I Set Up?
The parking map is available here; if you’ve got a great big group (or a corporation) that wants to purchase 50 or more tickets, you can set up in Lot 31, but personally I’m neither popular enough nor a high enough roller to have ever done this.
Back in the days before Grange Grove, the most popular student tailgate spots were Lot 42 and Lot 45. These are grass fields just south of Kirby between fourth and Goodwin. When Illinois football attendance was high back in 2007-11, these lots were full of party people because tailgating on grass is more comfortable than in an actual parking lot, but any of the parking lots around Assembly Hall can be tailgated as well.
Grange Grove, right in front of the west entrance, is the epicenter of the modern Illini tailgate scene. To lock down a spot inside the Grove, you’ll need to show up between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. the day before the game (so out-of-towners who want to try this will probably have to at least take an afternoon off work). During this two-hour window, you can claim your space by simply dropping your stuff in an area. Putting a tarp over your collection of stuff (i.e. grills, chairs, canopies, etc.) is the best way to mark off your area while protecting your things from the elements. The Grove re-opens at 7 a.m. on game day.
What Should I Do?
Serve some food and some drinks and get partying, basically.
Weber makes an excellent little tailgate grill (Q series), but if you don’t have a grill you can always just buy some food at County Market, which at 4th and Stoughton is easily within a short hike of the stadium.
For drinks, you’re going to want to pour all of them into Solo cups to be safe. This, unfortunately, probably means it’s not worth constructing my creation, the Alma Mater Shot.
Nevertheless, a personal favorite of mine, especially for an 11 a.m. kickoff, is the Beermosa. It’s like a mimosa, but with beer. Grab some Blue Moon, Bell’s Oberon or some other wheat-type beer, and then add 1 part beer and 1 part orange juice. Tastes incredible, and you can drink it for hours without getting into a whole lot of trouble.
If you don’t feel like setting up much more than a cooler full of your drinks of choice, you can always just hop between tailgates and make new friends. Generally, people hosting tailgates are pretty willing to exchange drink or food if you’re friendly and ask. So go around and party-hop; we all have one thing in common at the tailgate scene, and that is that we’re all here to get unreasonably pumped up about the Fighting Illini!
If it’s an afternoon or evening kickoff, there’s often a free concert just south of Grange Grove. For those games early in the season, I’d also recommend taking a short walk to Jarling’s Custard Cup some time before kickoff.
Get Ready for Game Time
Just over two hours prior to kickoff, Illini Walk will be heading through Grange Grove. This is where the Marching Illini and cheerleaders welcome the football team and support staff into the stadium. Gather round and cheer them on!
Inviting people to tailgate parties is a great way to convince them to go to the games. People are very likely to take you up on an offer to stop by your tailgate party. This can be the gateway to getting reluctant would-be fans into the stadium; if they stick around the tailgate scene, maybe they’ll want to go to the game next time since they’ve invested all this time in the pregame. Or, after the Illini Walk, they can probably use a smartphone to buy tickets online. There will hopefully come a day when you can’t buy tickets online easily within two hours of kickoff, but since that day hasn’t yet come, let’s take advantage of it.
Tailgating is a time-honored tradition of American sports events. Fighting Illini tailgating is a great way to enhance your game day experience, but can also be a “gateway drug” of sorts for a casual fan to get behind the football team. So before the inevitable streak of sellouts starts, let’s all make sure we know how to tailgate properly!
For more reading about how to tailgate, learn How Not To Tailgate. Rookie mistakes are easier to make than you’d think; I’ve made and seen enough that they warrant a separate article. But instead of increasing the carbon footprint of this one, I wanted to put that same energy into a constructive post.