Whether Virginia is in the midst of a winning or losing season, one thing remains constant — tailgates. Parking lots all across Grounds are filled to the brim with cars, food and high spirits. Students, families and alumni can be counted on to come together for the sake of enjoying one another's company before a game. No matter the age of the fan, students, family and alumni alike share one major motivation when they attend University tailgates — to share in the company of one another.
For both students and alumni — both recently graduated and much-less-recently graduated — attending football games can mean more about the tailgate rather than the football games itself. Instead, as Class of 1992 alumna Ashley Bagby put it, hosting or participating in a tailgate and being with family and friends is the main draw.
“Many of us don't come for the football, we come for the social hour,” Bagby said. “It's six or seven times a season. You come and all your friends come and you have a little party … the football is the excuse for me — the tailgate is the fun [part].”
A very similar sentiment is echoed by current University students. Fourth-year College student Sean Miller, whose family tailgates regularly, appreciates the intersection of several generations of Cavalier fans his family’s tailgate facilitates.
“I love how we're able to bring together so many different people at my tailgate,” Miller said. “We've got all my current friends, plus my parents and all their friends who went here and then my grandparents and their friends. It's fun to connect [and meet] so many different people … I think that's what makes it so fun.”
This confluence of both old and young fans is by no means particular to the University. Like the rest of the country, tailgates at the University offer delicious food and a wide selection of beverages, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. At University tailgates, though, families create and offer their own unique traditions and histories.
For the Bagby family and their friends, who have been attending University football games since Bagby was a child in the 1980s, creating a theme for each of their tailgates with food and decorations brings them enjoyment.
“We usually have themes, so if it's a morning game — we hate noon football — we’ll do breakfast food,” Bagby said. “We're not grillers. There's some people that grill, [and] we think it's a big mess. We have fried turkey a couple of times. It's a little messy, but it's really fun, especially [Virginia] Tech games.”
The Miller family like to set up an expansive array of brunch options for their tailgates. As the fall season sets in with crisp, cold air, the Millers bring warmth and friendly company to the lots with blankets and warm meals.
As the grandfather and one of the founders of his family’s tailgates, Class of 1969 alumnus Bill Cooper takes pleasure in hosting tailgates with his family and lifelong friends that he made at the University.
“I think on a game day I actually never went anywhere else other than my family's tailgate,” Cooper said. “I've never gone out [to] the corner on game day. I always come here to hang out with my grandkids.”
One highlight of tailgates is that they are often not exclusive. Friends removed many times over from the host frequent tailgates through the invitation of other friends and family members. As such, tailgates not only bring together generations but also foster new relationships through mutual friends.
Jim Miller, Sean Miller’s father and Class of 1993 alumnus, finds joy in meeting his son’s peers from the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society at tailgates. The family relishes in being a highlight of game days for University students in the club and getting to know current students more.
“Lot of the folks who come are from the Jefferson Society and it's actually a signature event for the Jefferson Society,” Jim said.
Second-year College student Jack Hill and his family extend the invitation to their friends and share Chick-fil-A minis on the mornings of football games. For Hill, the essence of the tailgate is not so much about the sport but rather, having the opportunity to gather the people most important to him into one place.
“For me, it's really just about family,” Hill said. “Whether it's my direct family or my roommates, or even some of my closest friends here on Grounds — it's kind of just like a little family. It's super nice to just sort of recuperate on the weekends and get together with everybody, sort of put the business humdrum and tedium of classes behind me for at least a few hours and just talk, relax, unwind, reconnect.”
Though they are not unique vis-a-vis tailgates across the country, tailgates at the University produce a convergence and commingling of students and alumni that spans generations. Tailgating at University sporting events for 35-plus years, Class of 1976 alumnus Carter Hoerr said that even though University tailgates are not so unique, tailgating at Virginia football games is a deeply rooted practice.
“My personal experience [is] that our tailgating is probably pretty typical as compared to other schools, but it's certainly the case that [the] tradition itself of tailgating at U.Va. games has certainly been alive and well for a long, long time,” Hoerr said. “[Tailgating is] a great way every fall to get together with our friends who are also alumni.”