The tailgate trajectory – How LSU football’s greatest tradition has changed and how it has stayed the same

Back in August, a few weeks before the start of the college football season, LSU superfan Marvin “Big Ragoo” Dugas and a handful of his friends called a meeting. Their Krewe Ragoo tailgate group needed to divvy up responsibilities. Similar meetings were taking place around the state among serious tailgaters who wanted their elaborate festivities to go off without a hitch.

The Krewe Ragoo members chipped in dues and committed to prepare food for each home game. Dugas figured he’d once again bring a family specialty, his future mother-in-law’s roast beef, cooked the day before and served with smothered green beans. Others signed up for pastalaya, jambalaya, steaks, spaghetti and gumbo. The members also made plans to stage the area with essential equipment: a generator, two large-screen TVs, a satellite dish, sound system, tables, chairs and the outdoor cooking gear required for whatever was on the menu that day.

“Got to be organized,” says Dugas, an LSU football season ticket holder since 1973 and board member of the Gridiron Club, which raises money for the football program and meets weekly with Coach Les Miles during the season. “Tailgating is a big deal, and it gets bigger all the time.”

Dugas remembers when it was on a smaller scale.

“When I first started coming out,” he says, “I’d bring my Magnalite pot, a Coleman stove and a black-and-white TV hooked up to my car battery.”

Serial LSU fans like Dugas have seen major growth and changes in the university’s tailgate culture. Some form of tailgating likely existed as far back as 1924, when the LSU football stadium was completed. LSU Director of Parking Operations Adam Smith has a photograph in his office of a game underway that season, in which tents and cars are positioned just behind the stands.

“It was probably just dignitaries, but it might have been the beginning,” he says.

Bud Johnson, director of the Jack and Priscilla Andonie Museum, credits LSU’s strong tailgate culture to Louisiana’s traditional celebrations, including Mardi Gras and Cajun outdoor cooking, which likely influenced game-day parties. Johnson recently contributed information about LSU to a forthcoming book on SEC tailgating by author and former University of Georgia commentator Loran Smith.

Gathering before games on campus—and after games at local restaurants—was a mainstay of the 1950s and ’60s, especially after the famed 1958 national championship team ignited fan support. But in the decades that followed, says LSU’s Smith, the culture picked up additional steam with the arrival of RVs. The vehicles enabled statewide and regional fans to hold sustained parties before and after the game. Today, about 850 RVs are permitted to park throughout campus. About 550 are positioned in the popular Touchdown Village on Nicholson Extension and Highland Road.

RVs, of course, are just part of the experience. LSU Director of Game/Event Management David Taylor says the university expects between 100,000 and 150,000 people on campus or in the immediate area just before games.

“It’s definitely among the highest in the country, in part because our footprint is so big,” Taylor says. “Fans aren’t confined to certain areas, like they are at some other universities.”

Multiple expansions throughout Tiger Stadium’s history have increased its seating capacity tenfold from an original 12,000 to the current 102,321. The steady increase in patrons has naturally meant a boost in tailgaters. More fans have adopted the tradition, installing tents and equipment into innumerable nooks on campus.

“LSU has always been a beautiful place, and even though it’s hot, the oaks provide a lot of shade,” says Smith, a Baton Rouge native who grew up attending games and is an LSU alumnus. “Plus the stadium is right in the heart of campus, right in the middle of it all. We don’t have to do a lot to encourage people to come.”

Dugas started hosting his famed tailgate parties 30 years ago near the LSU Natatorium on Nicholson Drive. Throughout the 1990s, says Dugas, Krewe Ragoo grew to about 300 guests. It had its own cook, DJ and beer sponsor. The group has since downsized and relocated to a spot closer to the tennis and track facilities.

“The Internet was a big deal in more people coming out,” says Dugas. “Tiger Roar (the popular LSU fan site) gave us a lot of attention.”

Hurricanes, speculates Smith, also helped make the LSU tailgate culture more elaborate. After a succession of storms beginning with Katrina in 2005, emergency preparedness took on new importance. More Louisiana residents bought generators, and when they weren’t being used in power outages, they were perfect for powering TVs on game day—especially since fans aren’t allowed to tap into the University’s electrical outlets.

LSU has instituted new polices, they say, to ensure the game-day culture is both efficient and sustainable. It’s understandable concern with so many people in a relatively small space. But certain changes have earned the ire of fans. The university’s move in the mid-’90s, for example, to charge for premium parking spaces was a sore spot, says Dugas.

“That was a big deal,” he says.

Today, cars pay between $300 and $750 for a seasonal permit, with most being around $400. RV owners pay between $1,050 and $7,000 depending on proximity to the stadium.

Still, fans come, returning like homing pigeons to their spots of choice, enacting the same feel-good rituals they do each home game, including connecting with friends and cooking signature dishes. All signs suggest they’ll keep coming.

“It’s going to be a good year,”says Dugas.