The Evolving Tailgating Culture at the University of Maine

tailgating-3424For as long as I can remember, I’ve been tailgating at University of Maine football games.  Growing up in Bangor, it was commonplace for my family to make the short drive to Orono for most, if not all, of the home games.  Memories of those Saturday mornings and afternoons are some of the fondest of my childhood.

The strongest memory I have of those late ’80s and early ’90s tailgates is that everyone was having a great time.  Kids, adults, and families all seemed to revel in the weekly celebration of school spirit in anticipation of that week’s big game.  Certainly, my perception of those days may be romanticized by youthful naivete and the fact that it was a pretty long time ago.  There was surely a population who partied a little too hard and, as a result, soured the mood for everyone.  Still, there was a sense that everyone was left to make it a great day together unless they did something to warrant otherwise.

After being removed from the tailgating culture for much of my late teens and early twenties, I, like the rest of Fill The Steins Nation, started making the annual pilgrimage back to Orono for the biggest, most exciting tailgate of them all, the Homecoming weekend tailgate, in the mid 2000s.  While it was great seeing my old college buddies and hitting up my old stomping grounds, something was missing.  Maybe it was my new perspective as a skeptical yuppie, but it seemed like some of the fun had been taken out of the pregame tailgate.

Soon enough, specifically in 2008, my concerns were confirmed.  Granted, I was not always the most well-behaved tailgater in my early and mid twenties.  However, the inherent problem wasn’t an increased Public Safety presence (I strongly believe the “action” needs to be managed and controlled).  Instead, I was surprised and offended by the total lack of communication around what was and was not allowed at the tailgate.  From arrival times to departure times to what time it was and wasn’t okay to open a beer, neither myself nor anyone in our group knew what was considered acceptable.

As is all-too-often the case in all walks of life, a lack of communication leads to a lack of understanding, which leads to a lack of control.  During that 2008 tailgate, it was with insane frequency that I saw Public Safety and other security telling people (no, not just people in my group), “This lot’s not open!”, “Dump out that beer!” and “You need to get out of here!”  This was not the fun-loving, happy-go-lucky tailgate I remembered from my youth…and it was troubling.

Thankfully, our Matt Grondin, who was far more logical and far less emotional about the situation than was I, took it upon himself to spearhead the writing of a letter to the University of Maine on behalf of the then-unnamed crew that would later become Fill The Steins.  Quite simply, Matt stated that we would be happy to follow any rule the school wants us to follow, so long as we know what they are (and, no, burying said rules deep in the university’s athletics website is not my definition of “good communication”).

I was pleased when Matt told me he actually received a response to his well-crafted letter from a high-ranking university official.  I was even more pleased when I saw tangible, practical measures being taken the very next season to re-lighten the mood and bring back some of the fun by clearly defining and communicating the rules of the road (er…parking lot).  Let me be clear, I’m not trying to give Fill The Steins all the credit for the improved communication (although we’ll certainly take some of it!), as I’m confident there were others who had similar experiences and expressed their frustrations.  Nevertheless, seemingly little things like more open communication in the weeks leading up to football season, passing out a paper copy of the rules upon entry to the tailgating lots, and a more fan-friendly tone from Public Safety have gone a long way in improving the user experience.

In the subsequent six years, culminating with our #RiseAndStein tailgate as part of last weekend’s Homecoming festivities, I’ve seen these improvements continue, which have directly led to a real increase in enthusiasm in the parking lots before kickoff.  As our Adam Henckler pointed out earlier in the week, the highs of Homecoming weekend far outnumbered the lows, particularly when it came to the tailgate.

The tailgating culture is an important component of the overall fabric of any university’s school spirit.  It’s clear the current athletics administration, led by Karlton Creech, understands the importance of creating a more fan-friendly experience.  Six years ago, the #RiseAndStein tailgate, complete with our enormous banner, live DJ, and visit from the UMaine cheerleaders, would’ve been shut down before we even got set up.  Now, instead, school officials and coaches stopped by our tailgate to thank us for our school spirit and for spreading the gospel of the college of our hearts, always.  If that’s not a change in tone and communication over six years ago, I don’t know what is.

Sure, the football and hockey teams weren’t able to pull out any wins on Homecoming weekend, but I still felt victorious.  Fill The Steins Nation was able to tailgate (responsibly, of course) in peace, without any negative interaction with a rightfully-present Public Safety, while boisterously showing the school spirit that defines our love for the University of Maine.  And while the school still needs to put more than two port-a-potties in Lot C, that’s a win any which way you slice it.

How was your tailgating experience this year?  Have you seen an improvement in the UMaine tailgating culture?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below and on Twitter using #FillTheSteins!

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