New Neighbors: SEC - Athens, GA
ATHENS - With your first glimpse at the University of Georgia--in fact, all of Athens--on game day, it's difficult to make out details. A sea of red swallows the city whole. There's a collective chuckle and sincere smile when an outsider asks where fans tailgate. A better question--and one far tougher to answer--is: Where isn't there tailgating?
For UGA's final home game for the 2011 season, the Bulldogs were facing their oldest rival--Auburn. In the midst of this rivalry, KOMU 8 News traveled south, crossing from America's heartland to America's southland. As the University of Missouri will soon be the new kid on the block in the SEC, KOMU 8 wanted to check out what differences lie at the end of that 740-mile drive.
Between MIZ and UGA...
Between a Tiger and a Bulldog...
Mizzou is one season away from meeting Georgia, and maybe, between the hedges.
For as many Missouri fans that have never heard the expression, "between the hedges," count on at least as many Georgia fans that gave the same quizzical expression when KOMU 8 said it traveled from "Mizzou."
In the months ahead, fans will have much to learn about two teams, formerly with little in common, now bonded by the SEC.
KOMU 8 spent game day from the beginning breakfast bite to final ring of the bell with Georgia fans to give Mizzou a sense of what to expect from future rivals. From the culture, to the traditions, and, (at least until next season) the southern hospitality - KOMU 8 tried to leave nothing on the table.
On game day, many Bulldogs fans will say there's no better start than Strickland's.
"Strickland's Restaurant is a big part of this town and has been for a long time," Athens resident Paul Hollifield said.
The restaurant has been up and running 51 years, with its walls lined with Georgia Bulldogs memorabilia.
"It's the best-kept secret," Strickland's employee Percita Stevens said.
But word of that secret seemed to spread throughout the community, for the line consistently stretched to the door, with customers licking their lips in anticipation of Strickland's southern cooking - bacon, grits, fried chicken, biscuits, you name it. Oh, and don't forget fresh brewed sweet tea.
"It is some of the best food that you can get in the south," Hollifield said.
The BEST food, before cheering on what fans call the BEST team, in the BEST college town.
"You are in the best place for football. This, this town and this atmosphere on game day is one of the best I've been in," Hollifield said.
And tailgaters were ready to prove it.
"Welcome to the SEC, first of all. And welcome to big hits and big plays and hard hits. We like to play hard, we like to hit hard, and we like to drink hard. Down here it's all about traditions and the way we do things," tailgater Wes Schlomer said.
"It's be there earlier than you should be," tailgater Anthony Labarbera said.
"It's the biggest thing going in the state for that whole, that whole day," UGA Bulldogs tight end Aron White said.
"It's just game day, baby!" tailgater David Bailey said.
Game day tradition led KOMU 8 down train tracks, filled with hundreds, if not thousands of tailgaters, that run alongside UGA's campus.
Dez Ziegenhorn was one of those tailgaters. He may have blended in with black and red - but don't be fooled. This football fan, bleeds black and gold, as he graduated from Mizzou.
"Tiger fans are gonna have to learn how to do it in the SEC," Ziegenhorn said.
Every year, Ziegenhorn and five buddies go to a big college football game, often in the SEC. As a seasoned alum, he spread his knowledge for upcoming tigers.
"You're gonna have to step it up. Tailgating in the SEC is totally different. Game day experience is totally different, you know I mean, it's a religion in the SEC. They live and die football down here, it's crazy."
White echoed the statement pointing to Georgia's lifeline.
"They say the UGA lives and dies on Georgia football. When football's doing great, they say Georgia is doing great," White continued, "If Mizzou football has a bad year, it's like okay, you know, they had a bad year, they'll come back. If Georgia football has a bad year, it's gonna be some problems. Heads gonna roll."
"Whether your team's 2-8, or 8-2, everybody's gonna show up on game day. It doesn't matter what the weather's like, it doesn't matter if it's an 11:00 kickoff or 8:00 kickoff," Ziegenhorn said.
Just as sure as fans will show up, there's another steadfast fan people can count on - Uga - Georgia's real bulldog, who sits on the sidelines at every home game.
And when Ugas die, they're remembered where they served as a steadfast fan--right in the south corner of the stadium--with a mausoleum, and engravings with saying such as, "Damn Good Dog."
"It is a football nation in this town. Without the university, we would probably be a dying town," Hollifield said.
The Bulldogs did a lot of living in the matchup against Auburn, beating the Tigers 45-7. After each victory, fans rush to an old church bell in town, and stand in line to make the bell sing with a tug of a rope. This isn't just any small bell. The weight of the bell actually lifts many of the ground as they pull, with each "ding, ding, ding."
KOMU 8 left by walking though UGA's black arches, a symbolic entrance to the start of campus. Though smaller than MU's columns, their meaning is similar.
Perhaps there's more likeness ahead between the future rivals.
"I'm always gonna pull for the 'Dogs man, I can't help it man, I'm a Bulldog, that's what I'm gonna be, that's where I played. But you know, I've always got a little bit of Tiger in my heart," White said.
Mizzou fans will hold that tiger in their hearts, as they look to the 2012 season in the SEC.
And as Tigers look ahead, KOMU 8 heard behind, the continued ringing of the victory bell, echoing through Athen's historic corners, a parting reminder...
SEC, here we come.