As college football fans, we knew we were somewhere special as soon as we rolled into Tuscaloosa.
Literally rolled in. Unless you own your own plane, you can’t fly here, so we spent 24 hours on the train from Boston, a fantastic trip that I’d love to do again.
When we got to the rental car counter, the two women working there were debating which high school offensive linemen they were most excited about Alabama recruiting -- I had not previously encountered women discussing high school offensive linemen.
They were very interested to learn how far we had come to watch the Crimson Tide, and insisted we had to eat at Dreamland BBQ.
Now a chain of half a dozen restaurants across the state, the original Dreamland is in Tuscaloosa, and it’s still the best barbecue I’ve ever had.
On game day, the restaurant had hired a band to play in the parking lot to entertain the people lined up to get in. We went the next day, and were almost the only people there.
We sat at a picnic table under a metal roof, near a wood fire we learned was made up one third oak, one third hickory and one third pecan. A
very, very large woman walked over to our table and put down a roll of paper towel and a bag of white bread, and left without saying a word.
Soon, an even bigger woman came over and said ‘What can I get y’all?’ I said we hadn’t even looked at a menu and she said ‘Y’all can have a rack of ribs, or half a rack of ribs. And the white bread’s for soppin’ sauce.’
We ordered a rack of ribs and two Dr Pepper, and watched the cook spray water on the fire to create smoke from those three woods. Let me sum up our meal like this: these are the best ribs in the world.
Do not go to Tuscaloosa without going to Dreamland.
But if you can, go to Tuscaloosa by RV.
Travel in comfort
Just as no school has a nautical presence that can compare to the fans arriving at Tennessee games by boat to form the Vol Navy, no school has the culture of fans travelling to home and away games by motor home as does the University of Alabama.
Over the top is common, and it takes way more than a million-dollar rolling palace to stand out in this crimson crowd.
For a Ph D level-look at this phenomenon, read Warren St. John’s book Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, A Journey Into the Heart of Fan Mania.
Among the good reasons to think about an RV, Tuscaloosa is a championship-level city when it comes to jacking up the price of hotel rooms on game weekends. It’s almost as eyebrow-raising as the Tide’s 13 national championships since the AP poll started in 1936.
On the weekend we spent there, we were fortunate that the time of kickoff allowed us to experience two tailgating scenes, beginning with the festivities at Stillman College, an HBCU three miles away from the UA campus. Pre-game here is less, uh, frenzied than at Alabama, but very friendly, and worth attending.
Back downtown, a pickup truck with several beer-drinking guys in the back passed us, one of them yelling loudly, and apparently unironically, ‘Yeeeeee-haww!’
On the Quad
The Quad is where the Tide played its first few seasons, and is now the main on-campus place to tailgate, with lots of tents and vendors (Tents are LIMITED to 20x30 feet, so as not to be outlandish).
Drinking starts here a few hours before game time, a few days after the RVers have started, and goes until about 90 minutes after the end of the game. Elsewhere, basically every parking lot on campus is set aside for tailgating on game day.
Look for the Elephant Stomp, which starts at the Gorgas Library. Here, Tide fans meet the Million Dollar Band for a pep rally and then march to the stadium, and a bit more than two hours before game time, The Walk of Champions at the north end of Bryant-Denny Stadium has the players walk from their buses, through a throng fans, by the statues -- it’s a scene.
All the roads around campus shut three hours before kickoff, so find your tailgating place early or you’ll have to search for a (free) spot downtown and take a free shuttle to the stadium from the Tuscaloosa Intermodal Facility.
The best time to pay homage to Bear Bryant by visiting the Paul W. Bryant Museum is early in the day or, ideally, on Friday.
I was lucky enough to get to chat with him as he supervised the preparation of an unbelievably huge mountain of ribs, chicken and sausage, each link seemingly sized to match Baumhower’s unbelievably huge fingers.
Even if he’s not there, check out the tent with his name on it and have a sausage and ribs.
Chanting and singing
You’re going to want to learn the words to a few songs: Sweet Home Alabama (obviously), Yea Alabama (the fight song) and Dixieland Delight by the band Alabama. And, if the Tide wins, the Rammer Jammer chant serenades visiting fans as they slink out of the stadium.
Let’s say that, hypothetically, a full day of pounding Budweisers and yelling Roll Tide leaves you wanting more.
Postgame drinking is most raucously done on The Strip, at places like The Houndstooth, Egans Bar, a dive (in the best way) known for cheap drinks, Innisfree Irish Pub, and for the hard stuff, be sure to have a Yellowhammer, orange and pineapple juice with amaretto, rum, and vodka that’s the signature cocktail of Tuscaloosa, most notably prepared at Gallettes.