TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Zooming down University Boulevard with a police escort, Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson sneaks a peek out the left side of the team bus.
Soccer fields become fraternity houses, then classroom buildings. Finally the architecture ends where the madness begins.
There he spots his final dose of inspiration before going to work on autumn Saturday afternoons. The junior made a ritual of absorbing the sight of thousands wearing crimson packed onto the quad.
Once a quiet field on game days, the 20-plus acres in the heart of Alabama’s campus now is the epicenter of pre-, post- and in-game celebrations of college football grandeur.
And just wait until this Saturday.
School officials are expecting beyond record crowds among the towering oaks when top-ranked LSU and its legion of fans descend on Tuscaloosa for the 8 p.m., showdown with No. 2 Alabama.
An estimated 1,700 tents -- the most in the past two seasons and close to double the number from the 2010 Iron Bowl -- will spring up Friday. With that, miles of extension cords snake from the two massive generators that power the hundreds of satellite dishes and flat-screen televisions.
Cars aren’t even allowed in the 20-plus acre plot surrounded by five buildings with Gorgas Library in direct line with Denny Chimes at its core.
As many as 10,000 fans without tickets could watch the game from the quad, said Virginia Johnson, the Alabama associate vice president for auxiliary services.
“I think the emotions are just as high with this one as they are with an Auburn/Alabama game,” she said.
Along with the exploding popularity of tailgating came a few private businesses that do the dirty work. From basic to extravagant with catered meals on the menu, no luxury is spared for a price.
The aroma of slow-cooking food envelops the small tent occupied by the Hearing and Evans family last Saturday afternoon.
From their spot directly beside the former captains’ handprints at Denny Chimes, the quad veterans are the renegades. Tuscaloosa born and bred, the group set up shop there 10 years ago when tailgating hadn’t yet caught on in that corner of campus. Only a few groups partied nearby.
Momentum grew slowly. Then neighboring tents doubled, Michael Hearing estimates, after Nick Saban was hired as coach before the 2007 season. Johnson said the marching band’s “Elephant Stomp” march to the stadium helped spur growth about 10 years ago.
The surge in tailgaters created opportunity for a few savvy entrepreneurs.
The Hearing/Evans encampment is surrounded by the uniform white pavilions of Game Day Tents jammed post to post in the prime locations. The Tuscaloosa-based company charges up to several thousand dollars for the more elaborate parties. Several phone messages left for the owners seeking comment for this story went unreturned last week, but Hearing said he’s never had a problem with the group.
They even set up his tent at no charge and “grandfathered” the group into the reserved area.
“Right here where we are next to Denny Chimes, we’re probably the only individual that’s not corporate,” Hearing said. “It’s definitely got a corporate feel over here. There’s still good times, but we see different people in different tents just about every week.”
‘All blend together’
Further back from University Boulevard sat the tailgate party planned in part by Bridget Jarvis of Hoover. Her employer, PlanTech, partners with a few other companies to host clients once a year on the quad.
Rented from Game Day Tents, the package including chairs, tables, TV and ice chest cost about $1,200, Jarvis estimated. The outdoor office parties don’t take away from the atmosphere, she said.
“I think we all blend in together,” Jarvis said as the gathering for 60-70 began. “It doesn’t hinder us doing our corporate events here. I think it adds to the atmosphere.”
Her company, which provides employer-sponsored retirement plans and consultation, even did business as a result from last year’s tailgating event. A conversation with those neighboring tents at last season’s game led to a business arrangement that continues today, she said.
To Johnson, the quad is far from a cocktail party thrown by and for executives.
“I would disagree that it’s a corporate event,” she said. “It’s still very much a family event. That’s who we see out there are families with their children, with their grandmother, people who have been coming for 20, 30 years -- some of them tailgating for that long.”
While most tents crowd into the area closest to the stadium, nearly half of the area on the east side is free for friendly games of touch football and family activities. The open spaces set the quad apart from the famous “grove” at Ole Miss where elegant tents are crammed into a small space in the center of campus.
Of the 1,000-plus tents that pop up for SEC games at Alabama, only 12 to 15 percent are owned and managed by the two tailgate-centric businesses.
Game Day Tents and Gameday Done Right both pay “nominal” fees to the university through a bidding process, Johnson said mostly to keep things organized. She said both companies attend weekly debriefing meetings and help enforce the rules of tailgating.
The website, UAGameday.com, is operated by the university to assist fans. It lists reserved spots on the quad for $850 a season and provides a link to the Game Day Tents homepage. All were sold out for the 2011 season.
Tim Hughes, owner of Gameday Done Right, has been in business three years. His setups are located off the quad in Presidential Park, a new tailgating area located just north of Bryant-Denny Stadium across University Boulevard and behind the row of fraternity houses.
Prices for the LSU game packages are on par with those from the Tennessee game with options ranging from $400 to $1,200. Non-conference tailgates cost between $200 and $800 for the same services. Food and drinks cost extra with catering options available from local restaurants.
Hughes said he sold about 100 packages for the LSU game.
“I mean, it’s the biggest SEC game ever,” Hughes said.
The website for Game Day Tents said packages for the LSU game have been sold out for at least a week as the anticipation grows for the first-ever No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown played in Tuscaloosa.
From his seat on the team bus, Nico Johnson will see the madness zip past his window just before pulling into the stadium late Saturday afternoon.
The largest tailgate gathered for the most anticipated game, perhaps in the history of Tuscaloosa home games, won’t be lost on the junior from Andalusia.
“It’s crazy. I kind of use that as a motivation: all these people out there come to see us play,” Johnson said, eyes wide. “We don’t want to let the community down or let the fans down. So we’ve got to do our best and give them what they want, which is a win and a great game.
“By seeing those fans out there tailgating, it puts joy in you and just gives you intensity.”