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A Tailgating Tale

A Tailgating Tale
Some U of U alums go well beyond veggies and dip to create the ultimate pre-game party.

by John Youngren

Murdock Family
Scott Murdock with his kids and a few other energetic Utah fans inside the Mini-Winnie.

The story of tailgating at the U goes back more than 35 years—a nearly four-decade tradition of families and friends sharing a laugh, a bite to eat, a drink, or a game of catch in the hours before (and sometimes after) a Utah home football game.

This chapter of the story begins in the fall of 2003, when Utah alumnus and sports fan Scott Murdock ex’94 and his wife, Holly BS’95, decided that they wanted to get involved with University tailgating.

They borrowed a family pass and made their way to the stadium parking lot. During that first season, their tailgating set-up consisted of “one card table and a 12-pack of beer,” Scott says. “And some carrots and celery and dip.”

By the next season, the Murdocks had invested in a green tent in which to center activity. By the third, Scott was bragging about adding the Ford F-150 SuperCrew truck he considered key to the tailgating efforts, along with a new barbecue. By the fourth season, he’d invested in new Utah-logo picnic tables, and a friend had contributed a second tent.

A new tradition was under way. The Murdocks had joined the thousands of peoplepast, present and futurewho have become Ute tailgaters.

Then came last season, which, for the Murdocks and their tailgating friends, has trumped them all. After some discussion, Scott got three friends to pony up the money and split the purchase onget thisa 28-foot Mini-Winnebago (the “Mini-Winnie,” as it’s affectionately known) with 45,000 miles on it.

“My whole thought process was, ‘This is the ultimate tailgating deal,’ ” Scott says. He and his pals went farther, too—outfitting the Mini-Winnie with a $5,000 stereo system and two flat-screen television sets.

Scott’s family, friends, and fellow tailgaters were impressed.

“I knew then that we had taken it to a whole new level,” says Scott’s brother-in-law, Tom W. Carlson BA’90.

We're No. 1

The Murdocks’ story might seem unique to some, but parts of it will ring true for several thousand of their fellow Utah tailgaters. For more than three decades, Utah football fans have made tailgating a home-game traditionwith generations of families and friends counting on the Saturday ritual as surely as they count on warm September evenings and crisp October afternoons.

The overriding Utah tailgating story begins with a radio personality who had relocated to Salt Lake City in the early 1970sbroadcaster Tom Barberi, who was building a devoted following of fans via his early morning program on KALL radio.

As the U of U’s official broadcast home, KALL devoted a lot of air time to promoting upcoming Utah games and providing coverage during the week. Barberi, who grew up in Northern California, was a self-described “football nut” who knew that tailgating before a big Saturday game was pretty much a collegiate standard.

“But we didn’t tailgate here in Utah,” Barberi says now. “What was that?”

So, with KALL’s support, Barberi started promoting Utah tailgating on the air in, he guesses, about 1973. The station sold $5 tailgate passes; Barberi and his crew staked out space in the parking lot just west of what is now Rice-Eccles Stadium, and little by little, the fans began to arrive.

“We kind of had to teach people a little bit—they didn’t quite know what to do,” Barberi recalls. “We said, ’Bring your sandwiches and soda pop and adult beverages, and come and mingle and have fun.’ ”

Barberi estimates that perhaps 100 or so people showed up in those early daysbut it didn’t take long to catch on. “The greatest party in the world,” as he calls it, was beginning to grow; over the next few years, it found a permanent home base in the parking lot just west of the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, commonly called the “VA Hospital.” And that’s where Utah’s tailgating traditions have been based ever since.

Today, some 5,000 tailgate passes are officially issued each seasonat the cost of $150 each. The waiting list is lengthy. Many have gotten around the need for a pass in recent years by setting up shop in satellite parking lots all over campus, in secret or not-so-secret spots.

Hot dog

“It’s pretty amazing,” says John Fackler BS’89 BS’94 MprA’95, director of alumni relations at the U’s Alumni Association, which coordinates some tailgating activities on behalf of The MUSS (Mighty Utah Student Section) and the newer FUSS (Former Utah Student Section). The U’s tailgating tradition remains smaller than some larger institutions, but, says Fackler, “You think about it here and it’s pretty good. Families here are largerpeople are doing a lot of different things on a Saturday afternoon. But they still make tailgating a tradition.”

Which brings us back to the Murdocks, only one of the latest incarnations of Utah football tailgaters, enthusiastically seizing upon what generations of fans before them have discovered.

“It’s so worth it, because the tailgating party is so much fun,” says Holly Murdock, echoing Barberi and at least a few thousand other fans. “Sometimes, it’s like the party is interrupted by the game.”

“We have three groups of friends [participating]50 to 60 people and everyone’s kids,” Scott adds. “It’s a great way to get our friends out together.”

Sound familiar? Sound like fun? Sound like a pain?

“It never feels like a burden to me,” Scott says. “Even when I have to clean the Mini-Winnie’s [toilet].”

Thankfully, that’s another story.

John Youngren BA’88 works in advertising for Love Communications in Salt Lake City and has written many previous articles for Continuum.

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