Tailgating turned Louisville football into party time

Former UofL and NFL player Harry Douglas (center) celebrates with David Derringer and Charlie Springer during tailgating in the 2018 season (UofLCardGame photos).

Tailgating is synonymous with University of Louisville football. Many fans are nervously awaiting the fate of their social calendars.

Tailgating is for some UofL fans almost as popular as the football games. The pre-game partying has, in fact, played a significant role in making UofL football a major player on the national scene.

Bill Olsen brought tailgating and Louisville football began to prosper thereafter.

There was no tailgating at Louisville when Bill Olsen, a former UofL basketball and baseball player, became Athletic Director in 1980. Olsen, as an assistant coach to Denny Crum, had been on the bench in Indianapolis when the Cardinals won the program’s first NCAA basketball championship in 1980.

The football program was hanging by a thread, drawing only about 15,000 fans per game. The program was actually a target of some members of the university administration, some prominent members saying it needed to go. Olsen vigorously defended the program while it continued to struggle on the field.

Olsen would do two things that would forever change the outlook for UofL football. The first was to introduce the concept of tailgating at games. The second was to hire Howard Schnellenberger as head football coach in 1983, leading the Cards to wins over Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl and Michigan State in the Liberty Bowl.

The early popularity of tailgating may have encouraged Olsen to go after Schnellenberger. The concept was immediately successful after being introduced in 1980. So popular that people continued to party well into the first and second quarters of the games.

Olsen told Card Game that Tommy Carroll, former president of the University of Louisville Associates, was a strong advocate of tailgating, knowing how popular it was at football schools in the south. Olsen contacted Charlie Herd and myself at the Louisville Area Chamber of Commerce and a football marketing committee was created. Among the members were Maury Buchart, then Vice President of Marketing at the Courier-Journal, Bob Goetz, also of the CJ, and Mike Brown, of Pepsi-Cola.

“The marketing committee suggested that we start promoting the tailgating concept, making them social events as well,” said Olsen. “The concept was thriving at many other schools but we had just never done it.”

The committee urged Chamber businesses to get involved. Among them was WHAS Radio, which promoted the concept of 84-for-84 (840 is station channel). Wayne Perkey, Milton Metz and other station celebrities manned a tailgating area, selling sandwiches and cold drinks for 84 cents.

U of L also encouraged the cheerleaders and Lady Birds to mingle with crowd and got the band to march through the crowd around old Fairgrounds Stadium. Many groups of friends and families quickly gravitated to the idea of food fests, and it ballooned from there.

“We also put up billboards,” he says. “The images on the first billboard consisted only of a leaf falling on a football. The theme was ‘Six Super Saturdays.’ We stayed away from the inferior product on the field and focused on the atmosphere surrounding the game.”

“Tailgating just continued to grow. People loved it. Some of them enjoyed it so much they never went into the stadium for the game. We became one of the best tailgating schools in the country.”

Schnellenberger raised the idea of UofL having its own football stadium, and that was all the encouragement Olsen needed. When he retired in 1997, a new Cardinal Stadium, with 42,000 seats had been completed, and average attendance had grown to almost 30,000 fans per game.

The all-time single-game attendance record was 58,187 for the UofL-Notre Dame game last season. Never underestimate the role of tailgating in the continued growth and popularity of Louisville football.

Charlie Springer

Charlie Springer is a former Louisville editor and sportswriter, a public affairs consultant, a UofL grad and longtime fan.

4 thoughts on “Tailgating turned Louisville football into party time

  • July 17, 2020 at 3:00 pm
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    Oh yeah. Our first date was to a football game in November 1972 and no mention was made of tailgating. What was that? But man, has that custom escalated through the decades, so we now arrive several hours before kickoff, to party hearty with our fellow Cards fans. Pregame toasts, Card March, Marching Band appearances, party crashers, even opponents’ visits amp up the crowd’s anticipation that neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor, oops, got carried away there. Go Cards!

  • July 17, 2020 at 8:11 pm
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    Tailgating has really evolved for UofL over the years for sure. Never knew the origins though. Never would’ve guessed it was orchestrated. Thanks for the history lesson.

  • July 25, 2020 at 3:30 pm
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    Great article, brings back memories of time spent tailgating with family and friends. In 1996, The Tailgaters Handbook was published. The author, Joe Drozda, attended a game in old Cardinal Stadium on Sept. 15, 1996 to promote the book and autograph copies. University of Louisville was ranked #2 in the top 30 tailgate schools in America. At the time, Mr. Drozda ranked Georgia as #1. The book includes highlights and traditions from the top 30 tailgating schools, along with recipes and tips to enhance the tailgating experience. Fans had a lot of fun with this! We have appreciated everything Mr. Olson and Mr. Jurich did to make tailgating inclusive for all fans to enjoy. Unlike today- Tyra’s speed parking no longer allows fans the opportunity to tailgate with family and friends which is a sacred tradition to many. “Tailgate guys” is certainly out of the price range to most Card fans at $7,605 or $11,540. Hopefully, a time will return when our athletic department listens to the fan base and attempts to understand who we are and what we want.

    • July 25, 2020 at 4:44 pm
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      Thanks for your comments, Robin. Really going to be interesting to see how tailgating goes if we actually have a football season. It would be nice to see the areas near the Card March festiviies finally fill up before games.

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