Is game-day theft tarnishing Ole Miss’ legendary tailgating scene?

Jane (left) and Charlie Farris hang a longhorn mascot to their chandelier of mascots while tailgating in the Grove in Oxford, Miss. on Saturday, September 15, 2012. (Bruce Newman)

The plain brass chandelier wasn’t much to look at 15 years ago when it hung unadorned in Jane Farris’ multi-family tailgate in the Grove.

Then came the day in 2002 when they stumbled upon a rubber chicken in a campus parking lot and tied it to the fixture as a joke. Others added small items throughout the season, eventually sparking an ongoing tradition of adding a trinket to represent every home-game opponent. There’s a wildcat from a friendly Kentucky fan. A miniature “Reveille” sent from College Station. A small sack of potatoes denotes Ole Miss’ 2013 game against Idaho, and tiny red pumps signify the infamous 2007 Alabama game when one frustrated fan hurled her high heels onto the field.

These days, Farris’ inexpensive Home Depot chandelier is buried beneath years of wins and losses strung together with red and blue ribbon, its weight requiring at least two people to hang it before each game.

And at some point during last Saturday’s game against LSU, it was stolen.

Farris’ initial fear was that an LSU fan had taken it as a prank and left town with it in tow. Holding out hope it might instead be spotted somewhere on campus, she filed a report with the University Police Department the next morning while her family and friends spread the word on Facebook that the chandelier was missing.

“I didn’t want to know who had taken it. I didn’t want them in trouble. I just wanted it back,” Farris said.

In a matter of hours, a freshman in Hefley Hall who’d seen the Facebook post spotted the chandelier lying next to a dumpster, completely intact albeit in need of “a fluffing,” Farris said.

Game-day theft is nothing new, and at the University of Mississippi—a school with a tailgating scene defined by opulence and excess—it’s unavoidable.

However, many longtime Grove-goers say theft seems to be more common than ever before.

Ole Miss’ tailgating experience is anchored by families and alumni who travel to Oxford armed with tents, TVs and the general assurance that their tailgates won’t be bothered while they’re in the stadium watching the game, save for a few swiped Solo cups and chicken strips.

It’s a system based on trust, similar to the unspoken rule of not setting up your tailgate on someone else’s “already-claimed” patch of grass. On a public university campus where space is not rented or otherwise reserved, you tailgate at your own risk and depend on the kindness of others not to ruin your day.

Mississippi State professor Brad Vickers co-owns Southern Tradition Tailgating—a popular tailgate setup service operating in several SEC towns, Oxford included, that allows clients to worry only about food, drink and decor with everything else supplied and set up before they arrive.

Southern Tradition’s standard Grove package comes with a tent, tables, chairs, lighting, sound dock and flat-screen TV with satellite service. Clients can pay more for add-ons, including extra tents, larger TVs, woven flooring and locking YETI coolers. That means crews travel to games around the Southeast every weekend loaded down with expensive equipment and the responsibility of ensuring it doesn’t disappear.

Vickers says theft in Oxford has been significant over the past two seasons.

“We have had tents, generators, sound docks and several TVs stolen,” he said. “Some have been snatch-and-grab with our workers standing right there. They’ll run up, grab and run away.”

Other tailgaters have noticed or experienced the same, along with many who have returned from the stadium to find their tents raided, and in some cases, downright trashed.

Ben Piper, who writes for SBNation’s Ole Miss fan blog “Red Cup Rebellion” and helps host the blog’s official tent on game day, said they’ve had a table and several chairs taken this year.

“We caught someone right behind us grabbing drinks out of our cooler while we were about to go to the game,” he said.

Others shared their experiences on Facebook:

The amount of theft that takes place on game day is difficult to measure and isn’t reflected in university police reports. Many won’t bother to report it, especially if the missing items aren’t of much value or are assumed to be long gone by the time anyone notices.

UPD supplements its game-day campus patrol with officers from surrounding areas while hired security crews work Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and campus parking lots.

One non-UPD officer who’s worked Ole Miss home games for more than two decades said Saturday he hasn’t noticed a sharp increase in game-day theft, adding he can only speak to situations where someone is directly caught taking something that doesn’t belong to them.

And that’s the thing. On any given football Saturday in Oxford, there is a steady stream of people carrying equipment to and from their tailgating areas. Even if they wanted to, UPD doesn’t have the resources to stop every person carrying a TV or cooler to make sure it belongs to them.

If thieves aren’t caught in the act, there’s a good chance they’ll walk away with whatever they’ve decided to take.

Jane Farris said she’s grateful for the return of her chandelier and plans to add a lock in the future to keep it as secure as possible, which won’t be the first time she’s made security adjustments at their tailgate. They keep all ice chests locked and chained together to cut down on people raiding their coolers. Over the years, they’ve traded in their upscale serving platters for inexpensive red and blue plastic.

She said she hopes the close call with the chandelier was an isolated incident and not indicative of a growing game-day trend.

“I hope it was a college prank and someone just thought it would be funny to take it,” Farris said. “I’m just glad we got it back.”

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