Tradition, pageantry, fanfare, noise; all are things that go along with Tiger football on a fall afternoon in Baton Rouge.
But there is one thing that stands above all when it comes to the LSU football experience. It's not the Tiger Band's march, Mike the Tigers' growl or even the game itself, tailgating is a downright religion at LSU and thus is widely regarded as the best in the nation.
ESPN called LSU's tailgate party the best in the country in 1996. In the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated, a fantasy tailgating contest titled "Fall Madness" pits the best tailgate parties from College Football versus those from NFL.
No doubt who is the top seed on the college side – LSU.
With such a popular tradition Tigertown, a community with the slogan "Baton Rouge: a Drinking Town with a Football Problem," Tiger Rag Magazine along with Mockler Beverage Co. brings to you a weekly focus on LSU Tiger Tailgating.
During football season, Tiger Rag will highlight a different tailgate party each week. Upon our visit, we will spotlight each parties' history, traditions and details that make each one unique.
Since the beginning of football season has been postponed in Baton Rouge, Tiger Rag has yet to have a tailgate party to visit. But in the spirit of Tiger Tailgating, we ventured out and found a true expert on tailgating, not only at LSU but on a national scene.
Andre Mika, a Baton Rouge restaurateur, is without a doubt one of college football's most seasoned ‘gaters.
Born and raised in the capitol city, Mika graduated from Tara High School before leaving for college in Kansas City. Mika's brother, Allen, played football at LSU and later at Southeastern in Hammond. While he wanted to follow in big brother's footsteps, Mika's studies took him north as he later finished his college education at Western Michigan University.
"It was heartbreaking," Mika said about not attending LSU. "I always wanted to go to LSU. My whole family went there – mom, dad and brother. But I wanted to pursue a career in vocal music and LSU didn't really have a program in that."
While in Kalamazoo, Mika would meet his future wife and Michigan native Jami, who comes from a perplexing football family with its loyalties split between Michigan and Michigan State.
Together, the Mikas moved to Chicago where they instantly tried to fashion themselves into the college football landscape. While both hail from football rich roots, Chicago wasn't much of a college football town. However, the Mikas found a home with the Northwestern Wildcats. Owning and operating "Beignet's Louisiana Kitchen," a New Orleans restaurant in the heart of the windy city, the Mikas bought season ticket holders and became ardent fans of Gary Barnett's upstart Wildcats.
"We were there when it turned," Mika said. "It was right when Barnett got there and that was the year before they went to the Rose Bowl.
"I remember walking into the ticket office in Evanston (Ohio) and I told the lady I wanted to buy season tickets. She looked at me like, ‘Really?' I said asked what was available and she said, ‘all of this is available,' which was like on the 47 yard line like halfway up."
Mika said while the Big Ten is passionate about football, tailgating leaves something to be desired.
"Tailgating in the Big Ten is like flipping burgers in the parking lot," he said. "It starts a few hours before the game, not a day or two days before the game like it does here. It is a different thing."
After five years in the Midwest, Mika, who also worked in the television and film industry, landed a job in Los Angeles at Disney and later DreamWorks. Shifting gears from the football fortress of the Big Ten to the laid back lifestyle of the Pac-10, the Mikas adjusted to college football on the west coast for nearly a decade.
"I cannot explain Pac-10 football, you just have to go there, especially when it is a Pac-10 team playing a Pac-10 team," Mika said. "It is totally different. For instance, I took Jami to a UCLA game, in The Rose Bowl, which I drove up to 30 minutes before and bought a ticket. At one point, it was like fourth and goal and as the teams were walking up to the line of scrimmage, a guy in front of me stood up and said, ‘anybody want a hot dog?' Then walked to the concession stand. It was the most passive experience of a football game I have ever seen."
While experiencing the landscape of the Pac-10, Mika needed his LSU and SEC fix. For nearly 10 years, he caught weekly red-eye flights from Los Angeles to Baton Rouge for home games in the fall.
"It was a weekly routine for me," Mika said. "I would fly out of L.A. at 1:10 a.m. and connect through Dallas at 5:30 a.m. and be in Baton Rouge by 8 a.m. My brother would pick me up and I'd literally be at the stadium shortly after nine. I'd possibly try and catch a Saints game the next day if they were at home and fly out of New Orleans."
At that time, Mika's weekly tailgate party was born and grew every year until he returned to Baton Rouge permanently in the summer of 2003 – just in time for the Tigers run to the BCS national title.
Mika explained after tailgating in college football's three biggest conferences, he says there is nothing like Gameday in the SEC.
"What makes tailgating so special at LSU is that football here and in the rest of the SEC basically gives people a reason to do what they do," Mika said. "If you win the game, that is just a bonus. I have been to Michigan, Notre Dame, State College (Penn State). They do it great, but it is not close."
As for Mika's actual Saturday routine, things can change from week to week considering the scheduled kickoff. But there are several constants in his tailgate party, location for starters. The Mikas set up just across from the airplane south of Tiger Stadium along South Stadium Drive near the LSU Police Department.
"We try not to do the same thing every week," he said. "We have so many people that are involved that we try and come up with a different theme every week. It will be Barbeque one game. If it is a day game, we will do a breakfast theme. We will have New Orleans theme, fish fries and so on. We usually have 15 to 30 people at a time, but during the course of the day we will entertain close to 100 or more because it is part of their routine."
While the location is key, you can also be assured there are plenty of food, drink – and, of course, cigars.
"I am not one of those guys that likes to be inebriated when I go into the game," Mika said. "We will drink Bloody Mary's in the morning and beer in the afternoon, but I will quit in the middle of the afternoon because I like to focus on the game. But the cigar is a different thing. It used to be only one cigar if we would win. But now days, I am smoking a cigar by 10 a.m. and I'll smoke four or five in the day. It is mostly nerves."
In the end, it must be the cigar, that coming from a certified tailgating expert.
Andre Mika is owner and executive chef of "The Lava Room," one of Baton Rouge's newest and most unique downtown restaurants. Located at 214 Third Street, "The Lava Room" features Cuban lunch by day and Spanish Tapas by night. Visit www.andremika.com for more information on Mika and "The Lava Room."
DEVILLE: Mika says SEC rules the roost
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