I’m hitting the road to cover the Cats’ SEC away games! As part of my adventure, I will rate each venue on atmosphere, food, crowd…you name it, I’ll rate it. I’ve come up with 20 criteria, each of which I will judge on a scale of 1 to 5 for a possible high score of 100. So far, I’ve visited:
Next up: Ole Miss’ Tad Smith Coliseum, aka “The Tad Pad.”
C.M. “Tad” Smith Coliseum
Seating capacity: 9,061
Are we in the 1960’s? Is that Donald Draper over there with the cute blonde in the sundress? No, this is year 2013 and that is the current facade of the “Tad Pad,” complete with 1960’s vintage-style lettering and all. “Rebel Coliseum” was built in 1966 and renamed to honor Ole Miss three-sport star Tad Smith in 1972. It’s gone through minor renovations over the years to modernize and increase capacity. A lot of these “football school” basketball arenas are vastly inferior to the football stadiums, but this was on a different level. Whereas the antique lover in me can try to find some kind of charm in an older arena, there wasn’t much to be had at the Tad Pad. If you’ve ever been to Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium, it is basically exactly the same, although Municipal is actually nicer now thanks to a remodel. Calipari nailed it in the postgame presser when he joked that he would help Andy get a new arena because there were squirrels in the visitors’ locker room: this place is old, and thankfully, plans for a new arena are currently in the works.
I guess the only “cool” thing about the Tad Pad is the circular seating arrangement, but that’s a stretch. The rich boosters and VIPs sit inside the circle on the floor and there is very little room between the baskets and the stands in the endzone. Plus it is very poorly lit, as you can probably tell from TV. One advantage the building does have is acoustics: when it gets loud, it GETS LOUD.
There is only one concourse, which circles the building. Each section is called a “portal,” which made me think of it more and more as a flying saucer, which is exactly the impression I get at Municipal Auditorium. Anyways, the arena only seats 9,000 and has exits doors all around the circumference, so there is never the bottleneck of fans trying to get out like at Rupp, although they certainly tried to make one when the Cats went up by 10 in the final minutes.
Standard fare, although it varied at each stand. Interestingly, most of the concession stands in my area didn’t sell hot dogs, so I sadly cannot report the price. If you were there last night and got one, please share. Because of the capacity crowd (something I fear doesn’t happen a lot there), they also had extra concessions stands set up outside, a daunting task considering the howling winds.
I’m glad to report that the popcorn was fresh and delicious. I was pretty full from the press meal before the game, so I snagged some at a pretzel cart at halftime, a risky move considering the cart wasn’t very close to the stand with the popper, but the risk paid off: I didn’t have to wait in line and the popcorn was warm, fresh, and buttery without being greasy. I even took some home to the hotel. (Want to get some weird looks on press row? Break out some popcorn. Rick Bozich gave me definitely gave me the stink eye.)
Signature food: 3
From what I could gather, the Tad Pad’s signature food was Chop’s BBQ Sandwich, “The Finest Pork Sandwich This Side of The Grove.” Now, me being new to Oxford and all, I’m not sure how big of a declaration that really is, since The Grove didn’t seem THAT large to me, but whatever, I get it, they were being figurative. Interestingly enough, there is a limit of 18 sandwiches per person, so remember: everything in moderation.
To be fair, I only used the media restrooms, so I can’t judge the rest of the ones in the arena, which has seen better days. It was fine. I hear the other bathrooms are very strange, with staircases leading down to them and troughs for the guys. -3 because, gross.
For an arena as crappy as the Tad Pad, they certainly have a nice scoreboard. It wasn’t as new as Alabama or Auburn’s, but it did it’s job well, with several “cams,” video features, and gratuitous shots of Shep Smith making a fool of himself. Again, death to Big Bertha!
PA System/announcer/music: 3
I’m beginning to think that all arenas south of Tennessee share the same playlist. Like at Auburn and Alabama, Ole Miss relied heavily on Jock Jams and even played LMFAO’s “Party Rock” to start the second half, which they also did ay my previous two stops. They even trotted out DJ Casper’s “Cha Cha Slide” (Everybody Clap Your Hands!), which was fun and had me attempting to hop in my chair on press row. There is a hilarious contrast between Rupp’s music (more hip-hop) and the music at the arenas I’ve visited (Jock Jams/get old people moving music). Players first indeed.
The announcer was one of those guys who likes to drag out names for way too long, making it really hard to figure out what he’s saying sometimes. Even more, he uses nicknames, which means that until I read the roster, I seriously thought LaDarius White’s first name was Snoop.
Fun stuff: 5
The arena might suck, but they do make the best of it. In addition to the “Kiss Cam,” Ole Miss had the ever-so-useful Chevron “Put it On” Cam to shame fans who refused to wear the free t-shirts. This was absolutely awesome, leading to some seriously awkward moments when a few older fans simply refused to put the t-shirts on over their clothes and got booed by the crowd. We need this at Rupp.
They also had lots of “timeout bits,” including a putting contest, free throw contest, picture puzzle game (the prize was a free teeth-whitening kit) and video features with the team leading cheers. The best part was before the game when fans got to shoot for the chance to sit in a recliner on the court.
Pep band: 4
Any pep band that does a rendition of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer” is getting a solid 4 from me.
Halftime show: 4
I have to give them props: Ole Miss let two students film a music video on the court with the dance team during halftime. The students rapped a song about Ole Miss basketball that was incredibly lame, but still, they looked like they were having a ball, and the crowd enjoyed it.
T-shirt night! In addition to free “Rebel Hoops” white t-shirts, cheerleaders also tossed more free t-shirts into the crowd. The lack of an actual t-shirt cannon prevents them from getting a 5.
Ticket price: 3
Tickets are $20 a piece, which is about average, if not slightly higher than the two previous arenas I’ve visited. To be fair, there’s not a bad seat in the house…because the house only seats 9,000.
The media room, locker room, and other staff areas are below the stands, so to get to the press box, you have to use a staircase to get to the concourse. An usher guards the door so no fans get to the restricted areas, and she was very nice to me. I’m sure she has to deal with a lot of crap, so I’ll give her a 3.
Press area/meal: 4
The press area was fine, if a bit cramped. There was a raised platform for the coaches and players to address reporters after the game. The pregame meal was Chops, “The Finest Pork This Side of The Grove,” beans, slaw, etc. There was actually salad, which is rare, and a giant platter of cookies. Best of all? Our very own soda fountain, with Coke products. I was weak and gave in to my Diet Coke cravings.
Student Section: 3
The fans were foaming at the mouth to beat Kentucky, and the student section was loud from the start. They weren’t always classy (a few yelled throughout the National Anthem), but they did get rowdy, and even had a giant fat head of Marshall Henderson complete with movable arms. They also had a fat head of a solo cup (fat cup?), which I hadn’t seen before. The student section really only had one cheer, the Hotty Toddy, which they did early and often. As my tour guide (more on her later) told me before the game, the Ole Miss fans don’t really understand how to cheer for basketball, something I found to definitely be true. However, after years of Kentucky beatdowns, they do understand how to hit the exits early which is exactly what happened late in the game.
BBN Effect: 4
There wasn’t much blue in the building, but those Kentucky fans that were there made themselves heard. My Oxford tour guide told me that every year the Cats play at Ole Miss, there is a party bus of UK fans that comes down from Western Kentucky. I think I finally spotted them at the end of the game, shaking their blue and white light-up pom poms to the “Go Big Blue” chant that rang through the Tad Pad while Ole Miss fans somberly exited the building. There is no better sound in the world than the “Go Big Blue” chant in enemy territory.
GBB chant count: 2 + a chorus of chants that lasted throughout the end of the game
Oxford is gorgeous. I had high expectations after visiting Auburn, Tuscaloosa, and hearing everyone rave about how beautiful Oxford was, but Ole Miss’ campus and the surrounding town definitely exceeded my expectations. The campus is covered in trees, brick and ivy, with the trademark “Grove” serving as a common ground for tailgating, lounging, and socializing. While the campus wasn’t quite as “grand” as Alabama’s, it was more picturesque, and it’s hard not to long for football season when you walk around. The town of Oxford was even better, with the signature town square full of shops, high-end restaurants, and bars. Melissa, a huge UK fan and my Oxford tour guide, made sure to give me a proper tour of everything, ending with a drink (Yazoo, a Nashville beer brewed by a Mississippi native for me, and Makers on the rocks for her) on one of the many balconies overlooking the square. It’s easy to see why so many famous writers, artists, and actors make Oxford their home. I didn’t have time to make the pilgrimage to William Faulkner’s house and grave, but hopefully this rambling venue review will serve as a tribute. The town is steeped in history, tradition, football, and good ole fashion Southern beauty, which makes it a MUST STOP on any SEC bucket list. The only bad thing about Oxford? I wasn’t able to give it a proper visit, something I will rectify next time.
Overall atmosphere: 4
I’ve already raved about what lies outside the Tad Pad, but the energy inside was, quite frankly, odd. You could tell that fans desperately wanted to prove themselves and beat Kentucky, but there was also a sense of fear in the air. Marshall Henderson has his finger on the pulse of the fan base and whips it into a frenzy when the ball is in his hands. Fortunately, he choked, which put the fans on edge for the entire second half. When Kentucky finally squelched Ole Miss’ comeback attempt late in the second half, an old familiar feeling fell over the Tad Pad, as fans sadly shook their heads and headed home. The arena was surrendered to Kentucky fans, who gleefully cheered and for the first time in too long, dreamed of what could happen in March.
Total score: 68.5/100
Ole Miss, you are beautiful and your popcorn tastes good, but it’s time to get a new arena.
Auburn Arena: 84/100
Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium: 71.5/100
Alabama’s Coleman Coliseum: 76.75/100