By Abby Bitterman
It’s about 30 degrees at 9 a.m. the morning of a Sooners’ home game, and the west side of the Lloyd Noble Center parking lot is full with RVs. Flags are flying over the top of almost every motor home — American flags with OU flags beneath them.
It’s a night game this week and it’s chilly out in the morning, not many people are outside yet. Those that are have started setting up their grills or are checking the meat they’ve been smoking since last night, and they’re getting the day’s tailgate ready. It’s quiet, and the voices of Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and crew carry throughout the lot as ESPN’s College GameDay plays on televisions both outside and inside the RVs. Tents sit empty waiting for the party to start.
The parking lot transforms into SooneRVillage on home gameday weekends, and hundreds of couples and families come from across Oklahoma, and even Texas, to tailgate here. Fans start parking their RVs on Thursday and Friday and don’t pull out until Sunday. Some go to away games too, but the community is biggest at home.
The village is split into two sides, one with electric outlets and one without. By Friday night, everybody is there, and the lot is full of giant RVs. The Lloyd Noble Center is transformed into a big community, where people have been neighbors for years and cook and watch games together. They are out there through sun, heat, wind, rain, cold and snow.
With controversy surrounding permitted tailgating areas near the stadium — with some areas being taken away or restricted since the construction of the residential colleges and the completion of the stadium renovations — the SooneRVillage has remained the same, if not improved as the university responds to the complaints and comments of the RV owners. When the electric side first opened, the electric boxes were underground and have since been moved above ground for ease and safety. The people in the community are happy with the space the university has given them.
Scott Pryse walks around bundled up with a coffee mug and greets everyone that walks by with a big GOOOOD MORNING. He, his wife and their dogs have been parking in the same spot for about 12 years, but he’s been coming to OU games since his now-40 year-old daughters were children. He’s from Oklahoma City, and it only takes him and his wife about 40 minutes to get to the LNC but they come down on Thursdays to shop and beat the traffic.
Pryse can point out all of the different mobile home owners around him and where they’re from, and he knows a lot of people further down the lot, too. He partners with other tailgaters around him and feeds between 40-70 people — family, friends, fellow tailgaters — a weekend.
“Some people, they only see their families here,” Pryse said. “They’re busy during the week and then they come here and get to see their kids or their grandkids.”
At 1:30 p.m. it’s warmer, everyone is out at their tailgates, starting to get the party going. The smell of hotdogs and hamburgers fills the air. The early games are playing on the TVs now — mostly the Oklahoma State game, and country music is playing over the football announcers’ voices.
In the patch of grass that separates the electric and nonelectric sides of the village, a man is playing quarterback and throwing passes to two boys who take turns playing corner and receiver.
Toward the back of the electric lot, Bonnie Wisel sits in her RV watching the OSU game, while her husband, Bob, is helping their neighbor George Dorris fix something wrong with his home. Eventually Bonnie and Bob Wisel, George and Ann Dorris, and Larry Lyles are all inside the Wisels’ RV sharing memories — and interjecting every time someone scores.
All retired and from the Oklahoma City area, they’ve been tailgating here since the electric side opened in 2004, and they all belong to the same RV club: Sooner Coaches RV Club. Larry is the president of the club, which is an affiliate of the Family Motor Coach Association and has about 35 RV members, who all pay a fee allowing them to participate in a tailgate on Fridays and gets them all the perks of the FMCA. The club has a tailgate every Friday night, and Bob and George are in charge of preparing the main meal, while everyone else brings a side dish or dessert. Last night it was pizza.
“We have jackets and everything and badges that say ‘Sooner Coaches,’” George says. “And when we got to a restaurant or somewhere to eat, everybody thinks we’re part of the football team.”
Everyone else breaks out into deep, loud laughter, agreeing with George and remembering times the misunderstanding had occurred.
“They give us first class service,” he says. “We didn’t realize that until a couple of years ago. Where were we?”
“What do you coach?” Larry asks jokingly mimicking a confused server. “I don’t wear my badge because I don’t need the notoriety.”
“They did that when I went and ordered the chicken stuff down there,” George says. “They said ‘They’re part of the coaches.’”
“Yeah we got a little discount for it,” Bob says as another uproar of laughter fills the RV.
“Yeah it’s kind of a misleading title that we have, you know,” Larry admits. “These are the coaches,” he says gesturing towards the motorhome around him. “We’re not the football coaches. We’re the motorhome coaches.”
Not everyone who tailgates in the lot goes to the game. Bob and Bonnie don’t have season tickets and never have. Bonnie likes to watch the game on TV, but they come down to the LNC from OKC on Friday mornings for the atmosphere.
And that’s all they do on home game Saturdays. George will cook food and they’ll eat, walk around and talk to other people in their club and watch the game.
“George is going to cook us up some brats,” Bob says of what they’re going to eat this week.
“I didn’t bring any brats,” George replies, confused.
“I did,” Bob says, and George laughs agreeing to cook them in addition to the usual hot dogs and hamburgers.
“The whole thing is eating,” Bonnie says.
“Between visiting and eating, that’s about all we get accomplished on a weekend,” Larry says.
Bonnie and Bob have even traveled as far north as South Bend, Indiana, and as far east as Knoxville, Tennessee, to watch the game from the parking lot. They don’t go to all the away games, saying they will especially never go back to Kansas State where they had to park their RV in a cow field.
He likes tailgating here because it doesn’t matter who a person is or how fancy their RV is. Everyone knows everyone and anyone is willing to lend a hand with a motor coach issue or share their food.
One of Bonnie’s favorite memories from tailgating in the parking lot is from 2010 when Florida State came to Norman for a game and some Seminoles fans’ grill stopped working. Bonnie and company invited them over to bring their steaks over to their party, and they watched the game together. The Sooners won in the end, but everyone had fun, and the Florida State fans told Bonnie and the rest to come tailgate with them when the game was in Tallahassee next year.
Everyone in the parking lot looks forward to football season every year so they can come back out and tailgate here and catch up on what everyone’s done during the off season.
“When the last ball game of the year is over, it makes for a miserable spring and summer waiting for the next ball game to show up so we can get down here again,” Larry says.
After the last games of the year, Bonnie and Bob will head to Arizona in their RV, but Larry doesn’t stray too far for too long. He gets pictures every so often of Bob and Bonnie’s trip as he waits through the winter to see them again at the spring game.
With the game still four hours from kickoff, people eat their fill of hot dogs, hamburgers, chips cookies and more and spent time with their friends and family.
Above all, there is one sentiment that rings true throughout the community, one thing that has kept people, their families, their RVs and their dogs coming back year-in and year-out: “It’s just fun.”