Good libations

While the surrounding boulevards near the cavernous stadium sat dark and empty like streets are want to do in the wee hours of the morning, an island of bustle and merriment stood out on the otherwise desolate campus.

Tonight, unlike any other night in the history of time, was the eve of a football game. The premise was that if the Utes won, the victory would give them an undefeated season, a trip to a big bowl game and a win over their most hated rivals.

Friday, Nov. 19 may have seemed like an ordinary night to most of the world, but to Utah fans tailgating throughout the frigid evening, it was anything but.

Motoring on, 39 years and counting

“This is awesome,” Says Todd Haynesworth, the co-founder of the Traveling Ute Tavern (Tut club). “There is a lot of excitement up here right now.”

Todd and his sister Carrie Haynesworth founded the Tut club two years ago, based on the principle that if Carrie were to attend football games, then she would need a little incentive.

“I didn’t care for football very much,” Carrie says. “But tailgating sure looked like a lot of fun.”

That’s where the tavern part came in.

“I said to my brother, ‘Todd, if I’m going to go to the game, I’m going to need some (libation) beforehand.'”

And libation is what they have. The tavern itself is actually a small trailer, complete with plenty of alcoholic beverages, a makeshift wet bar and an autographed picture of Urban Meyer.

“He probably thinks we are stalkers or something,” laughs Todd Haynesworth. “We seem to follow him to every event.”

While called the “Traveling” Ute Tavern, the name is a bit of a misnomer. “This thing is 39 years old,” Todd Haynesworth says, pointing to the trailer. “It hasn’t traveled anywhere except home games.”

That distinction, however, may change. The brother-sister duo are contemplating towing the tavern to the Fiesta Bowl if the Utes earn the trip to Tempe, Ariz. “The club will be there,” Todd Haynesworth says noncommittally. Whether this thing makes it remains to be seen.”

KALL-ing all cruisers

Around the corner from the Tut club is a bit of a louder crowd. The KALL cruiser (a red-painted camper complete with photos of Utah players) is in attendance, next to a movie screen showing the evening’s ESPN “SportsCenter.” Matt Thomas, the new “voice of the Utes,” takes a minute’s reprieve from shaking his head at the NBA brawl lowlights to survey the tailgating landscape.

“This is amazing,” Thomas says. “You go to Texas or Texas A&M and you don’t see all-night tailgating like this. Especially not in these temperatures.”

“It’s crazy how much this caught on,” says Thomas. “It was just a little idea and now we have all these people.”

Thomas, a Houston native, isn’t too comfortable in the freezing cold, but is emphatic in his choice of coming to Utah. “I took this job because I wanted to be part of a great program. I look around here and I’m shocked it happened so fast.”

Dot-com denizens

Unlike Thomas, the denizens of Utefans.net have been around the Utes for years, sometimes decades.

The fan Web site’s tailgate party has grown as the season has gone by. Chris Evans, the owner of the site (known on the board as Webmonkey), finds humor in getting to put faces to those who he usually sees only on a cyberspace basis.

“No one ever looks like who you expected them to look like,” Evans says, keeping an eye on the revelry. “It’s just part of human nature. You think someone has blonde hair, or is skinny or fat and they never look like you expect them to.”

The Utefans.net gathering has the feel (in atmosphere, definitely not temperature) of a fiesta. That is not an accident. Ever since “College Football GameDay” was announced to be coming to campus, the site implemented “Operation Sombrero.” The effort to get as many sombreros on Utah fans as possible appears to be a success, with every available body wearing one (including a life-size Paris Hilton standee) and stacks of the hats in the neighboring RV.

We all live in a black submarine

Lurking in the shadows of the Utefans.net tailgate is the centerpiece of the whole experience. “That cooker costs about $1,800, and about $1,000 to ship,” says Mike Roberts (BbqUte). The “cooker” is a grill that more closely resembles the hull of a submarine. At about 6-feet long and 4-feet high, Roberts is preparing it for the busy feasting day ahead. “I’ve got pork shoulders for sandwiches,” he says, opening up the contraption’s massive circular door. “This 15-pond brisket takes somewhere between 15 and 20 hours to cook. It should be ready sometime Sunday morning,” Mike says with only a half-joking laugh.

While he loves tailgating and loves the Utes, Roberts associated himself with Utefans.net so he could try out his barbeque recipes on fans before he goes corporate with his food development company.

“I’ve got a lot of great feedback. Some say they’d actually pay money for it,” says Roberts with another early morning chortle.

“I’ve had very few people say they didn’t like my stuff,” Mike says. Evans pipes in with an agreement, not taking his eyes off the roasting meat.

While the tailgate lot is filled with diehards, you have to walk down the street to the stadium parking lot to find three men who may be the most devout of all.

Concrete ambition

“Been here since 6 in the morning on Friday,” says Ben Scanlon, part of a trio of bundled up fans camping in front of the “GameDay” set. “We wanted to be the first fans here.”

Huddled in front of a laptop DVD player (with a viewing lineup of “The Italian Job” and “Pirates of the Caribbean”) Scanlon, along with asphalt mates Ryan Brown and Kellen Wilkenson, are excited at what having “GameDay” on campus means to the U.

“It’s about notoriety,” Ryan says. “We were just talking about when the basketball team went to the Final Four. They thought that was notoriety, but [“GameDay”] really puts us on the map.”

With the rest of the map blissfully asleep, Ute fans continued their once-in-a-lifetime experience, preparing for the big day throughout the placid night.

[email protected]