COLUMBIA — Things had gotten out of hand.
That's what MU Athletic Director Mike Alden had to say at a casual news conference Wednesday about the decision to make the opening time later for the popular tailgating spot at Reactor Field.
While most people tailgate responsibly, Alden said, fighting, drunkenness and underage drinking had become so rampant that something had to be done.
But some Reactor Field tailgaters are upset and say they're being targeted because they don't donate money to the university.
Zach Gideon, who graduated from MU in 2007, said he thought it was unfair that donors would be able to tailgate from early in the morning.
"I find it interesting," he said via e-mail, "that an athletic director so concerned about satisfying his donors... doesn't understand that these tailgaters at Reactor are often future donors, including me."
Gideon, and many others, used to tailgate at the corner of Providence Road and Champions Drive, dubbed "Frat Pit." The popular spot was shut down last season because of widespread underage drinking and large crowds gathering dangerously close to a busy road. Gideon moved his tailgate to Reactor Field.
MU senior Emily Polk said she has been tailgating at Reactor Field since her freshman year. She doesn't know where she will go now that its open hours have been shortened.
"I think we'll probably try to go somewhere else because we wanted to start a little bit earlier and to have time to hang out," said Polk, who explained she usually sets up her tailgate, of 15 to 20 people, about four to five hours before the game, though she has some "diehard" friends who normally line up six or seven hours early.
Polk said she noticed big changes at Reactor after Frat Pit closed down.
"The drinking habits haven't changed," Polk said, "but the massive numbers have. The Greek groups come and they bring their families, so the number of people just magnifies."
MU Police Chief Jack Watring estimated about 3,000 to 4,000 people tailgated at Reactor Field for the Oklahoma State game, many staying at the tailgate during the game itself. Three arrests followed fights there, one for assaulting an officer. Chief Watring, Alden, Capt. Brian Weimer of the MU police department and other MU athletics officials addressed reporters Wednesday at Mizzou Arena.
Representatives from athletics, parking services, the MU Police Department and others met last week to discuss what to do about the spot off Providence Road. The decision was made to delay Reactor Field's opening until 2:30 p.m. Saturday, three hours before MU kicks off against Colorado for Homecoming. Donor lots will open for tailgating at the usual 8 a.m., and Maryland Avenue Garage will open at noon.
Alden said the hardest part of the decision was knowing it is a minority of tailgaters who are the problem.
"It's impacted a bunch of people who come to the game and are pumped and do things the right way," he said.
Jason Lewis lives in Nebraska but makes the five-hour drive to Columbia for one football game each season. "It's not just kids that go to the games and it's not just donors, it's regular people, too," he said.
He is not an alumnus of MU but has been a Mizzou fan his whole life. Last year was the first time he and his friends tailgated at Reactor Field and he said they were planning to make it their regular spot.
For Lewis, tailgating is serious business. The self-described "grilling aficionado" and his friend bring grills and smokers every year. But, he said, smoking 25 lbs of meat takes all day and the 2:30 p.m. start time at Reactor won't cut it.
"Being from out of town, it's kind of a struggle to find a place to tailgate all day," he said.
Lewis said he's still not sure where he will end up tailgating and, though he understands why MU needs to contain the drinking at Reactor, he wished there had been more notice so people could plan around it.
Alden said he understands the concern that non-donors are being targeted but said changes at Reactor Field are being made because it has been identified as the main problem area.
"A lot of folks aren't donors or can't be donors, but are great fans," he said. "We want to provide convenient parking and convenient tailgating for those people."
Watring said donor lots are easier to control because there is the accountability of lot permits. Each donor is issued a lot permit that is tied to his or her name; if there are any problems, officials know exactly who is where.
"It gets to an 'anything goes' mentality when there's anonymity in the whole group," he said of the first come, first served set-up at Reactor.
But Alden made a point of emphasizing that tailgating is an important part of the college football atmosphere. It becomes a problem when "folks have no intention of getting involved (in the game), but want to utilize that kind of an event to congregate and engage in irresponsible behavior."
He said the Reactor Field decision is a temporary solution and university staff will evaluate the effect it has after this weekend's game.
"Our goal would be to have the lots open as they used to be," he said.