COLUMBIA - It's the same every Saturday.
They load up the grill, the chairs, the tent. Maybe make a pit stop at the supermarket to buy food, or in the case of Gene Stephenson, make special arrangements for an opponent-themed meal. For Stephenson on Saturday, it was a Moberly butcher who hunted down (not literally) the necessary meat for buffalo burgers.
Stephenson, however, isn't your garden-variety tailgater. On those few, special Saturdays every fall, his bus-driving brethren and he turn more heads than burgers. They roll down Stadium Drive and park their custom-made, Tiger-themed mean machines around the stadium for a day filled with friends, football and, most importantly, food.
For them, tailgating is a year-round affair.
Fully-loaded school buses, church buses and old Checker airport limos outfitted with Tiger ears are among the most eye-popping, but there are plenty of vehicles ready to stake their claim as the best in Columbia.
The Short Bus
Owner: Rick Burke, 50, Hallsville (sick with the flu Saturday)
Saturday's driver and operator: Gene Stephenson of Columbia, and David Loveland of Sedalia, construction workers
Parked since: No exact date, but the short bus is the fourth in a line of proud buses.
What is it: Just your everyday, run-of-the-mill short bus, except this one has stripes.
Most memorable moment: "One time it quit on us coming up Stadium (Boulevard)," Stephenson said. "We had to tow it in with a Tahoe. About 25 people saw us pulling in, and they all grabbed a hold of the bus and pushed it back up here in it's rightful place." Of course, Stephenson and Burke obliged the good Samaritans with some game-day grub after the helpful push.
Best feature: The wheelchair ramp. "We left it in," Stephenson said. "At our age, I figured we'd need it before too long."
Owner: John Grisham, 44, real estate salesman from West Plains (no, not that John Grisham)
Parked since: September 2008. "This is only our second game," Grisham said.
What is it: An old, recycled church bus. "It was really ugly at first," Grisham said.
Most memorable moment: Breaking down on the way to the Illinois game earlier this season. "The last thing I remember is handing the keys to the tow truck driver and saying, ‘Take her away,'" Grisham said.
Best feature: The toilet. The plumbing fixture is complete with a plush Jayhawk strung over the back of the tank.
Owners: Todd Neimeyer, Brock Paalhar, Ben Davidson, Mike Morris, and Kris Ball
Parked since: 2004 Season
What is it: A souped-up school bus complete with FieldTurf floors and a crazy-loud sound system.
Most memorable moment: The aftermath of the Tigers' 41-24 upset of No. 10 Nebraska in 2003. "I'll never forget the fan excitement when everybody was leaving that game," Paalhar said.
Best feature: The people and surrounding atmosphere. ZouBus, which has been featured on SI.com and profiled by KOMU television, attracts between 100 and 200 tailgaters every game. "A bus sitting there by itself wouldn't be very much fun," Paalhar said. "But we have a bunch of great people here."
Owner: Keith Miller, a 43-year-old pipefitter from Columbia
Parked since: The early '80s. "It's had several different owners, we're just the most recent ones," Miller said. The original owner was Ray Odom from Clinton, Miller has owned it since 1995.
What is it: An old Checker cab that used to be an airport limo. Now, it's outfitted with a tail, whiskers, and big ears that may make it the closest thing to a literal tiger on wheels in Columbia. And, it seats 12 rather comfortably.
Most memorable moment: The post-game celebration of the 2003 win over Nebraska. "When everybody sees us after a game like that, they always want us to honk and they cheer at us," Miller said.
Best feature: Its uniqueness. "There's not too many of these cars around anymore, period. Much less ones that look like tigers," Miller said.
The Tailgaters, formerly 38 Special
Owner: Jason Kemble, a 32-year-old health insurance salesman, along with four other owners in their early 30s.
Parked since: 2007 season
What is it: A black-and-gold school bus complete with a grill that rolls out from under the back door.
Most memorable moment: First, Kemble asked his wife, Cara, to marry him at the Kansas game in Kansas City last November on the bus. Then, the pair used the bus as the transportation to their wedding three weeks ago.
Best feature: "It would be the built-in beer tap, but we're not allowed to have bulk containers of alcohol," Kemble said, before making a formal plea to athletic director Mike Alden to distinguish those tailgating in the donor lots from the public lots by the MU Reactor.
The Winnie Mo
Owner: J.W. Vann, a 44-year-old optometrist from Fulton
Parked since: 2003, but Vann has been a season ticket holder since 1990
What is it: An RV with a set of twin beds in the back. "Several years ago, the kids and I were desperate to win more games," Vann said. "So, we came up with The Winnie Mo."
Most memorable moment: Blowing a tire out on a return trip from Ames, Iowa after a game against Iowa State. The remnants of the tire have a permanent home on the wall of the RV. The motor also failed on the way to Lincoln, Neb. "The best moment for us is just coming out here every week with our friends and family," Vann said.
Best feature: The tiger-striped carpet. The design is the remains of the same roll Missouri basketball coach Mike Anderson purchased to install in the basement of his Columbia home. Also, the RV's Tiger tail is fully functional. The vehicle's generator produced too much smoke for a peaceful tailgate, so Vann hooked up an exhaust pipe to the generator to release the smoke above the vehicle. Not before painting it black and gold, though, of course.
Emery Sapp & Sons School Bus
Owner: Glen Robertson, the 52-year-old vice president of operations for Emery Sapp & Sons, Inc., a construction company
Parked since: "We found it a couple years ago, and the first thing we did was strip out everything it had in it," Robertson said.
What is it: A rebuilt school bus with Rhino lining floors and custom-made Tiger-logo-bearing leather seats. "It doesn't really have a name, it's just been a deal where we put this in it, we put that in it, and you never know when to stop."
Most memorable moment: Robertson periodically sends the bus with its driver, Chip Jones, to various company work sites around the state and feeds the workers lunch from a couple grills packed in the bus. "This thing is known in places other than Columbia," Robertson said.
Best feature: Durability. Because of its lining, one usually reserved for truck beds, any food or drink spills get flushed out the back door during the bus's weekly hose-down.