SAE working to establish Greek presence in Grange Grove

By Alex Roux

Editor’s note: This story is about a fraternity trying to bring Block, an Illinois tradition to Memorial Stadium. It’s the second in a series of three stories. Here are parts one and three.

On the Illinois campus, the student presence on football Saturdays is the inverse of what exists at most major universities.

Thousands of Illini students, some battling hangovers from the night before, roll out of bed early on Saturday mornings. But they don’t head to Memorial Stadium. Many instead make the trek in the opposite direction to campus bars to participate in the game day tradition known as Block.

As fan interest in Illini football has cratered in recent years, Block has soared in popularity and become a staple of Greek life at Illinois.

Before each football season, fraternities sign contracts with one of three campus bars — Kam’s, Joe’s or Red Lion — paying upwards of $5,000 and pledging their house’s game day patronage in exchange for dollar drink deals from 8 a.m. to noon. The frats also pair up with a sorority to “block” with each year.

The result is a lively gameday atmosphere — a mile from Memorial Stadium. In an ongoing attempt to draw students closer to the stadium, the Illinois athletic department offers free tailgating space in Grange Grove, a brand new fan zone west of Memorial Stadium.

Tristan Nelson, a sophomore at Illinois, is a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. As an employee of both the University’s athletic ticket office and athletic marketing department, he saw Grange Grove as an opportunity to bring Block’s atmosphere to the stadium.

“This is something that I’ve been kind of thinking about since I came to this school,” Nelson said. “I know that other Big Ten schools and all other successful football programs around the country have a different vibe on Saturday mornings. It’s something that we never have.”

Nelson approached SAE president Stephen Vollmer about hosting a student tailgate in Grange Grove with members of their house. Vollmer, a junior, agreed that Grange Grove had potential as a complement to Block and could possibly serve as an alternative to Block in future years.

“We want to be participative with U of I athletics and want to bridge that gap that has kind of crumbled over the years,” Vollmer said. “(Tristan) just approached me saying we can get a spot for free. The (DIA) was very open to having us participate and tried to be lenient and work with us to have both of our best interests at hand.”

Nelson and Vollmer worked to organize SAE’s first tailgate at Grange Grove for Illinois’ game against Nebraska. With a 3 p.m. start time for the game, members of SAE and Gamma Phi Beta (the sorority paired with SAE for Block) would be able to go to the bars in the morning and head to the tailgate when Block ended at noon.

Nelson and Vollmer knew that convincing close to 300 students (roughly 150 in SAE and 150 in Gamma Phi Beta) to go to the stadium — many of whom didn’t have tickets to the game — would present a challenge.

“People just haven’t been exposed to tailgating,” Vollmer said. “I know that since I came to this university, most students on Saturday mornings, you go to Block, and there’s no question about it.

“Any approach that somebody might take, like (suggesting that) instead of going to Block, let’s go tailgating, is immediately dispelled, but right now, (we’re) showing how fun tailgating can be and its benefits financially, socially, the whole nine yards.”

Vollmer also noted that some students fear more stringent enforcement of alcohol ordinances outside of a bar setting. But Illinois’ marketing department addressed those concerns, assuring Vollmer that they weren’t trying to play the role of “bad cop,” as long as the tailgate remained under control.

As Block wrapped up that day, over 50 members of SAE and Gamma Phi Beta made their way to Grange Grove. Vollmer and Nelson were thrilled with the turnout.

“We were having a great time, interacting with people tailgating around us,” Vollmer said. “Everybody came out, we were cooking out, there was a lot of open space, and (people were) playing 5-on-5 football. (We were) just eating chips, drinking beer, hanging out.”

In Vollmer’s assessment, the tailgate remained under control and everyone remained in “good spirits.”

SAE’s Block contract with Red Lion runs through the remainder of the season, but Vollmer and Nelson said they believe their tailgate could be the beginning of a new tradition that they hope complements Block on fall Saturdays. They plan to host student tailgates at the final home game of the season — against Ohio State — and believe that other fraternities and sororities will follow suit.

Vollmer would like to eventually see a “Greek Row” in Grange Grove.

“From my personal perspective, it’s going to snowball,” Vollmer said. “Everybody I talked to who was there, they said ‘hey, this is awesome, why haven’t we done this before?’ We definitely want to come in the future. (Saturday) was kind of a test run. Seeing the logistics, since we haven’t done this in the past.”

On Homecoming, Grange Grove was filled with students. SAE’s tailgate was one of several popular tailgates during the morning of Homecoming celebration. Alumni gathered with current students to drink, eat and socialize before the Illini’s 24-13 loss to the Badgers.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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