UMass homecoming football game and tailgate draw thousands, boost business

Last modified: Monday, October 19, 2015
AMHERST — When is a pre-game not a pre-game? When people leave a tailgate party at kickoff and head off in search of other amusements.

And for many, that seemed the order of the day — to the delight of downtown Amherst restaurants, bars and shops.

Homecoming weekend at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is typically a boon for business, when alumni and parents of current students camp out in town in search of a good time.

And as proof, one needed to look no further than Antonio’s Pizza on North Pleasant Street. At 4 p.m., the scene was more akin to a weekend night than a pre-dinner lull, with crowds spilling out of the glass doors and onto the sidewalk.

Around that time, hopeful diners at Judie’s were faced with a full house and a wait to be seated, while bars like McMurphy’s Uptown Tavern and Stacker’s were standing-room-only.

Mike Griffin, who was working the door at McMurphy’s Saturday afternoon, said business picked up right around the time the football game started — when many tailgaters left UMass in search of more libations.

“Everyone goes to the tailgate then after the game starts they come out,” Griffin said. “A lot of people like to come out and relive their college years.”

The North Pleasant Street bar scheduled extra staff to accommodate the early crowds, Griffin said. He added that he only expected things to get busier once night fell.

But unlike other, non-university-sanctioned events, the homecoming crowd is a little tamer. “There’s never any problems,” he said.

Amherst police said there were no major incidents at the tailgate party outside McGuirk Stadium.

Across the street at The Works Bakery Cafe, business had slowed by late afternoon after staff was swarmed with customers all day. “Our sales are way higher than what they usually are on a typical Saturday,” supervisor Natalie Goodman said. “We did awesome today.”

Business was “non-stop” since the morning, she said, with the most popular items being the cafe’s bagel sandwiches. Goodman said they went through so many bagels they had to do a “second bake” earlier in the day — which is rare.

Though the temperature hovered around 50 degrees, Bart’s Homemade sold more ice cream than usual at this time of year, cashier Heather Ejja said.

They had a small rush of college students in the early afternoon, she said.

Party central

Down at the stadium, Eric and Susan Wieland, of Hopkinton, were camped out at their SUV before the Minutemen faced Kent State at 3:30 p.m. — a game they lost, 15-10. They had made the trip to visit Susan’s daughter, a UMass student.

“We’ll be taking them to dinner later,” Susan Wieland said. “That’s why the parents are here — for the food.”

While the Wielands said food was a big part of their visit to Amherst, they were still drawn to the football game.

Susan Wieland’s daughter is dating one of the players, which is in part making them bigger Minutemen fans, they said.

Saturday’s game against Kent State was their third time in the stands this season, Eric Wieland said. “It’s hard for UMass, they’re trying to break into Division 1 (FBS) — they play Notre Dame!” he said, referencing the successful Fighting Irish.

But regardless of whether UMass wins, the Wielands say they have a good time at the tailgates and games.

“It’s so fun,” Susan Wieland said. “The band is incredible and it’s so fun to just be in the crowd.”

The Minuteman Marching Band and its followers were a big presence at the tailgate.

Camped out on a lawn outside McGuirk was a sea of maroon, made up of over 100 family members of students in the band. Most were easy to spot from their apparel embroidered with “band parent,” or “band grandparent.”

Eric Esiason, of Warren, was manning the grill to feed over 200 of those family members who had come to the potluck, he said.

His two children were in the band earlier in their college careers, but they had to stop due to the intense time commitments of being music majors. But he still comes out to most games to be with the community he found, Esiason said.

“We’ve made lifetime friends,” he said. “It’s a shared relationship with the band that you all have in common.”

Across the parking lot, Alex Lovejoy and his friends were tailgating outside an unlikely vehicle — an enormous modified Hummer.

Lovejoy, who graduated in 2013, was in town with his friend, Will Freise, a 2012 graduate and owner of the Hummer.

They were both members of the university’s motorsports club, which invited them back to drive the Hummer in Saturday morning’s homecoming parade through Amherst, Freise said.

“I like to come back to see what’s changed, what’s new, what’s the same, what’s not,” he said.

Lovejoy, who earned a degree in civil engineering, said he was struck by how much stricter the rules have become since he graduated, like the ban on glass bottles at the tailgate party. And while he said he was enjoying the beer-fueled festivities, his return to Amherst wasn’t all fun and games.

On Friday he attended a panel discussion hosted by the university’s College of Engineering, where he got the chance to talk to some of his former professors. He said he’s impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit he’s seen at UMass, which he said is fostered by its “open-minded” ideals.

Lovejoy said he was invited back to his former college to speak about his experiences as a railroad engineer after graduating. Teaching others, he said, is something he hopes to do later in life, either as a professor or in some other capacity.

“The biggest thing alumni can do is give back to this place,” he said.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.