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Posted on Sat, Sep 12, 2009 : 6:45 p.m.

Party at the Big House: A tale of two tailgates

By James Dickson

If the first week of the tailgate challenge is any indication, good times, good friends, hospitality and a great location are the essential components of any successful tailgate.

Longevity, loyalty keeps crew cooking

The guys at make their tailgating home in a private lot on Snyder off Main Street. The U-M/Notre Dame game was only their second week at Snyder and Main. In years past, the crew held its tailgates at the Ann Arbor Golf and Outing Club, but left after the club announced changes in its parking rules this year. Groups parking at the golf and outing club are no longer allowed to save spaces for friends, park where they choose or bring tents larger than 10 by 12 feet.


Frank DiMaggio grills ribs at his tailgate "UM" at the corner of Snyder and Main before the Michigan vs. Notre Dame football game. Angela J. Cesere |

Avoiding that logistical challenge was worth the $6,000 it cost to reserve the new lot's 15 spaces for the year, said Frank DiMaggio. While he doesn't charge anything for the 100 to 150 people who attend his tailgate on average, he does accept donations.

Each week, DiMaggio's tailgates are themed differently. For the Notre Dame game, the theme was Luau; tailgaters wore leis and Hawaiian shirts over their Blue and Irish garb. For the Oct. 24 Penn State game, "Old School" is the theme. Tailgaters will dress as if it was their senior year of high school. For the Nov. 21 Ohio State game, the theme is "Stews, Soups and Chili," food designed to keep tailgaters warm for the last (and coldest) game of the year.

The main event for this week's tailgate was the pork ribs. DiMaggio cooks about 30 slabs each week, which he starts marinating on Thursday nights. The tailgate also lives up to its tagline - "Outdrinking your tailgate since 2000" - with a full selection of Bud Light, Heineken and other beers, in addition to Captain Morgan and Coke.

Beyond the themed parties, DiMaggio's tailgates are notable for the number of die-hard Michigan football fans at the core of the group. It is probably also the only tailgate in town with a Twitter account.

While DiMaggio has been to about 120 straight games - including away games and bowl games - friend and fellow tailgater Stephen Kelke has been to 150 straight. Another friend, Dan Tabor, was keeping pace with Kelke last year until an emergency room visit kept him home from a game.

Kelke, a Michigan alum who lives west of Chicago, said, "I have three kids, a wife, and a house. This is all I've got, as far as hobbies go." 

Kelke's streak started in 1997, when Michigan posted a perfect 12-0 and won the National Championship. That was coincidence, Kelke said. "I had no clue we were going to win the championship." Twelve seasons later, and Kelke sees no end in sight.

What is in sight, just across Main Street, is Michigan Stadium. DiMaggio said the proximity to the stadium helps justify the expense. Event staff from the Big House even worked the perimeter to keep the tailgate a friends-and-family affair.

That arrangement, DiMaggio said, comes with its benefits. "I leave here at 3:15 and I'm in my seat by 3:25" for a 3:30 game, he joked.

The Rib Crew: Hailing the Victors - at close range

Ypsilanti native Marty Lozano founded "The Rib Crew" more than 30 years ago. While it started off with "a few guys, a grill, and a slab," the crew now brings together 50 to 100 Michigan fans for every home game.


Sid Fileccia and Marty Lozano pose in front of their "rib crew" sign at their tailgate located at the beginning of the Victor's Walk outside of Michigan Stadium and Crisler Stadium. 
Angela J. Cesere |

Staffed by ersatz "chefs" Pat Bledsoe, Sid Fileccia, Mike Nesbitt, and Lozano himself, they complete the look with maize and blue aprons and chef hats - The Rib Crew grilled 38 slabs of ribs and deep-fried four turkeys for the Michigan-Notre Dame game. That's par for the course for The Rib Crew, which makes its tailgating home along the Victors' March.

The Rib Crew is entering its second generation, with Marty's son, Carlos, learning the ropes. Despite tailgating and grilling with his dad since childhood, Carlos is still considered an "apprentice" by the veteran tailgaters and is listed as an "intern" on the rib crew's banner. "Carlos is still on probation," Bledsoe joked.

Even though The Rib Crew's pork ribs are its claim to fame, Mike Nesbitt's barbeque smoked salmon generated a buzz of their own. Nesbitt has been a chef at The Rib Crew tailgates for 12 years. His salmon combined the flavor of pork ribs with the moisture of chicken for a unique and pleasing dining experience.

Nesbitt wouldn't divulge his recipe for the smoked salmon, but did say it's not the spices that gave the fish its flavor and moisture. It's the preparation. Nesbitt packs the salmon in brown sugar and salt overnight, seasons it and then smokes it for three hours before serving. This is part of the reason why The Rib Crew's tailgates begin at 6 a.m., even for late games.

But good food and good friends is only part of the reason to tailgate with the crew. Tailgating just feet away from the Victors' March is another.

About two hours before kickoff, a caravan of Michigan buses carrying the Michigan football team stop about 200 yards from Michigan Stadium. Michigan players and staff then unload, walking past thousands of fans and tailgaters and an "ALL IN FOR MICHIGAN" banner before entering the stadium.

In 2008, Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez resurrected the ancient Victors' March tradition from the Bump Elliott and early Bo Schembechler days. The Victors' March was meant to give Michigan fans a chance to show support for the team before home games.

But for the tailgaters at The Rib Crew, being able to send the boys in Blue off to battle, up close and personal, is confirmation their tailgate is the place to party on football Saturdays.

James David Dickson reports on human interest stories for He can be reached at, or followed on Twitter at