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A crisp fall morning that transforms into a sunny, warm afternoon. The smell of burgers sizzling on the grill. The sound of music, friends laughing and beanbags hitting a cornhole board.

This is a perfect Saturday during college football season. And this is what it’s like outside the DakotaDome when the Coyotes are playing at home. It’s Coyote Tailgate Nation.

Starting From Scratch

It wasn’t always like this. Dave Zimbeck, ’80, ’85, remembers when he was an undergrad at USD in the 1970s – “nonexistent” is how he describes the tailgating experience. The DakotaDome wasn’t finished yet, so the football team played at Inman Stadium. Zimbeck says they’d pregame with hotdogs and beer at Phi Delta Theta Fraternity, which was close to the field. When the Dome opened in 1979, Zimbeck’s senior year, his description of tailgating isn’t much better: “Pretty bleak.”

It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the university started to promote and encourage tailgating, Zimbeck says.

“My wife and I and the couple we attended games with, we decided to bring a little grill and a cooler and we grilled right behind our car,” he remembers. “We basically grilled hotdogs and we might’ve had beer. It was kind of a lame excuse for tailgating, but we tried.”

Unclear rules and enforcement policies on campus limited fans’ efforts. But once tailgating policies became more friendly, that’s when momentum shifted toward the tailgating most of us are familiar with.

“We had a tailgating arrangement where we were able to get a group of guys together and it amounted to a potluck,” Zimbeck explains. “We’d bring food and beverages to share. Between the group of us we’d have some tables and we’d make do with that. It was really a traditional tailgate. It was pretty close to what tailgaters do today.”

From a university perspective, USD Athletic Director David Herbster knew more could be done. When Herbster came to campus in 2007 – as the university was beginning its exploratory year in its transition to Division I – there were just over a dozen tailgate spots.

“For us, Division I is a mindset. Athletically, you compete on a higher stage. Instead of our games just having a local appeal, there’s now a national appeal to it. It heightens the overall awareness. It does a lot to create an intrinsic value to what the University of South Dakota stands for, what our brand is.” - David Herbster, USD Athletic Director

A New Level of Competition

Taking USD to the Division I level “was the fire that lit the fuse,” Herbster says. The transition generated excitement that inspired growth and transformation across campus – from the Muenster University Center to the Beacom School of Business to the Wellness Center and Coyote Village.

“We always talk about Division I athletics, but really it’s a Division I university. So 15 years ago, we were a Division I university competing in Division II athletics. That brought us up to the level we were as a campus,” Herbster says, noting that USD competes with elite schools in terms of academic programs, research and more.

“For us, Division I is a mindset. Athletically, you compete on a higher stage. Instead of our games just having a local appeal, there’s now a national appeal to it,” he adds. “It heightens the overall awareness. It does a lot to create an intrinsic value to what the University of South Dakota stands for, what our brand is.”

Athletics is often one of the most visible areas of a university, but Herbster says it can be difficult to market sports because a team’s performance each game is unknowable. That’s where activities to engage fans and keep energy and optimism high come into play. That environment typically leads to better outcomes.

Jack Hopkins, ’84, is in the tailgate group with Dave Zimbeck and says the elevated conference status influenced their push to do more.

“We need to start stepping up our game. We’re a Division I school, we need a better tailgate than we’d had,” Hopkins says. “We enjoyed it – getting together with your friends, former classmates to grill on a Saturday afternoon. That was a lot of fun. But we knew we could step it up.”

To keep momentum and pace with other campus changes, the Athletic Department took steps to overhaul Coyote Tailgate Nation and moved it to the south side of the DakotaDome in 2010. In this new space, there were different sized tailgating lots available, designated student areas, activities for kids and areas for campus groups and departments to host gatherings.

Over the past 6 to 7 years, Herbster says there’s been a noticeable difference. With bigger tailgate zones, more people started bringing in RVs and trailers to enhance their pregame festivities. And it snowballed from there.

Part of that accomplishment goes to Hopkins and Zimbeck, or the guys with the Big Red Bus. While it started as more of a joke, it’s transformed the Coyote tailgate environment.

“It’s been refreshing to see how many groups of people have really stepped up and said, ‘We can do something, too,’ whether they’re doing trailers or fancy RVs or buses themselves...A lot of buzz gets created and it’s nice to see a parking lot full of people, whether it’s tents, cars or trailers.” - Dave Zimbeck, '80, '85

The Big Red Bus

The Big Red Bus is just that – an old school bus that has been completely renovated and decked out in Coyote spirit.

Zimbeck got the idea while attending an Oklahoma tailgate in 2015. His friend’s tailgate spot was next to a guy who had an old bus painted Sooner red with all the amenities needed: Grill, TV, awnings and more. After talking with the owner, “We could do this,” Zimbeck thought.

He showed pictures of the Sooner bus to Hopkins. Over the next few months, the two, plus Hopkins’ brother-in-law Joe Franks, got more and more excited about the idea and what they could do. Then one day, after enough pestering and prodding about when this was going to become a reality, Hopkins drove up to Webster and bought a bus.

Refurbishing work began in the spring of 2016 in Mitchell where Franks lived. He was the mechanical and creative lead and had access to professional equipment that made the renovations possible, Hopkins says.

“It was kind of a work in progress, we never had a blueprint,” he says. “We knew we wanted to put a deck on the back end of the bus and be able to put a grill up there and a kegerator and a deep fryer so we could host tailgate parties. It was one of those things where we’d find things, think ‘That’s pretty cool,’ and kept on looking at it and changing our minds. But we knew what our limitations were based on the bus and went from there.”

Aside from the exterior paint, which was done by a Mitchell-based semitruck painting business, all alterations were done by Hopkins, Zimbeck and Franks. To fund the project, they formed an LLC and had about 20 contributors. Total cost: $15,000.

“We had a good time doing it. It definitely gave us something to do in the evenings and night. Our problem was we’d get going and then it’d be midnight, 1:00 in the morning,” Hopkins says, which was tough for him and Zimbeck who lived in Sioux Falls and would have to get up for work the next morning. “It was tiring, but we had a lot of fun. We’d laugh, sit on the cooler at the end of the night looking at it and say, ‘What should we do next?’”

Since the 2016 football season, the Big Red Bus has been a regular at Coyote tailgates – in Vermillion and away games in Brookings, Des Moines and Fargo.

“We had an awful lot of people coming up to us and asking if they could look at the bus and asking how we did some things,” Hopkins says. “We still have people coming through all the time to tour it. We love showing it off.”

Zimbeck chuckles as he reflects on the first time they took the bus to Brookings and decided to cruise through downtown with the USD fight song blaring. That reception wasn’t as welcoming as others.

The bus even made a pilgrimage, if you will, in 2019 down to Norman, Okla., for the Coyotes vs. Sooners game. More than 200 people stopped by their tailgate space to appreciate the bus and join in the fun.

“We had an absolutely phenomenal experience. It was a fantastic time,” Zimbeck says.

Back in Vermillion, there’s a noticeable difference in the tailgate atmosphere. The Big Red Bus raised the bar, and other Coyote fans are rising to the occasion.

“It’s been refreshing to see how many groups of people have really stepped up and said, ‘We can do something, too,’ whether they’re doing trailers or fancy RVs or buses themselves,” Zimbeck says. “It’s been kind of cool to see how people can be creative in putting something together like we’ve done. A lot of buzz gets created and it’s nice to see a parking lot full of people, whether it’s tents, cars or trailers.”

“When I think about tailgating and I think about Saturdays in the fall, I think about bringing people back to campus. It’s the energy, it’s the excitement, it’s the sense of optimism that I think makes it so much fun...So come home. Let’s have fun. Get together with a group of friends and we’ll find a spot for you.” - David Herbster

The Real Meaning of Tailgating

If you aren’t a big sports fan or haven’t been to a tailgate before, you might think these efforts are a little over the top. But, just as with any holiday or celebration, tailgating is much more than its surface-level appearance.

For one, it brings people together.

“I’ve always said your best friends are made in college, but it’s hard to keep those contacts as we get busy with our own lives and families,” Hopkins says. “[Tailgating] brings back a lot of fond memories of your time at USD when you were developing those friendships. It’s a special place for us. We had a lot of fun there, got good educations. It’s just that reminder. It’s fun to get back with your old friends and have fun – you have to have fun in life, too.”

The Coyote community is a strong one and that sense of pride that binds us together shines through on gamedays when thousands of supporters cheer on the Coyotes.

Dante Warren, who was the Coyote quarterback in 2010 and is now the team’s running back coach, remembers the football team meeting at Coyote Village – next door to the tailgate location – so they could get hyped by fans before heading into the Dome. That walk-through still happens today.

“It’s good for the fans because they show that there’s interest in the teams that we put on the field. It’s really good for the team to see a parking lot full of people who are enjoying themselves and are ready to support them in the game that’s to come,” Zimbeck says. “The walk-through they do with the band, that’s always a nice touch. They know we have their back in terms of support.”

“There’s certainly a great deal of pride. You feel really good when you walk through there,” Herbster says about the walk-through. “The one thing I’ve heard from the team when they walk through there is they wish they could tailgate, it looks like a lot of fun. That alone, your spirits are lifted, you feel good, there’s energy.

“That energy, especially as you’re coming into a game, really helps their mindset. When they feel the energy from the crowd, they feed off that. In games, translate that excitement from tailgate into the game,” he adds.

There are more plans on the way to keep students and fans engaged throughout the entire gameday experience – whether it’s halftime competitions or concerts after games. Because having fans stick around for all four quarters makes a difference, stresses Warren.

“It’s huge. This is a game of emotion, it’s a game of momentum swings. Especially at this age, when you’re not a professional athlete, everything matters mentally,” Warren says. “When the crowd sticks around through the 4th quarter, when you have an important play and you have the crowd behind you, there’s certainly a different emotional reaction than when it’s empty.”

From his time as a player to now serving as a coach, Warren has noticed the increase in support. Not only from bolstered attendance at tailgates, but also through the donations people have made to provide scholarships to student-athletes, improve access to wellness programs and renovate the Dome and other facilities.

Warren also appreciates former players – members of The Brotherhood – who continue to show up for the team and mentor players. He encourages all alumni to volunteer with students, share their experiences and help the next generation excel.

“For me, it’s home away from home. We’ve got a lot of alumni who aren’t from the area or the state, like me, but every time I come back here, I wish that I would’ve brought more people. That I could share this experience with more people who’ve never been here,” Warren says. “It’s the place where I’ve chosen to raise my daughter. I view USD as my foundation as how I am as a man today. I learned that from USD. My passion to better the university stems from that.”

And that’s what Herbster wants all Coyotes to do this year: “Come home.”

“When I think about tailgating and I think about Saturdays in the fall, I think about bringing people back to campus. It’s the energy, it’s the excitement, it’s the sense of optimism that I think makes it so much fun,” Herbster says. “That gameday experience, having it centered around the Dome is something fans don’t get at a lot of places. So come home. Let’s have fun. Get together with a group of friends and we’ll find a spot for you.”

Information on purchasing game tickets, reserving tailgating spots or supporting athletics through the Howling Pack can be found online at goyotes.com or by calling the USD Ticket Office at 605-677-5959.