AUSTIN (KXAN) — In its first season in the Big 12 Conference, Brigham Young University’s Cougars are bringing a new kind of tailgating to Longhorns territory.
Members of BYU Alumni have organized “Cougs Care” pregame tailgates at away games, coordinating with local nonprofit organizations and community leaders to fundraise and collect food, books, toys and other essential goods. This Saturday, Central Texas BYU alums will host a holiday gift drive in benefit of the Travis County Sheriff’s Brown Santa initiative. It’ll be held from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at LBJ High School, located at 7309 Lazy Creek Drive.
Debbie Talbot, BYU’s Austin alumni chair, told KXAN the university has more than 2,000 alumni living in the Central Texas area, along with 174 Central Texas natives attending BYU. She said the tailgates are a means of breathing life into BYU’s motto: “Enter to learn, go forth to serve.”
“Any time we can be together, we like to try and do something to bless the community and thank them for hosting BYU,” Talbot said. “What can we do to serve, and how can we get the help that we need to make these types of things happen? We have plenty of people that wanted to be involved to help make that happen.”
She said the BYU Austin alumni chapter has already collected more than 500 toys in advance of Saturday’s game. Ideally, she said the chapter aims to collect 2,000 toys in total to benefit the Travis County Sheriff’s Brown Santa program.
In advance of the holiday season, Talbot said BYU alums have planned a late November delivery of 40,000 pounds of food to benefit Brown Santa along with several local food pantries.
“Right when they’re having their hardest hit time, right before the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, we’re excited that we can also help with food security as well,” she said.
Michael Johanson, executive director of BYU Alumni, said the alumni association wanted to use its away games as an opportunity to lean into its decentralized alumni network and help meet communities where they are. Through local BYU chapters, Johanson said university leaders were able to better understand the needs of various communities and what specific fundraising efforts would most benefit them.
When you think of a college football tailgate, you might typically envision a scene brimming with music, alcohol and food. Under BYU’s vision, Johanson said the alumni program wanted to evoke a sense of community and remind attendees that, whether you’re rooting for the Cougars or the Longhorns, everyone can have a tangible impact on the residents and organizations living and serving in their area.
That philosophy has begun to have a ripple effect beyond the confines of those bright blue BYU tailgate tents.
“It’s not competition, but the best compliment that you can imagine is someone copying your ideas,” he said. “And what we have loved to see is some of these other schools within the Big 12 picking up some of these things that we’re doing and doing it their own way. And I think that is more gratifying than anything that we can do, is sharing that good work and seeing others be inspired by that as well.”
Johanson said local BYU alumni chapters work with community leaders to help identify where the needs are and what services are most beneficial. While each individual away game tailgate is distinct and tailored to that city or region, he said one experience stands out to him as a moment that helped reaffirm BYU’s “why” behind its tailgates.
When BYU headed to Shreveport, Louisiana, for a bowl game in 2021, Johanson called the local bishop for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the area and asked what challenges the congregation faced and how BYU could assist. The bishop told Johanson the congregation was working to assist with a sock drive for the benefit of a local homeless shelter.
While not having a high concentration of BYU alums in Shreveport, the university did have many graduates from across the country — from a few hundred miles away from Shreveport to diehard fans from Alabama, Texas, the Midwest and the West Coast — coming in for the bowl game. Despite the Shreveport LDS congregation having a yearly goal of collecting 1,000 pairs of socks for the homeless shelter, alums helped donate 2,000 pairs in one day alone.
“Never underestimate the impact of service and of human interaction,” he said. “Whether we’re a Longhorn or Cougar, we’re in this journey together, and whatever we can do to build that, then let’s do it….we’re all about doing good. Let’s just keep doing good, better.”