“This man needs an escort!” the security guard shouted, as ticketholders decked in blue and gold filed past me through the turnstiles into Memorial Stadium. I had no ticket for the sold out game against Bears’ rival USC, but I had a scheme to watch it regardless.
A skinny teen wearing a baggy, black “SECURITY” T-shirt appeared, and with a head nod he signaled for me to follow him. We weaved through the throngs of Cal fans along Memorial Rim Road, past concession stands and wide-open gates leading to the stands. He informed me that his job was to keep me from trying to sneak in—but also, he added with a shrug, he didn’t really care if I did. I told him that I wasn’t interested in getting inside the stadium anyway. My destination was a curious place with a curious name: Tightwad Hill. All I knew was what I’d heard; it was a patch of dirt one hundred or so feet up the hill behind the stadium where fans had supposedly gathered for over 90 years to watch Cal football free of charge—and free of rules.
With another nod, my escort deposited me behind the stadium on Centennial Road. I hopped over a small culvert, passed through a gap in a chain link fence, and trudged up a steep dusty slope lined with oak and pine trees to a clearing where a hundred or so people were clustered. This was it. The view was spectacular.
Alhough it appears so now, Tightwad Hill is not a natural land feature. It was a byproduct of Memorial Stadium’s construction in the 1920s, a pile of excavated dirt. Legend has it that spectators were spotted on the hill during the inaugural game played in the new stadium in 1923—a 9-0 win over archrival Stanford. Supposedly, penny-pinching fans have congregated on the hill for every Bear’s home game since.
On this sunny Saturday, Tightwad Hill hosted an eclectic bunch. In the center of the clearing, an area sometimes referred to as the “Tightwad Country Club,” sat mostly older fans, many in folding chairs and sporting structurally compromised Cal hats that had obviously seen many seasons—good and bad. Among them was a man in full military fatigues and another sporting an antique leather football helmet. On the southern edge, a younger and, dare I say, frattier group gathered around a keg beside a tree. On the high end of the slope was the standing crowd, many of them I discovered later, Bay Area natives. The energy was rowdier here, with music thumping from a boombox, a proliferation of alcoholic beverages, and the occasional joint passed between pinched fingers. They joked, jostled, and hollered half-hearted taunts at the few USC fans that had braved the hill.
My first attempts at contact with the Tightwad denizens didn’t go very well.
“What do you think of Tightwad Hill?” I asked a woman standing by the keg.
“Tae kwon do? I quit after the first lesson,” she answered, then laughed and went to fill her cup.
So I turned to a guy leaning against a pine tree and asked if he’d like to talk to me about the Hill. He led me to a middle-aged man sitting in a lawn chair with a beer in his hand.
The many colorful discussions I overheard on the hill included a man loudly comparing George Washington to Ho Chi Minh and a spirited debate about the merits of the word “hella.”
“Hey Donnie, this here is Hunter S. Thompson,” he said. “He wants to interview you.”
Donnie Hudson introduced himself as the best bartender in the Bay Area. “We have a blast up here. It’s our little secret,” he said. Then he eyed me suspiciously. “But I guess it’s not anymore. This interview is over.”
Cal kicked off to USC and the energy on the hill intensified. Cal hadn’t beaten the Trojans in fifteen years, but the crowd seemed hopeful. Perhaps today was the day. Cal quickly kicked a field goal. Then USC answered back with one of their own. The quarter ended tied, 3-3.
I meandered among the rowdy bunch up the slope, and fell into a conversation with two Berkeley natives who had been coming to Tightwad for years. I asked thirty-two-year-old Matt Roberts what keeps him coming back, and he pointed to the panoramic view.
“Over there we have the lovely city of San Francisco, the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate, the Port of Oakland.”
“Best view in American sports,” chimed in Eddie Salazar, wearing long Cal shorts and a single batting glove. “And it’s free!”
“I’ve been to games down there,” Roberts said, referring to the stands below. “But I prefer it up here because you can bring food, and you can bring beer, and you can smoke a little weed.”
“This is where the bad kids hang out,” Salazar added.
“Yeah, the vibe of the crowd can get rowdy sometimes,” Roberts said. “I’ve seen fights up here. I mean, I’ve been in fights up here. But we’ve really outgrown those things.”
Roberts said he appreciates the diversity of the Tightwad crowd, which makes for interesting conversations. I can confirm. The many colorful discussions I overheard on the hill included a man loudly comparing George Washington to Ho Chi Minh and a spirited debate about the merits of the word “hella.”
The second quarter brought chants of “Roll on you Bears!” and “F—- USC!” The Bears and Trojans went tit-for-tat on touchdowns and field goals leaving the score tied at 13-13. One young USC fan wearing a red jersey was the target of chants of “Take off your shirt!” He took it in stride. “It’s all love,” he said. “I get that some people take it too seriously, but I don’t get aggressive.” As for Tightwad Hill, “It was a bitch to get up here. But now that I’m here it’s sick. Totally unbelievable.”
With the game tied and halftime approaching, the fans on the hill were noticeably excited about the prospect of a long awaited Cal upset.
“Quite honestly, Cal’s success has been spotty through the years,” said Tom Moreno, a Cal alum and Tightwad diehard. “So the games sometimes take on a secondary importance to just enjoying the ambience up here.” But not today. With the game tied and Cal in the USC red-zone, my questions were proving an unwelcome distraction for Moreno who’d watched at least 150 games from Tightwad Hill.
“Ah! I just missed the third and one, dude!” he said, slapping his knee.
“Ok, I’ll let you focus,” I said sheepishly.
“Yeah, if you would.”
With the score tied at halftime, I wandered over the lower part of the hill by the keg where the inebriation level was clearly highest. I noticed a number of people wearing yellow shirts that read “10th Annual Keg on the Hill.”
“You can’t drink down there!” said Steve Keller, a thirty-three-year-old Cal alum, gesturing derisively toward the stadium. Keller goes by “Sharky” or “Jelly Man” or “Tight Steve” (the latter earned by lugging a keg to Tightwad Hill for the tenth year in a row). “You can party here! It’s a small family and it’s free and you can bring all the booze you want.”
When I mentioned that I didn’t know that drinking wasn’t allowed in the stadium, it set off a chorus of voices deriding the rule.
“You think I would be here if I could drink down there?” asked Cal alum Erin Wagner. “You think I would have climbed this hill? No. It’s treacherous.”
“You know who you need to talk to?” Tight Steve said. “That guy up there.” He pointed to man sitting in the middle of the Tightwad Country Club, wearing a straw porkpie hat, smoking a cigar and clutching a Budweiser. “That guy is the Governor of Tightwad Hill.”
“Former governor,” said Tad Dellinger III, his voice gravely and slurred, presumably from the many Budweisers he’d enjoyed over the course of the game. He also sells them at two cans for five bucks. He wore a short-sleeved button-up and tie, both covered in Cal logos.
His aunt brought him to his first Bears game in ’92. Halfway through the game he hiked up to Tightwad Hill and hasn’t been back since. His aunt still attends games inside the stadium. “I told her, you are really truly missing something in life,” he said. In fact, he’s often offered tickets, but he always turns them down. “I’ll keep coming up here until I can’t anymore.”
Sitting beside Dellinger was the current governor, Keith Salminen. The governor’s duties mostly involve keeping the area clean during and after games. They also try to keep things copacetic. “We police our own here,” he said.
“Me, my boy Tad here, and Gary down there,” he said, nodding towards Gary Dezanni down the slope. “We are the three known governors.” In the old days the fraternities managed Tightwad Hill, he explained. “Governors one through twenty-seven are unknown because from the 1920s to the 1960s, the frat houses had all kinds of secretive stuff going on.”
They’ve reached out to the frats multiple times to find out the identities of previous governors, but to no avail, he says.
Salminen is a diehard A’s fan and even hosts his own A’s related podcast. “But I will be straight up honest with you,” he said. “This is my favorite sports venue. Great vibe here, man.”
Dellinger, his flat-lens shades reflecting the blue sky, nodded solemnly.
Tradition is clearly a big part of the appeal of Tightwad Hill, a tradition that nearly came to an end when the University planned a 321 million dollar renovation of the stadium. The plans included luxury boxes that would have blocked the view from the hill. A group called Save Tightwad Hill collected 1,000 signatures and sued the University to block construction of the boxes. In the end the university capitulated, agreeing to build the boxes on the opposite end of the stadium preserving the views from the hill.
The first five minutes of the fourth quarter were disastrous for the Bears. USC scored seventeen unanswered points, and just like that, hopes of a big upset were doused. But aside from a few groans and curses, the Tightwad crowd remained in good spirits. After all, they were here for more than just the game: They were here for the comeraderie, the beer, the stellar view, and to uphold 95 years of tradition. But perhaps above all, they were here for the freedom. Entry into Memorial Stadium, like most venues, comes with a list of rules and strictures regarding prohibited behaviors and illicit contraband. No such thing on Tightwad Hill. They police their own.
As the Bears unraveled on the field I spoke to Gary Dezzani, the 28th governor of Tightwad Hill, about the luxury boxes situated on the opposite rim of stadium, where moneyed types pay $11,000 for six home games. Like Tightwad Hill, the luxury boxes look down on the field from on high—though with a view of the hills rather than the Bay.
“They give you everything in there,” Dezzani said. “Sixty types of wine and beer, the greatest buffet you could ever eat. They have these leather chairs that kick back in all these angles, and they got the latest Apple computers. I bet they look over here at the hill and think, look at all those vagabonds and ruffians.” He laughed. “You know, it would be exciting to go over there and see all the famous people. But we still got the better view.”
The Tightwad Hill experience may not be for everyone. The approach is treacherous, the venue dirty, and the company unrefined. But for the regulars (and from what I could tell they are all regulars), this is a slice of paradise—their own private perch above the hallowed Cal gridiron.
Posted on October 19, 2017 - 2:19pm