Thursday, August 28, 2014

University of Florida: The Perfect College Football Venue

Arkansas = Gator Bait
When College Football was first getting its hooks in me in the mid-1990s, the University of Florida was a powerhouse.  Coached by Steve Spurrier, they contended for the national championship often and won it in 1996.  My dad's passion for Notre Dame had won me over to the Fighting Irish fan club, but I still had a soft spot for the first college football team that I really latched onto circa 1993: Florida State.  Due to the Seminoles, I was not a big fan of the Florida Gators.  The UF vs. FSU rivalry was particularly entertaining back in those days with both at the peak of their powers.  If you had told me, then, that I would make it to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville before I'd been to Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee on an eventual College Football Tour, I'd have called you a liar.  In 2013, interestingly during Florida State's first national championship season since the dominant 90s run, that is exactly what happened.  On the first weekend in October, I headed down to THE SWAMP!

Before I move through the experience chronologically, let me first point out that which was so distinctly obvious about the area of the Florida campus that surrounds the football venue: it's perfectly set up for football fans and college kids.  Perfectly.  It may have been that we just parked in the perfect spot and that I'm hyperbolizing based on a small geographic sample size, but what I saw was flat out ideal.  It's like Bourbon Street in New Orleans is for single party animals.  Recall from the Boomer Sooner post that my 3 keys to a great college football pre-game are accessibility to beer, a place to watch other football games, and bathrooms.  Well, I'll add restaurants and gift shops to the list (though they should be implied).  We got out of the car in Gainesville, turned right, and the first thing that we saw was a restaurant/bar with plenty of TVs both inside and out, followed by a very spacious bookstore with all the Florida apparel that anyone could ever dream of, and then another restaurant/bar.  The pattern continued further down the main drag of campus.  The running gag after a bachelor party I attended in New Orleans several years back was that Bourbon St. is nothing but restaurant, watering hole, gentleman's club, and souvenir store on repeat for miles.  University of Florida was the college football equivalent.  It was the ideal environment for a young college football fan.  Of course, I'm no longer a young college football fan.

Backing up a bit...

Driving from North Carolina to Florida is not that bad of a road trip.  Once you've driven 12 or more hours to any destination on numerous occasions, a 7-9 hour drive is a walk in the park.  This particular tour stop was with some friends that I don't get to see very often, so the hours were spent enjoying the company of people with whom I once routinely traveled long distances.  The idea for the trip sprung from a desire to take our collective passions for college football and give us the excuse to go somewhere and hang out now that the bachelor parties and weddings have started to be replaced by baby showers and kids.  On the journey to The Swamp, I was joined by my college roommate, Kevin, whose dad had attended UF, Kevin's brother-in-law, Chad, and Mike (never going to stop calling him) Garlow, whose suggestion during our freshman year in college that we take a road trip to Ohio State had inadvertently set in motion what became the basis for "The Tour."  I came to find out that the other Chad had grown up an FSU fan, as well.  All in all, not a bad Friday to sit around talking about football mixed in with adult stuff for several hours. 

Garlow found us a nice little spot to stay for the weekend.  It was the kind of comfortable place that makes one thankful that he is no longer 20 years old and crammed into a single hotel room with half a dozen other people.  Not many of my tour stops have featured hotel stays, to date.  Those that have, everything has always been so rushed that I haven't had much down time.  Undoubtedly, one of the biggest perks of finding a good hotel is the breakfast buffet.  It's usually a good idea to have a pretty big breakfast if you're going to a college football game, especially if you intend to tailgate and have a few adult beverages.  You need a good padding of food and a lot of water.  Breakfast buffets are always awesome.  I recently told a young patient of mine who is about to start college and was nervous, as I was, about living in a dorm, cafeteria eating, etc. that my favorite thing about living on campus my first year in college was the breakfast buffets at the dining hall.  Random thought, but that might be where the freshman fifteen comes from for a lot of people.  Not just the booze, but the endless supplies of bacon, eggs, sausage, and pancakes.  Anyhow, the hotel in Gainesville had a gloriously delicious breakfast buffet selection...and ESPN College Gameday on in the background. 

We spent the majority of the day at "The Swamp Bar" right near the stadium after stopping at the bookstore to get the rest of the guys some Gator gear.  The expectantly entertaining banter ensued for several hours, fueled by cocktails handed out, in part, by she who shall affectionately be known as the #lemongirl - she literally stood inside the confines of a giant lemon.  The use of the written and spoken hashtag, made popular by Twitter, was quite pronounced that weekend for reasons I've since forgotten. #Hashtag #lemongirl #Swamp #whiskey #LeroyJenkins (#lookthatuponYouTube).

On our way to the stadium for the evening kickoff, we attempted to sell two tickets that I'd purchased in expectation of there being six of us on the trip.  1/3 of the group cancelled last minute.  The scalper I spoke to offered me peanuts for the tickets.  I politely declined since the face value and the dollar amount that I'd spent were considerably higher.  I kept them as souvenirs instead. When we got to our seats, I realized why I'd been shortchanged on the local seller's market.  I think Mars was the nearest planet to us.  I guess Florida's loss to Miami earlier in the season drove down the ticket prices, but when I bought the tickets before the season, they were priced according to their usually high expectations.  My mistake.  Our nice view of planet Mars notwithstanding, the game atmosphere was awesome.  We could literally see everything from up there.  The scene of all the Gator fans doing the famous "chomp" (taking your arms and smacking your hands together like the jaws of an alligator) was memorable, as was the fact that the two-note chord from the Jaws theme plays while they do it.

G-low, Kevin, me, Chad

Randomly, I bumped into one of my old professional school classmates.  I had not seen him since we graduated 5 years prior.  He sat right behind us.  That was the second year in a row on my college football tour that I'd been seated near a fellow Logan-graduate. 

Florida went on to to thump Arkansas 30-10, so as we were walking back to the car, the celebration had begun.  I could not help but temporarily imagine going to school there, as I had actually thought long and hard about doing some 13 years prior.  I had even bought a Florida Gator hat when I was in high school that has been my go-to cap ever since because of how utterly exact it fits my head.  In my little daydream, I envisioned what it must be like to walk to your football stadium, watch your team win, and then head to the bar to cheers the victory with tens of thousands of other students and fans...then just walk home.  I snapped back to reality and instantly concluded that the best thing that Florida offers is a chance to savor the triumph.  When you root on your team, be it in front of your TV at home or live in front of nearly 90,000 people, the feeling that you get when they win doesn't just end the moment that the final seconds tick off of the clock.  It can last from the rest of the night all the way to the minutes before the next week's game.  Florida has a football fan bubble complete with everything you'd need inside.  Winning means a massive celebratory gathering inside of their bubble.

I was not the usual good luck charm for my 2013 Tour stops that I had been in years past.  Both Florida and Georgia were as injury-riddled as any two teams I've ever seen in one season.  The Gators improved to 4-1 when we were there; it was actually their last win of the year.

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