When a lot of people think of Florida Gators fans, images of guys sporting mullets and wearing jorts and women with skin like leather come to mind, and I know there are folks who fit that stereotype.
But that’s not how I’d describe the many, many University of Florida grads I’ve had to work with and have come to know over the years.
It certainly doesn’t describe my next door neighbor, whom my family fondly refers to as “Gator.” He’s a really nice guy with a lovely wife and a cute baby boy who I teasingly threaten to teach to say “Go Dogs!” Surprisingly, my neighbor just laughs and says if his son can attend UGA for free on the HOPE scholarship, then a Bulldog he’ll be.
Quite a statement for a guy who flies his orange and blue UF flag all year round.
Actually, many Florida grads I’ve known aren’t that different from UGA grads on the surface. They’re intelligent and hardworking enough to have gotten into a big state university. And they love SEC football.
The main difference between my neighbor and most Florida grads is the casual arrogance with which they view the world, as if matriculation in Gainesville puts them on a level above folks who’ve gone to school in, say, Athens, Tuscaloosa or Knoxville.
The funny thing is, they’ve always had this arrogance, even during the years when they really didn’t really have anything to be arrogant about. Let’s face it, before Steve Spurrier went back home to rescue the program, the most notable thing to come out of Gainesville involving college football was Gatorade. Despite all the talent that a campus in the Sunshine State could draw, they never quite got it done. The ability of great Gator teams to choke became something of an SEC joke.
That didn’t make the Florida grads I had to deal with any less arrogant. It just made them prime suckers for gridiron bets. Most years after I came to work at the AJC in 1974 I’d be approached by various Gators in the office who wanted to show their Gator pride by betting a six-pack of Heineken or something along those lines on the Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville. With Vince Dooley as coach at Georgia, it was more often than not a safe bet. The Dogs were 13-3 against the Gators in those years, including winning six straight from 1978 through ’83.
I remember 1980 was the year I really did well. One Gator wanted to double the bet and a couple of others got in on it, too. I wound up with several six-packs (and then won a fifth of Black Jack off an Auburn grad the next week). Since I don’t drink much, the chief beneficiaries were the folks attending the Christmas party my wife and I threw.
And yet, still there was that arrogance, that attitude that somehow Florida was better than the rest of the conference, even if the record book didn’t reflect it. After all, the Gators didn’t win an SEC championship in football until 1984, and that was almost immediately vacated by the conference because of all the Charley Pell infractions that got the school on probation. That also made them ineligible for the SEC title again in 1985. Ditto 1990, when Spurrier’s first team still faced the Galen Hall probation problem.
Finally, in 1991 came the school’s first real SEC championship.
I thought I knew Gator arrogance before, but in the Spurrier era it grew exponentially. It was as if SEC football had not existed prior to 1990. It reminded me of the nouveau riche putting on airs. As if alligator wasn’t derived from the Spanish word for “lizard.”
And while that attitude tapered off just a tad during the Zook years, when Gator fans were apt to make bitter jokes about their own coach, it shot into the stratosphere with the arrival of Urban Meyer and the two BCS championships Tim Tebow has won him.
I have a confession to make. In a moment of delusion, I actually rooted for Florida in January 2007 when they played Ohio State for the BCS championship. I had grown tired of all the Big 10 hype I was hearing from ESPN and the rest of the national sports media and decided I really wanted an SEC team to show up the Buckeyes, even if it was the Gators.
My son tried to warn me. “You know how arrogant Gator fans are,” he said. “Imagine how they’ll be if they win the BCS. There’ll be no living with them.”
And he was right. They were worse then ever after that, especially when their basketball team also won a national title. Then came a second BCS title last year, and now they act like it’s a birthright or something.
But what it all boils down to is that in the long and illustrious history of SEC football, the Gators are still johnny-come-latelies.
In jorts, no less.