'Only Gators Get Out Alive'

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas defensive end Jeb Huckeba's hands started shaking and his vision became blurry, two annoyances created by the noise in Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

The senior said the crowd made it impossible for the offense to snap the ball before the playclock crept to two seconds. It happened in a few other places like LSU, Tennessee and Michigan, but Huckeba was at the mercy of The Swamp, the place rated the toughest and loudest stadium in college football.

Of course, Huckeba was describing a video game, NCAA College Football 2005.

The Razorbacks don't have much else to go on before Saturday.

"I expect everything that I've heard about it," Huckeba said. "I've never played there, but just like in NCAA 2005, it's the loudest place to play in on the game. Your controller will start vibrating and the screen will start shaking."

Arkansas will get an up-close taste of the hostility at No. 16 Florida, venturing into the place former coach Steve Spurrier said "only Gators get out alive." The Hogs play the second game in school history in the stadium tabbed the nation's top gameday crowd by The Sporting News earlier this year.

The original Florida Field was funded by former school president John J. Tigert and built on marshy land with a capacity of 21,769 in 1930. It has grown into the largest stadium in the state, capable of jamming more than 90,000 sweat-soaked, Gator-chomping fans into a place where Florida has rarely lost since 1990.

The Gators hold the nation's fourth-best home record since Spurrier's first season, compiling a 78-10 mark that trails Kansas State, Nebraska and Florida State. Florida has fallen under tough times since 2002 -- a 10-5 home record -- but Arkansas defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said the Hogs better be prepared.

"As soon as you get in town they're going to let you know you don't have a chance," said Rocker, who played at Auburn in the late 1980s and played in the stadium before it was nicknamed. "It's a different atmosphere down there. When you go to Florida, up here we're conservative, down there it's a little more liberal.

"It's wild and very liberal."

In other words, it's The Swamp.

A name like The Gator Pit just wouldn't have carried the same weight. But it was one of roughly 20 ideas Spurrier and his right-hand-man, assistant athletic director and university historian Norm Carlson batted around for two years.

Spurrier wanted a catchy nickname for the stadium shortly after he was hired in 1990, hoping to cast a fearsome image to opponents. It also was part of his plan to invigorate Florida fans, who had come to accept mediocrity.

Carlson said there were plenty of tacky suggestions like Alligator Alley, the Gator Pen, the Gator Bog, and, even, Death Valley, which were nicknames at LSU and Clemson. Nothing grabbed them until after the 1991 season, when Carlson read an article about the stadium's construction.

Tigert referred to the land the stadium was built on as a "swampy depression."

"I was reading that and Steve said, 'The Swamp,'" Carlson said. "I thought, 'Boy that's a great name.' Then he immediately said, 'Where only Gators get out alive.'"

Spurrier quickly spread the word, taking his idea and catch phrase to athletic director Jeremy Foley. It was approved and Spurrier told Gator fans the new nickname on summer speaking tours. Florida's Orange and Blue nation listened.

Now, souvenir shops around campus are loaded with Swamp merchandise like T-shirts, hats, posters and bumper stickers. The phrase, "This is ... The Swamp," is painted on walls inside the stadium. A video board in the south end zone depicts alligators lurking in a swamp before the game.

The nickname is one of the most recognizable -- and feared -- in college football.

"There were people around here on our staff that didn't like that name," Carlson said. "They said, 'Oh, God, that will never fly.' But Steve didn't care what anybody said. He just started calling it The Swamp and it slowly picked up as we kept winning. It got to be more and more associated with football here.

"Man I'd like to have had the concession on that name, wouldn't you?"

Of course, the stadium's nickname was nothing without Florida's dominance.

The Gators built a reputation on the field from 1990-01, blitzing the SEC en route to six championships. Florida won its first 23 home games under Spurrier from 1990-93 and strung together a 30-game win streak that stretched from 1994-99.

Arkansas was a victim in 1997, when tailback Bo Carroll returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown to start a 56-7 romp. Former Hogs receiver Anthony Lucas was on then-coach Danny Ford's team and thought Arkansas was prepared for the challenge. But Lucas realized it was an obvious mismatch on the way to the stadium.

"We were pulling up and fans were flipping us off," Lucas said. "They were doing the Gator chant, they were spitting on the bus. The closer we got to parking, people were beating on the bus saying 'Gator bait, Gator bait.' It's a hard place to play."

Florida State (1993, 1999), Auburn (1994), Alabama (1999) and Tennessee (2001) were the only teams to leave The Swamp with wins while Spurrier roamed the sidelines. Florida was 70-5 overall and 39-3 against the SEC in the comforts of home during his 12-year tenure (1990-01).

East Carolina coach John Thompson and current Arkansas defensive coordinator Dave Wommack made three trips as assistants at Southern Miss. Thompson, who also coached at Arkansas in 2000-01, said it was the loudest place he has coached.

But he didn't appreciate the noise until his season as Florida's defensive coordinator in 2002.

"We could not huddle on defense at Florida. And we were the home team," Thompson said. "We had to prepare more for the home crowd. On the road, I could wear a single earmuff (headset). At home, I had to wear a double earmuff.

"You cannot hear and you could be three or four feet away from each other."

Of course, Thompson knows the Gators' dominance has declined at home since Spurrier's departure.

He played a part in disappointing home losses to Miami (41-16) and LSU (36-7) in 2002. Coach Ron Zook is 10-5 overall at home and 5-3 against the SEC, including last season's losses to Tennessee (24-10) and Ole Miss.

"It's about time we made The Swamp what it used to be," Florida defensive tackle Ray McDonald said. "We have a lot better team than we've had the past two years. So we have to come out here and prove it and try to win all our home games this season."

Florida beat Eastern Michigan (49-10) in its opener and Kentucky (20-3) last weekend, but trails Tennessee and Georgia in the SEC Eastern Division standings. The Arkansas game is the second of its first-ever, four-game homestand and will determine the Gators' role in the conference championship chase.

The Swamp might not be feared by opponents as much as in the Spurrier era, but the rabid atmosphere remains one of the loudest in college football. Arkansas coach Houston Nutt blared music on speakers to simulate crowd noise during practice all week and described The Swamp as "one of the greatest environments there is."

Behind it, Florida is determined to restore its reputation.

"You want everybody to fear coming to your house," linebacker Channing Crowder said. "But there's nothing you can say or do about it, just have to win. If you're beating everybody at your house, they don't want to play here."

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