Florida's Swamp Wasn't So Scary

FAYETTEVILLE - The University of Florida's football media guide includes this excerpt from The Sporting News:

"Florida Field is the nation's loudest stadium. Take any heavy metal album, crank it, then place your speakers in a tin basement. That sounds like a library compared to The Swamp."

Say what?

Well, that endorsement did include "album," so maybe it was written a decade ago.

The Swamp - a place Arkansas had entered only once (for a 56-7 embarrassment against the top-ranked Gators in 1997) before last weekend -is not nearly as scary as we'd heard.

Not these days, anyway.

We'd been getting wind of how the atmosphere has changed at Florida Field since Steve Spurrier took his golf clubs and dynamite aerial show to the Washington's Redskins in 2001.

Never would've believed this, though.

As we drove through Florida's version of several Dickson Streets about an hour or so before the kickoff of the Arkansas game, our Sunshine State companions (both UF grads) were startled at the lack of congestion on a beautiful, but balmy, sky-blue morning.

Is Florida football really taking a back seat to whatever else there is to do in Gainesville? From Fun 'N' Gun to Fun 'N' Sun?

The Tampa Tribune's Scott Carter (who works the Devil Rays and Lightning beats) and Steve Gorten (who was our No. 1 guy on the Arkansas football beat my second year here, 2001, before becoming a reporter for Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel) were taking the day off to enjoy being fans at what was expected to be a dandy game.

Over the years (especially the Spurrier ones), scalping had been prevalent at Florida football games, and Carter (my best reporter friend during our three years together at the Tribune) and Gorten had worried about spending $50 or so per pop.

As we approached Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the surprises continued. Plenty of parking and folks holding up tickets for sale at rock-bottom prices.

There was very little tailgating. Matter of fact, almost nobody was grilling or hoisting cold cans.

The eight or 10 Harare Krsna (that's how they spelled it) folks singing, dancing and clacking little symbols while sporting strange robes and shaved heads just outside of Gate 7 stole the pregame show.

Strangely symbolic, it seemed, for a program in need of some sort of revival because the high-flying standards set by Spurrier have not been matched by Ron Zook and company.

The noon kickoff probably had something to do with the loads of empty seats (especially early) as did CBS coverage.

But even those who cover the Gators these days were perplexed by the sorry showing.

Yeah, attendance was announced as 90,014 (including some 3,000 Arkansas fans who took up a good-sized east-side swath of seats) in the 88,548 capacity stadium, but that was Mississippi math. There were big wads of empty seats all along the upper decks of the east side of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and smatterings of them throughout the place.

A beat writer who covers the Gators said attendance embellishment is common Florida practice.

There's nothing at all special about Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Lots of aluminum and concrete and just average scoreboards.

The pregame chant of the Gators fans who showed?




Quick history lesson: Florida Field was completed on Oct. 27, 1930, with 21,769 seats. In 1950, 11,200 seats were added to the west side, pushing capacity to 40,116. Next big addition was in 1966 when 10,000 seats were added to the east side and temporary bleachers were installed to boost capacity to 62,800.

In 1982, a skybox tower, including a "modern press box," was added, as was south end zone seating, pushing capacity to 72,000. In '91, 11,000 spots were added to the north end zone to accommodate 83,000, making it one of the eighth-largest stadiums in the country.

That's when Spurrier dubbed it The Swamp.

Last year, a two-year, $50 million expansion was started to add 2,900 luxury club seats and 28 more suites.

The Florida media guide boasts of the string of sellouts (now at 93), which is fourth behind Nebraska, Notre Dame and Michigan.

But trust us, The Swamp is no big deal.

Izzy Gould (another UF grad who covered UA basketball for us last season and is a staffer at Tampa's Trib) joined Carter and Gorten in scoring face-value tickets.

With the Gators up 35-7 at the half, the trio, along with a slew of the other fans on hand,headed to their homes or sports bars to tune in to the rest.

Florida fans cheered the Gators' four-touchdown, second-quarter barrage, but they abandoned their team during the Arkansas rally, either leaving or absorbing it in silence until linebacker Channing Crowder's crucial interception with almost seven minutes left and the Hogs within 38-30.

Even Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, who had harped on the big-time noise he expected to face, was taken back by the tame atmosphere of The Swamp.

"I didn't know if anyone was going to show up at first," Nutt said. "I was really surprised.

"I thought it would be much louder."

Us, too.

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