It used to be the most dreaded place for opponents to enter in the country. Then it was the best homefield advantage in the South.
Now, it is a barely sold-out, at times lethargic, stadium to watch on television.
The Swamp has been on life support the past few seasons, and it has nothing to do with the record of the Gators.
Under the lights, and with more than 90,000 strong, the stadium that once struck fear in the eyes of any opponent had a glimmer of it’s not-so-distant past.
I was not on the sidelines during the Spurrier Era of Gator football, I was not sharing the field with Emmet Smith’s record-breaking seasons, but I have had the good fortune of spending time in the midst of the most recent legends of The Swamp – the Pounceys, Tebow, Harvin, Spikes and many more.
Those were games that left your ears ringing and counting down the days until the next meeting at Florida Field.
In recent years, I’ve been practically counting down the days to road games. The atmosphere of places like Death Valley in Baton Rouge and Bear Bryant Castle in Tuscaloosa have been a medium of envy for a sports photographer.
It is difficult to pinpoint just why arenas outside of Gainesville have been such a draw in recent years. Statistically, you would think only Alabama could top the rest when it comes to atmosphere if it was determined by wins/losses.
I wrote last season about the spirit that is Texas A&M football. This was months before they stunned Alabama at home under the lights and well before Johnny Manziel became Johnny Football.
These schools celebrate tradition – something Florida and its fans seem to have forgotten about.
Recently as the Gators were putting a shutdown on what was supposed to be an impressive Arkansas running game in the third quarter, the GatorVision boards showed Northwestern leading Ohio State and the stadium was at a near high in decibels. Clearly, Florida fans are still sore over the breakup with Urban Meyer.
It seems as if Florida has trained its fans to forget the past, something that only works when you’re winning, and even then, can backfire.
Texas A&M is far from a football powerhouse like say, Alabama, but more impressive in every aspect of the game day tradition than many other schools in the country and certainly in the SEC.
So what has made this season different?
Was it the rare night game with Arkansas, as dictated by ESPN? Is it the continued settling in of head coach Will Muschamp?
I believe it is tradition.
For the first time, Florida is honoring tradition beside the usual throwback uniforms. At the beginning of each game, an honorary Mr. Two Bits leads the stadium in the legendary cheer and then joins the team to run onto the field.
Florida’s powerful communications arm is reaching out through social networks to remind fans of the program’s rich history while eagerly moving forward.
I am fortunate enough to teach journalism at the University of Florida, and if there is one lesson that we have learned in the past few years as facilitators, it is that communications is a two-way street.
Florida Football is beginning to understand this concept. While it is in its infancy, the Athletic Association has recognized the power of the fan. This is not to say the process has been without missteps.
Prior to the season, the Gators held an open practice for students only but banned them from using their cell phones or having student journalists report from the practice.
It does not take a public relations guru to understand the implications of putting conditions on an “open” practice at a public university.