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    Gator fans lament coach's departure

    Emotions run high as longtime fans react to the news of the football coach's resignation. One calls it "Black Friday.''

    By PATTY RYAN
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 5, 2002


    TAMPA -- U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday is a man of authority, one who changes people's lives with the stroke of a pen.

    photo
    [Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
    Hillsborough County Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr. gossips on the phone about Steve Spurrier’s resignation.
    But he was as powerless as anyone Friday to stay the resignation of Florida Gators football coach Steve Spurrier.

    It was simply outside his jurisdiction, never mind the life-sized concrete alligator that guards his courtroom doors.

    "There's no injunction I can enter -- although I would enter one if I could," he said, tongue-in-cheek.

    Legions of Gator fans in the Tampa Bay area shared his dismay. Word of Spurrier's departure after 12 seasons, to pursue opportunities in the NFL, raced through a region where fans outnumber orange trees, and have deeper roots.

    "My first reaction was denial," said Hillsborough Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr., who earned his undergraduate and law degrees in Gainesville. He works amid a virtual Gators shrine, an assembly of stuffed alligators, blue-and-orange blankets, Gator license tags and other trinkets.

    People used words like "horrible" and "devastating." There were rumors of adult tears. "It's like losing your best friend," said Tampa lawyer Ron Cacciatore.

    "We're very upset," said Jennifer Medina, a fan since age 3. Now 29, she owns the Gator Heaven store on S Dale Mabry Highway. Distraught fans called her nonstop on Friday.

    Ted Kelly, the owner of Mott & Hester Deli in South Tampa, called it "Black Friday." His feelings for Spurrier seem almost Zen-like.

    "Most of us who are orange and blue, Spurrier is us and we're him," Kelly said. "He's as much the program as he is the coach. It's an all-in-one kind of thing. For most of us working stiffs around the state, the thing we enjoy the most is going to the games. Having Spurrier be a Gator is a feeling you don't want to give up."

    Kelly graduated from the University of Florida, as did his three brothers and two sisters. Their parents still go to the games.

    "My whole family bleeds orange and blue," he said.

    Gators booster Leonard Levy, owner of Hillsborough Publishing, got the news on a cell phone in his car and said he responded, "Oh, that's garbage." He called the school for confirmation and got it.

    He counts only five games that he has missed in 45 years.

    Tampa lawyer Larry Smith, once a teammate of Spurrier's at Florida, fielded friendly e-mail banter from Florida State University football fans.

    Seminoles boosters were licking their chops, hoping for new vulnerability in their archrivals.

    "Absolutely," agreed 'Noles fan Bill Marrah, who, by a twist of fate, is co-owner of Gatorz Southern Rock Cafe in Brandon. "We've got to choose sides, don't we?"

    In the end, people had a hard time being angry with Spurrier, even if they were disappointed.

    "I have confidence he's made the best decision for himself and his family," Merryday said.

    "Anybody who's looking for an improvement in their salary or career, how can you be mad about that," Kelly said. "I'm a business guy. If they came to me today and asked me to coach the Jacksonville Jaguars, I'd quit Mott & Hester immediately."

    So he isn't just a tad angry? "I'm mad that coaching Florida isn't to him what it is to the rest of us -- the best job in the world."

    Cacciatore, the lawyer, said he would remain a fan, but seemed to get a lump in his throat when talking about Spurrier.

    "Having been a fan of the University of Florida since 1956, I think he's the greatest thing that's ever happened to the University of Florida in terms of athletics. I was there when he and the team won the national championship in New Orleans. He has done things with the program, and done them honorably, that no one else has ever done."

    - Times Staff Writer David Karp contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at 226-3382 or pryan@sptimes.com.

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