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Tampa subregional

Seasons change for Florida's fans

UF is known for its football, but the Rowdy Reptiles show it's okay to love basketball too.

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2003

TAMPA -- No doubt about it, Florida is a football school.

But is it a basketball school, too?

Heck yeah.

"That's a hot topic among the media, I can tell you that, especially in the four years we've been here," senior forward Matt Bonner said. "Everybody says Florida's not just a football school anymore.

"Everybody wants to write about that, and I think that's a credit to the program, how it's evolved and where it's come from under coach (Billy) Donovan, the players he's brought here and the seasons he's put together."

A school-record five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. The Sweet 16 in 1999. National runner-up in 2000. A Southeastern Conference-best 97 wins in four seasons, and two regular-season titles in the past three. Ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 for 61 consecutive weeks. Three first-round NBA draft picks.

If the renaissance under Donovan isn't convincing enough, see Exhibit B: Section 202 at Friday's late-night opening-round game against Sam Houston State.

Up here on the second level of the St. Pete Times Forum, surrounded by passive alumni and the usual riff-raff of trendy, bandwagon Gators, the Rowdy Reptiles have assembled en masse. In the tiny student section, high above the court, they try their best to recreate the "House of Horrors" feeling of the Stephen C. O'Connell Center.

The taunts. The swearing. The screaming. It's all here, in glorious blue and orange.

What Donovan brought to Gainesville in 1996 these students helped bring to critical mass. He recruits the players, coaches them and brings them together to create perennial tournament teams. The fans show up for games, at home and on the road, ready to bust eardrums and destroy egos.

"I think people's first reaction is that we're more of a football school," said Reptile Jon Powell, 22, an environmental science major from Parkland. "But I think in the last few years, especially with us getting to the finals in (2000), it really established us as a basketball powerhouse to be reckoned with."

The fans are to be reckoned with as well. Dubbed the "scariest" home court in the nation by ESPN The Magazine, these fans have done to the O Dome what Donovan has done to the Gators.

The relationship is symbiotic. When the fans camp in front of the O'Connell Center for days to be the first in line, Donovan shows up at "Billyburg" with pizza at night and breakfast in the morning. When he appears on court, they give him a rousing ovation. Throughout the game, they give the team a high-decibel jolt.

Sophomore center David Lee likes what he sees.

"This year's game against Kentucky, I've never seen anything like it," he said. "I drove out there before the game, and I saw thousands of people waiting out front for five days beforehand.

"It's just an indication of where our program is headed."

The Rowdy Reptiles helped make that March 8 loss to Kentucky a game like no other in Gainesville.

"The Florida-Kentucky game, the atmosphere of the entire game was just crazy," said three-year Reptile vet Dave Friedman, a 22-year-old public relations major from Brandon. "They were yelling and screaming the entire time. It's definitely a basketball school."

But football is Gainesville's first love, and the coach and his players accept that.

But every November those feelings for basketball start to creep up again.

By March, it's turned into a lusty affair.

"Florida will always be a football school," senior point guard Justin Hamilton said. "It just has that tradition, and it doesn't really matter to me.

"I think with success you bring fans, and our fans are doing a great job of creating an atmosphere down in Gainesville."

Yes, football rules. But in its own way, fans say, basketball can be better.

"I'm a football fan first," Powell said. "But there's something about the intimate atmosphere you feel (in the O Dome), you feel like you can influence the outcome."

Joanne Garton, 21, an environmental engineering major from Milton, said the Rowdy Reptiles aren't done yet. They are chasing the gold standard of college hoops fandom.

"We're not there yet as far as the Cameron Crazies go," she said. "But I think we will get there."

Can a Southeastern football school be a basketball school as well? Leave it to the smooth Donovan to answer that one.

"I've never really been somebody who's into saying that basketball has to be the most important thing at the school, and it's never going to be," he said. "Football is something that grabs everybody's attention in the Southeast, and that's the way it is.

"But because of loyal fans, alumni, boosters and students we've been able to create a very, very good basketball situation."

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