Gainesville electrified in euphoric celebration

Signs, flags, cheers and fireworks; even dirty clothes make the rounds in the country's newest national championship city.

Published April 4, 2006

GAINESVILLE - The final seconds ticked away, the last UCLA effort fell short and a deafening roar filled the O'Connell Center.

It was official: Florida was king of college basketball.

"Fantastic. It's great," said Tim Lavery of Jacksonville, who was among the thousands of Gator fans who watched the game on a large-screen TV. "They were the dominant team in the tournament. Now everyone down here is going to be happy."

Thousands took the school up on its offer to watch the game. The place was packed, and revelers had plenty to cheer.

They wore orange T-shirts. They screamed, danced and did the Gator chomp.

"It was incredible. It's fun watching a game with 8,000 of your best friends," said UF junior Peter Tebow. And as fans streamed out of the building, whooping and cheering, someone shot off fireworks.

Cars streamed past campus with Gator flags waving. Business signs brandished slogans such as "Bash UCLA" and "How 'bout them Gators, Final Four." Someone climbed atop a University Avenue traffic light, waving a Gator flag proudly for all to see.

Joe Holecko, a graduate student, and Brion Sharpe, a former student, strolled down University Avenue in orange and blue clown wigs.

Their friend, Jared Zimmer, an MBA student, shared his own Gator ritual.

"I haven't washed these clothes since the SEC championship," Zimmer said of his Gator garb. "It's good voodoo. Voodoo and sports go hand in hand."

A few blocks up, the Swamp, a popular sports bar, was packed by early evening.

"People are outrageous, drunk and having a good time," manager McNeil Mercer said. "Some got here at 11 a.m. to find good tables."

Jamie Guley was almost that dedicated. The senior and a group of friends staked out a table near one of the bar's 15 TVs around 2 p.m.

"We've been to almost every game since we were freshman," she said.

How does UF basketball compare with football? Guley's friend, senior Jim Slentz, mused, "I don't think basketball will ever take over."

"Whatever," Guley interjected. "Yes, it will."

The brothers at Alpha Tau Omega also doubted basketball's prospects of usurping football's privileged position. But that doesn't mean they're not basketball fans.

A blue sign obscured the front of their fraternity house, wishing luck in orange and white paint to a fellow brother who's a walk-on om the basketball team.

"The basketball players are some of the nicest guys - they're just like us," Max Simmons, a junior, said. "Football players walk around the campus like they own the place."

To fully experience the revelry, the fraternity brothers had planned to rent a popular bar Monday for $1,200. When the owners found out the Gators had made the Final Four, the brothers upped their price to $3,500.

Still wasn't enough.

"They shot us down," Dunn Williams, a sophomore, said. "It's going to be crazy."

Other fans were setting up for their own activities. Hundreds of patrons cycled through Gator Beverage and Food Store, an unusually high number for a Monday, said owner Mark Barnett.

Barnett said his son, a UF senior, traveled to Indianapolis for the game.

"A couple more Final Four appearances, and (UF) will become one of those schools all the best players consider," he said. "It has a real chance to become a football/basketball school."