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Thursday, September 4, 2014
Gator fans redeem themselves in the rain

By Jeff Barlis

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The debate over Florida fans' attendance at the Swamp, which has lagged since 2010, was ready to resume last Saturday.

It was a brutally hot day, the Gators were coming off a 4-8 season and were set to play an FBS bottom-feeder in Idaho -- all factors that have kept fans away recently.

Then came the storm that washed away the game. But the rain didn't dampen the fans' enthusiasm. In fact, it might have had the opposite effect.

Pelted in a downpour for hours, about 35,000 fans stayed and cheered. They got especially loud when the game kicked off at around 10 p.m. ET.

"To me that was really the highlight of the night," said Valdez Showers, who returned the kick 64 yards to the Idaho 14-yard line to a deafening roar. "When we came out of the tunnel again and I saw all the fans there. It really shocked me.

"I know I can speak for the team. That surprised us a lot. We were definitely thankful they were out there supporting us.”

It hasn't always been the case since Will Muschamp replaced Urban Meyer as head coach.

In Muschamp's first season opener in 2011, a 137-game sellout streak at the Swamp ended. Since then, the attendance debate has featured plenty of theories, reasons and excuses.

The student section, in particular, has taken the brunt of the criticism with pockets of empty seats near the top of the stands, even during some of Florida's bigger home games in 2013.

Despite increased enthusiasm for last week's scheduled season opener, and despite UF's attempts to rally its student fan base, the Idaho game was shaping up to be more of the same.

Some student tickets that were unclaimed by the midweek deadline were being re-sold a few hours before kickoff.

One student summed up the typical thought process before a game.

“It depends on who the opponent is and how we’re doing and what the weather is like," said Derek Dusome, a senior studying mechanical engineering. "I think a big part of it is the weather and then also frustration when we’re losing against weaker teams. When it’s 90 degrees, we’re out in the sun, not on the shady side, it can be really hot.”

The shady side, or west side, of the stadium is where alumni and other fans sit. In recent years they've had a clear view of the empty seats on the east, or student, side.

“It makes me sad, because I’m a true fan," said Bill Warrington, a 20-year season-ticket holder who graduated from UF in 2006 with a PhD in nursing science and physiology. "I like to stay for the entire game, and I like to go in early to see the pageantry."

Animosity between alumni and students has become more common in recent years at Florida. But as Saturday's storm rolled in, it also brought something very different for the rain-soaked fans who remained -- unity.

"That was pretty surprising," junior left tackle D.J. Humphries said on Tuesday. "That got me pretty excited, when we saw the fans still into it. Even throughout the whole time when we were standing in the tunnel during the delays you could see the fans still in the stands dancing to the music in the rain. That had us pretty excited as well.

“They were into it. They had us pretty fired up.”

In the aftermath, Muschamp gushed his appreciation.

"It was absolutely amazing," he said on Monday. "The people that were there -- and there were still a bunch there -- it was loud and it was electric and it was fun."

Imagine what a clear forecast and a few wins might bring.