Before becoming an O’Connell Center staple with thousands of Rowdy Reptiles cheering his name, Ron “Moose” Davis was just a teacher on his way home from swim practice.
His tenure as the Speedo-waving, moose-hat-wearing Florida basketball fixture began in 1988. At age 46, Davis was training for the FINA World Masters Championships. He swam laps in the O’Connell Center’s outdoor pool nearly every night.
Davis struggles to pinpoint the game when it all began, but he believes it was UF’s 83-76 win against Kentucky on Feb. 20, 1988.
Back in ’88, basketball attendance and O’Dome security were not what they are today. After he was done with his laps, Davis stopped in to check out the game, carrying his swim bag into a mostly empty arena. Davis remembers taking his customary spot — first row behind the basket by the home bench, just a seat or two left of center.
When the Wildcats stepped to the line to attempt a foul shot, Davis glanced to his bag. In what he says was “just a spur of the moment thing,” he reached in, grabbed the green, still-wet Speedo and began waving it around.
“The guy looked at it and was like, ‘What in the world?’” Davis recalls.
Kentucky missed its next four foul shots.
“I said, ‘If it works, you’ve got to do it.’”
The tradition was born.
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Nearly 24 years later, everything about Davis and his shtick has evolved. The crowds have ballooned, a following has grown and the Speedo has changed.
When opposing free-throw shooters step to the line, students yell, “Look at the Moose!” and wave cardboard cutouts of Bullwinkle. In the row behind Davis, a season-ticket holder with a New York accent shouts “Look at the Moose panties!” although Davis would point out that panties and a Speedo are very different things. He’d never want to trumpet something so racy at an event with so many children.
“You want to try this on?” he shouts at the unsuspecting shooter. Usually, they ignore him. The good ones always do. But every once in a while, a younger player will give him a wink or a smile. Concentration broken. Mission accomplished.
Davis earned his undergraduate degree in physical education at UF in 1963, back when the Gators played at the Florida Gymnasium. He finished a master’s degree in 1964. He ultimately decided not to pursue a doctorate, but if he did he says he would have written his thesis on sports psychology.
For all the spontaneity in its creation, the moose routine is scientific.
Davis wears the same thing to every home game — jeans and a white Gators button down. In a sea of orange and blue, the contrast of the white is meant to attract attention.
When the O’Connell Center added new seats last season, Davis was stuck on the opposite side. He quickly asked to be switched back. He wasn’t comfortable on the other side. The Moose will work best if he can get to the opponent early, Davis thought.
If Davis can coax the first miss, the real mind games begin.
“You held it a little too tight, you’ve got to get it a little looser,” Davis shouts. “Your elbows were out that time.”
Maybe the motion was flawed, maybe it wasn’t. Either way, the seeds of doubt are planted.
“If you can break up that routine a little bit,” Davis says, “they’ve got a chance.”
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Although Davis has met Florida coach Billy Donovan and even had him sign a basketball, the two have never discussed Davis’ role as “Moose.”
“Billy’s got enough to worry about,” Davis said.
Instead, those conversations are reserved for Billy’s dad, William, who always gets a rise out of Davis’ antics.
For many years, William knew Davis only as the guy “with the Moose head and stuff.” Then, about five years ago, William began coaching basketball at Queen of Peace, a K-8 school in Gainesville where Davis is the volunteer athletic director. At the next Florida game, all of the pieces fell into place.
“When I realized it was Ron, I started to get a kick out of it,” William said. “I’m telling you, he’s hot stuff.”
Gainesville High tennis coach Paul Spradling has season tickets for seats 3 and 4 to the left of the basket — the two directly next to Davis’ post. Davis and his wife of 45 years, Alicia, are actually ticketed for Row 10, but Spradling always lets Davis slide down for the first half. Seats 1 and 2 behind the basket rarely ever sell. Seeing around the hoop structure is nearly impossible. No one ever fusses about Davis snagging those seats and doing his routine.
“It’s like ambiance or something,” Spradling said. “It’s part of the atmosphere. We’ve got this crazy joker with a moose hat on.”
During free throws, that is. In normal game action, Davis stays mostly silent. He’s honed in.
“He’s like a mortician,” Spradling said. “Quiet as a church mouse. When it’s time for him to stand up, he’s right up there doing it.”
When the Moose stirs, the student section takes notice. Davis says fans — usually girls — still approach him before, during and after most games to have their picture taken next to him. At one game in the early 2000s, Davis was approached by the mother of Gators great David Lee.
“The guys really love what you do out there,” she told him.
That moment was as close as he ever came to hearing from a coach or player, regardless of the connection to coach Donovan’s father and wife, Christine, who keeps score for the volleyball teams at Queen of Peace.
But Davis doesn’t need recognition — he does the Moose routine for fun. If anything, he would like for his wife to be able to meet Billy Donovan’s daughter, Hasbrouck, so the two could discuss horses.
Davis and his wife breed, raise and sell horses from their farm in Newberry. They own nine, with another expected to be born in the near future. They also have one in Kentucky that Alicia, who stewards competitions and has been showing horses since she was 12, will be riding in competition this week.
Hasbrouck is attending Auburn on an equestrian scholarship.
“She’s a horse person, and my wife is a horse person,” Davis said. “Getting those two together would be interesting.”
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Before the Moose was unleashed on the Southeastern Conference, an airport in Alaska had the first view.
Davis and his wife were there on vacation sometime in the mid-90s, and Davis wanted to pick up a gift for his son, Christopher.
The plush moose hat was perfect. The small central dome was colored the deep brown of moose fur. Small, tan, pillowy antlers stuck out from the sides. The hat was hardly bulky — Davis neatly tucks it away between foul shots — but it was still too large to be packed in his stuffed airplane luggage. So Davis did the only logical thing: He wore it around the airport.
“I see people turning their heads looking like, ‘What in the world?’” Davis said. “And I said, ‘You know what? This might work at the basketball game.’”
The Speedo changed through the years — the current model is too small for him to ever wear, just something used he bought — but the hat has remained constant.
While consistent with the profile of a superfan, Davis sheepishly admits his attendance record is far from spotless. Just last year he missed a game to go snowmobiling with his family in West Yellowstone.
He also misses most of the road games, instead just pacing his living room as he watches on TV.
“If it’s a close game, I walk more,” Davis said.
No need for any silly superstitions or traditions. “I can’t affect the game,” Davis said.
His only prop is a Velcro referee doll with a plastic yellow whistle and removable head and limbs. Alicia bought it for him, hoping to give him a healthy way to let off his frustrations. If something doesn’t go his way, Davis has been known to send the head careening across the room.
“It doesn’t hurt the TV,” Davis said.
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During his 28 years as a high school swim coach, Davis worked with many different programs around Florida. His team at Gainesville High was one of the first to test an invention called Gatorade, and he got the Gainesville East Side program off the ground with a squad of just four boys and one girl.
He ultimately coached about eight All-Americans.
After more than 36 years teaching physical education at public schools, Davis grew fed up with the class sizes, retired and started at Queen of Peace. His hours are flexible, he runs things his way, and he doesn’t have to go to any meetings he doesn’t want to. From a cluttered office barely more than 8 feet by 8 feet at the corner of the gym, Davis handles scheduling and makes sure all of the little details are taken care of — every event has a trash can and somebody to handle concessions.
He still does Masters swimming, although the intensity has dropped from 1988. That year he traveled to Brisbane, Australia, for the championships, medaling as a first-timer at water polo and taking on a grueling swim schedule that culminated in a 13th-place finish in the 200-meter breast stroke, his best event.
His swims today are more casual and infrequent, but even at age 71 he doesn’t intend to stop anytime soon. “I want to swim in that 100-plus age group,” he said.
In the meantime, he’s still around Queen of Peace, keeping the athletics in order. But only in the afternoon — in the morning he and his wife feed the horses and clean out their stalls.
And, of course, he’s still going to basketball games, which he’s attended almost religiously since the O’Connell Center opened in 1980. Always behind the basket, always with the Speedo and moose hat.
“The students expect it, so I almost have to be there,” Davis said. “If I get one foul shot missed, it may not be because of the moose, but they think it is. And I think it is.”
Contact Greg Luca at [email protected].