In his 52 years as a student, assistant athletics director and, finally, athletics historian at the University of Florida, Norm Carlson has witnessed nearly every concrete and brick fueled evolution in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
But in all his time at UF, it was one conversation with former Florida football coach Steve Spurrier, that allowed Carlson to leave his own mark on the building in which he has spent most of his adult life.
“Spurrier,” Carlson said with a laugh. “When he came here [in 1991], he said, ‘We gotta have a nickname. …So we start batting stuff around and we got into the area of a swamp. And I said, ‘What about The Swamp?’ And he said, ‘That’s it. The Swamp, where only Gators get out alive. That’s a great line, Norm!”
The catchy moniker Carlson first suggested immediately stuck with Florida’s fan base, leaving both he and Spurrier regretting they didn’t copyright it.
“Both of us would be retired and living in Bermuda right now,” Carlson said.
Long before his actual retirement in 2002, though, Carlson can recall sitting on the east side of the stadium during one of his first Gators games — a 0-0 tie against third-ranked Georgia Tech in 1953.
In those days, Florida Field was just over 20 years old following its construction in 1930 by UF president John J. Tigert, dedicated the stadium to the state’s fallen soldiers in World War I and later World War II.
“There used to be a big veterans memorial on the stadium wall in the north endzone,” Carlson said. “I still think they have something up there.”
The Gators would also ring a large battleship’s bell taken from the USS Florida following every victory. The bell currently resides in the stadium’s concourse, but with its clapper removed. Why those traditions have faded away, others remained like singing “We Are the Boys of Old Florida,” Carlson couldn’t exactly say. However, he thinks the team’s lack of success — 33 wins, 50 losses and three ties from 1940-1949 — probably played a part.
“We went through some lean years,” Carlson said. “In the aftermath of World War II, the University of Florida was playing with guys that were 4F [unfit for service] to begin with. And we were playing teams that were returning guys who had played a lot of football both in college and the military.”
Florida’s downward spiral finally stopped in 1950, though, when Bob Woodruff took over the program as both head coach and athletic director. Woodruff created and set in motion Gator Boosters — the organization which would help fund a modern stadium.
“He went around the stadium and sold it to Florida people. If you want a top program at the University of Florida, you have to pay for it,” Carlson said. “We have to have money to pay good coaches and staff and the Florida people bought into it.”
Over the next 32 years, Florida Field would add 20,000 more seats bringing its overall capacity to 72,000. An athletic training center, skybox tower and a modern press box were also added.
But the biggest change would come in September 1989, when citrus baron and UF benefactor Ben Hill Griffin Jr., had his name added to Florida Field’s official title.
The newly-christened Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field ushered in a new era of championship-caliber football, as Spurrier was hired as head coach just four months later.
“That was the catalyst to where we are now [88,584-seats],” Carlson said. “He was the hero and the Heisman winner… and helped trigger where our stadium is now.”
Although Carlson doesn’t see any more expansion on the horizon, he still welcomes the aesthetic and technological improvements that are made to the building seemingly each year.
This summer, new coach Will Muschamp made his first impact on the stadium by converting an extra locker room to a players lounge complete with recliners, a 65-inch television and computers.
“The resources that have been given to them, they’ve taken advantage of it and accomplished things,” Carlson said. “It’s spread through the whole program that we are about winning championships.”