A swarm of peppy students lined up hours before tip-off in spring of 2020 near Gate 3 outside the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
Music bumped and the friends chirped cheerily as they waited to take their courtside seats.
Crowd members hailed from coast to coast with life-stories only destined to intersect for a few years in Gainesville. But one thing united them: Florida men’s basketball.
Florida basketball’s notoriously rambunctious student section, dubbed the Rowdy Reptiles, encapsulates the cherished college sports tradition.
The Rowdy Reptiles, affectionately called the Rowdies, ignite Florida home games’ intense atmosphere.
When the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic cut off the 2020 season, the group’s blood ran cold.
After eight months of online classes, mask mandates and lockdowns, UF announced its plan on November 17 to allow 2,200 spectators at basketball games. The Rowdies returned, albeit without the same voice. Social distancing guidelines limited tickets to groups of two-to-four and spread fans throughout the gym.
As an official student organization, the group extends beyond the O’Connell Center’s student section. It holds annual elections for an executive board, organizes official meetings with members and prints out verbal ammunition for pre-game heckling.
Kathleen Klimek, president of the Rowdy Reptiles, jumped at the chance to join the group her first semester at UF. The Middleton, New Jersey, native grew up without a college sports team to support, so she attended a Rowdies meeting advertised on Facebook.
The atmosphere roped her in immediately.
Klimek, a 21-year-old UF international studies and Spanish senior, became the first female Rowdies president in April 2019.
“When you’re a part of the Rowdy Reptiles, you’re part of something bigger,” Klimek said. “You get to meet great people, and you're making a great impact for your team.”
Movie moments outside Gate 3 and in the student section will forever highlight Klimek’s time at Florida. This year, students couldn’t camp out for an entire day before a big game. In turn, the packed crowd’s tumultuous cheers diminished.
“Going through a year, not getting to do what you've done your previous three years, it's tough,” she said.
But passion fosters perseverance.
The group’s general body meetings transitioned to Zoom, are advertised on Facebook and include what the club calls “dirt” distribution.
Before every home game, a board member scours social media to uncover bizarre details about opposing players. They then create a “dirt sheet” filled with oddly specific information, such as cringe tweets, senior prom dates and other roasts.
The executive board migrated the majority of Rowdy communications to GroupMe, a mobile group messaging app. The GroupMe group creates further opportunities for members to throw around dirt before games and exchange tickets, treasurer Madison Mougalian said.
“It’s been extremely difficult,” Mougalian said. “But we've kind of managed our own ways with what's necessarily allowed to still make the organization fun and engaging.”
As Klimek and Mougalian graduate, elections will be held at the end of the Spring semester.
“We have so many people that are so loyal and love it but it’s hard to completely readjust everything,” she said. “They’re gonna have to basically adjust everything back.”
At surface level, the Rowdy Reptiles are noisy, passionate students who love Florida basketball. To Mougalian, they’re a family.
“It gave me that sense of home and comfort I no longer had because I went to school so far away,” the Kalamazoo, Michigan, native said.
As the most dedicated student fans of Florida athletics, the Rowdies provide a great sense of camaraderie, Owen DeAngelis, a 20-year-old UF applied physiology and kinesiology sophomore said.
The Rowdies typically fill the section opposite of the opponent’s bench well before regular fans venture into the gym. Executive board members arm students with dirt sheets outside with only one instruction: fire away.
“That's when you taunt the opponent,” DeAngelis said. “There's no one else in the gym besides the Rowdies and the other team just trying to warm up.”
The group still distributes dirt sheets, but with kids and adults in neighboring seats, pre-game heckling loses its impact.
“It's not really a student section anymore,” DeAngelis said. “We're not able to feed off the energy of each other.”
DeAngelis fondly recalled Florida’s upset over then-No.4 Auburn in January 2020. Tip-off was scheduled for 1:30 p.m., and DeAngelis plopped himself outside the O’ Dome early in the morning, coffee in hand.
The Rowdies assumed their position across from Auburn’s bench and shouted “Hey, Sweaty Bruce” to the Tiger’s head coach Bruce Pearl. The Gators sported all-black uniforms, and fans received black t-shirts. In a dark demolition, Florida toppled Auburn 69-47, its first AP top-five takedown at home since December 2007.
“I think next year there's gonna be a lot of excitement,” DeAngelis said. “I want it to be tough getting tickets because everybody wants to go to every game.”
The Rowdy Reptiles patiently await the day when they can flood Gate 3 before the rooster’s first crow on game day. Until then, they’ll store up team spirit with fingers crossed for next season.
Contact Rachel Slay at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @racheljslay