More than 7,000 people packed into the O’Connell Center as Gator chomps rippled through the crowd followed by the classic “It’s great to be a Florida Gator” chant. These were both demonstrations of what homecoming week is all about: tradition.
This was UF’s 98th ‘welcome home’ event, and after a gap year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gators young and old were excited to unite in school spirit and Gators pride. Hordes of people showed up to UF’s first Gator Growl in two years.
Gator Growl is a long-standing tradition rooted in the celebration of UF’s past and present students and their unwavering support for the orange and blue. Each year, musical and comedic entertainers take the stage to bring the Gator Nation back together for the country’s largest student-run pep rally.
“Since I’ve graduated, I’ve only missed one Gator Growl,” said Jay Sandhouse, a 1980 UF alumnus. “What else would you be doing?”
Last year’s homecoming events were either entirely virtual or modified, and Gator Growl’s usual lineup of big-name artists was canceled.
Sandhouse looked forward to attending the first Gator Growl in the O’Connell Center. In past years, the event took place outside at Flavet Field.
“It may motivate more people to go because it’ll be more comfortable not sitting on the grass,” Sandhouse said. “I think there’ll be a better perspective in terms of seeing the entertainment.”
This year’s host was WWE star and former Florida football player Titus O’Neil. He led the crowd of students and alumni in countless cheers — getting the audience ready for the comedic and music talents to come — and prepared the crowd for an eventual Gators win against Vanderbilt Oct. 9.
Daphnique Springs, a Florida native who’s toured with Katt Williams and Cedric the Entertainer, took the stage after O’Neil’s introduction. The audience welcomed the comedian’s jokes with warm laughter.
Gunna and Neon Trees were the music headliners for the event. Florida Blue Key and Student Government Productions did not disclose how much each artist was paid to perform. SG also did not provide how much of the SG budget was spent on the production.
As each artist took the stage, the crowd went wild, and attendees with floor seating rushed to the front of the stage.
During both of their sets, Gunna and Tyler Glenn, Neon Trees' lead singer, went into the crowd at the front of the stage amplifying the already electric energy of the night.
Neon Trees ended its set with their hit song “Everybody Talks,” and the crowd screamed the lyrics back to the band so loudly they stopped playing and let the audience take over.
This was UF’s second concert event of the semester, following BROCKHAMPTON and Deb Never’s appearance organized by SGP Aug. 23, the first day of school.
Homecoming and Gator Growl collaborated with SGP to create a diverse lineup of genres and acts for the event, Brady Alexander, Gator Growl executive producer, wrote in an email.
The goal of inviting Gunna and Neon Trees to perform was to attract different audience demographics, Madeline Wells, the producer of public relations for Homecoming and Gator Growl wrote in an email.
As of the day before the event, over 7,000 tickets were sold out of 7,300 available, Alexander wrote.
Students were excited to add a piece of their college experience back into their lives.
Olivia Burgess, a 21-year-old UF graphic design junior, first attended Gator Growl her freshman year, which she said was exciting.
“It was really disappointing that we didn’t get to have one last year,” Burgess said. “I think it’s really cool that they brought in two headliners. I think they’re trying to make up for last year and make it really special for us.”
Another major component of homecoming week is the annual homecoming parade. The parade was canceled altogether last year, and people were encouraged to “parade from home” by decorating their properties for the occasion.
But on Oct. 8, traffic stopped, streets were closed, schools were out, and people lined the sidewalks to watch the hour-long parade honoring the Gator Nation once again.
Fire trucks, ambulances and police motorcycles lead the way with dozens of floats, cars and people following.
The event was full of dance performances, marching bands, public figure appearances and more. Each participant was equipped with a smile and wave ready for the parade spectators.
The parade set the bar for the energy sustained throughout the day and into the night at Gator Growl.
Allessandra Inzinna contributed to this report.
Contact Elena Barrera at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @elenabarreraaa.
Elena is a second-year journalism major with a minor in health sciences. She is currently the University Administration reporter for The Alligator. When she is not writing, Elena loves to work out, go to the beach and spend time with her friends and family.