Growing up in New Jersey, an April afternoon looks quite different than one around Gainesville. The temperature is probably going to peak at 50 degrees, the trees and the flora are bare for the most part, and a trip to watch a Rutgers baseball game leaves you in the company of maybe 100 people.
It’s a part of the country that is largely apathetic towards college sports. People don’t take pride in their university or their state, and having spent my whole life there, it was a failing that felt entirely normal to me.
Moving hundreds of miles away for school is not an easy undertaking. I walked into a campus of over 50,000 people not knowing a single one, with institutions and traditions that were foreign to me. But making the leap of faith and enrolling was due in large part to the breadth of Gator Nation.
Cheering from the heart of the Swamp is a surreal experience, but I was won over by the demonstrations of devotion on a smaller scale. 5,000 fans at a baseball game, often more showing up to watch volleyball and gymnastics, 800 people coming to the women’s soccer matches, even the “Go Gators!” cheers I received at the airport; all of these occurrences were completely new to me and showed how important Gators anything is to this area.
The penchant that Florida athletics has for success is remarkable as well. As part of The Alligator, I’ve been able to familiarize myself with nearly all the sports at the university and every team seems to be nationally ranked and extremely competitive. Having a top-ten football team, a tournament regular in men’s basketball and the best baseball team in the country already puts the program in incredible standing, but it's simultaneous success in lower revenue sports like lacrosse, track and swimming is exceptional.
One aspect of Florida fandom that I am still warming up to is the expectations. Following both Rutgers and Florida during the basketball season, the contrast between the fan bases was fascinating to me. The two teams had comparable seasons, with Rutgers finishing just four places higher in the KenPom rankings.
However, while the Scarlet Knight faithful were singing the praises of their coach, a sizable section of Gator fans were clamoring for Mike White to be fired. This happened in a season where the Gators spent virtually the entire season on track for the NCAA tournament.
Of course, a stronger program should have higher expectations for its teams. But especially in a time where we are all forced to step away from sports, I think it is important to keep some perspective. The success of UF’s program is astounding and is envied by just about the entire country. It is a remarkable institution, and even through the low points I can assure you that the grass isn’t greener on the other side.