Thursday, January 25, 2007

To be a Gator - Part 2

Second in a series on Florida's rivals. Rivals are being covered in order of traditional annual play, with upcoming pieces on Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State.

The Tigers of LSU

Why it is important – Since 1937, Florida and the Tigers of Louisiana State have met 53 times on the gridiron, with Florida enjoying a 28-22-3 lead in the series. Since 1953 the meeting has been an annual affair.

When SEC conference play was reorganized again in 2003 to include only 1 “permanent” opponent from the East or West, LSU was chosen as that opponent for the Gators. At the time, I was a bit saddened to lose our long term annual match-up against Auburn (second in length only to Georgia), but given the choice of traveling to New Orleans or Auburn once every other year, New Orleans wins hands down.

Much of the earlier part of this rivalry belonged to LSU, including a 10-7 victory by LSU at Baton Rouge in 1958, the first year for which LSU claims a MNC. For most of the time this match-up was of little consequence, however, as neither team was particularly good, or in a position to compete for either the SEC or MNC. The 3-3 tie over 8th ranked LSU in 1972 for Doug Dickey’s Gator team probably was the highlight of Florida’s season.

Both teams flirted with better times in the 1980’s, with the Gator’s gaining their first number 1 ranking that decade, and LSU ending the 1987 season with a 10-1-1 record and an overall 5th ranking. Although as a young Gator fan I relished the trips to Baton Rouge and New Orleans during this period, I didn’t think of LSU as a rival on par with, say Georgia, Auburn or FSU. If I thought of them at all, I thought of them as relatively polite folks with funny accents who drank too much at their games.

The 1990’s brought changes. For LSU, at first, the changes were not good. For the first 7 years of the Spurrier era, an unranked LSU team lost to the Gators every time, including the rather lopsided 58-3 beating at Baton Rouge in 1993. I remember saying then – “Death Valley - where the Tigers go to die”.

All of that changed in 1997.

The Florida Gators were defending MNC’s, and ranked number 1 in the nation after blowing out Southern Miss, Central Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas by combined scores of 247-67 (yes, you read that right – the score in the CMU game alone was 82-6). I went to the game as part of a friend’s bachelor party. We rented a bus in New Orleans to take more than twenty of us to Baton Rouge. Beating LSU was going to be a mere formality as, after all, the score the year before was 56-13. LSU coach Gerry DiNardo, winner of 10 games the year before, was in the process of returning LSU to glory, but nothing we thought could stop the Gator juggernaut.

It was a night game, and for the first time, I came to appreciate why “Death Valley” got its name. The place was deafening, and the well fueled crowd was really into the game.

Final Score: LSU 28 – Florida 21.

In my years as a Gator I have seen many fields stormed by opposing fans. I had never before, or since, seen anything like this. After both goal posts went down, the crowd came to our section looking for some “Gator” trophies. We headed for the buses – fast.

Since that time, a much improved LSU team has become yet another stern annual test on the Gator’s schedule.

Why they are good – Tiger Stadium, nicknamed “Death Valley”, is simply the most intimidating place in the entire world of college football, especially at night. As you approach the stadium, there is essentially an empty plain with the looming fa├žade of the 92,000+ seat stadium rising above what are literally miles and miles of tailgating Tiger fans. At full volume, I can say unreservedly that it is the loudest stadium I have ever been in – bar none. It is so loud sometimes it seems as if there is no sound at all – just the sensation of the air vibrating. (On an interesting note, it is the only stadium I know of where the yardage is marked off in 5 yard increments instead of 10). Don’t believe me? Then check these quotes.

In this decade, a combination of good coaching and excellent recruiting has made LSU again a force to be reckoned with, including their own MNC in 2003. There is nothing like having yet another national power on Florida’s annual schedule…

Why we hate them – Hate is probably the wrong word here. Unlike the Tennessee’s and Georgia’s of the world, the animosity between Gator and Tiger fans is not open hatred. At least not yet. In visiting Baton Rouge, LSU fans have a unique tradition of “extending hospitality” to opposing fans. When I was last there (2003), many fans invited me to graciously tailgate with them. However, as I discovered in person in 1997, there has been a great deal of tension building, particularly on their side. The 1997 loss was very painful, as it knocked the Spurrier led Gators from the number one ranking until 2001, as well as keeping us from the SEC Championship that year. More recently, the humiliating back-to-back Zook losses to LSU in the Swamp in 2002 and 2004, and Meyer’s team’s close loss in 2005 at Baton Rouge, have started to really fuel this rivalry from the Gator’s side. For this century, the overall record is 4-3 in the Gator’s favor, a record that speaks to the growing intensity of the rivalry between these schools.

Why they hate us – Once football became consequential at Florida, LSU spent the better part of 20 years as Florida’s doormat, a virtual “gimme” game on par with the Vandy’s and Kentucky’s of the world. From 1981-2000, Florida dominated the series 15-4-1, including such blowouts as 58-3, 56-13 and 41-9. What we Gators may have been unaware of then was the seething fury growing by this proud program against the Gators. I, for instance, have family that are die hard Kentucky Wildcat fans. They absolutely detest the Gators. To us, however, Kentucky is a mere gnat to be swatted during an otherwise tough SEC schedule. As my UK fan sister says, “On day we will dance in your face.”

For LSU, that dance came first in 1997, and has come 3 times since 2000. There is nothing like a team beating you that you otherwise took for granted to get your attention focused and rivalry juices flowing.

For LSU, not only was Florida an unconquerable nemesis for most of the 80’s and 90’s, it has been a season marring game for much of the time since. In 2001, the Tigers ended 10-3 under Saban and as SEC Champions, but lost to Florida. In 2003 they were 13-1 and MNC’s – but lost to Zook’s Florida at Baton Rouge (National Champs in 49 states, we like to say). This year, they ended up 3rd ranked, but their loss to the Gators in Gainesville was, in retrospect, a game for the trip to Glendale against Ohio State.

Summary - At the LSU game this year I saw the first simmering of a real blood rivalry in the making. Gone was some of the indifference, or even congeniality, of the past. Both teams knew that the winner of the game was likely the favorite for the conference title (and that a loss would likely keep them from playing for it). ESPN’s College Game Day covered the match-up for the first time ever, and there was a “big game air” to the day that challenged that of any Florida rival.

Also, based on this hilarious piece, for the first time some point of “personal attack” existed between fans of the two schools (personal attacks have long a centerpiece of games between Florida and Tennessee, Georgia and FSU). Naturally, Florida started the personal attacks, as I saw many UF fans holding up signs saying “LSU fans smell like corn dogs”. The LSU fans didn’t much like it.

Here is betting they have payback on their mind next year in Baton Rouge.

Next in the series: Auburn


Henry Louis Gomez said...

First of all, if a tie is like "kissing your sister" then a 3-3 tie must be a french kiss. Yuck!

Secondly, I remember that 1997 game vividly. I was watching it at Dan Marino's bar in Coconut grove and there were some LSU fans there. I don't know if there were any guys with them but these two chicks were well lubricated. Watching that game slip away planted a seed of hatred for the Tigers in my heart.

Anonymous said...

If tieing LSU 3-3 was like French kissing your sister, then the 31-31 tie at FSU (1994) was like French kissing my mom and dad in weird, twisted, and incestuous three-way.

I came to be a Gator late in life (late season 1994). And, although the Nebraska loss in Tempe was my first loss, it didn't hurt near as much as my second loss in 1997 to LSU. I hated that one...

Although I wasn't at the LSU game in 97, I hosted a party at my apt in Gainesville. When the game was over, alot of guests who I thought were Gators fans, didn't seem to be bothered too much by it. I promptly kicked them out.

To this day, I am convinced that a dog played a key role in that loss. My buddy, you see, brought his overweight Beagle, named Gus, to the house for the game party.

About mid way through the 3rd quarter I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, Gus watching the TV...almost as if he was willing the Tigers to victory. In a drunken rant, I banished Gus out onto the porch, but that fat bastard kept peeking in thru a crack in the drapes. By the time I noticed his cursed lurking, it was too late to do anything about it. The game was nearly over...

The story, however, does have a happy ending. Gus, the Beagle, died of kidney failure in 2000.

Go Gators!

Floridan said...

My very first visit to Florida Field (pre-Swamp and pre-BHG Stadium) was in 1967 -- LSU beat Florida badly. Every since, I've been weary of the Bengal Tigers; even when they were down.

I think every SEC opponent hates the Gators, whether they are traditional rivals or not. I think it's due to what one FSU fan told me: "The Gators could be 2 - 7 and they come into our stadium and act like they own the place."

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