Special to the Journal
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Mike Bianchi was hometown sports columnist of The Gainesville Sun when his phone rang one morning back in spring of 1992.
It was Steve Spurrier.
“Got a story for you, Bianchi,” the Florida football coach said.
Did he ever.
The previous November, the Gators had upset rival Florida State 14-9 in the deafening din at Florida Field. The crowd, Spurrier fawned that sunny fall afternoon, was monumental in helping UF seal the victory with a huge late-game defensive stand. The outcome gave the Gators their first 10-win season, as well as their first defeat of FSU in six years and a perfect 12-0 record at home through Spurrier’s first two seasons.
Florida Field had become the proverbial pit for opponents.
Now, it needed its own identity.
“We’re gonna start calling our home field ‘The Swamp,’ “ Spurrier said. “What do you think?”
Twenty years later, it seems to have caught on. What do you think?
“My first thought when I heard it was, this guy is the sports world’s most unlikely marketing savant,” recalled Bianchi, who took the cue and wrote the column anointing the “murky, mushy, marshy” place where Spurrier starred as a player and was dominating as coach. “We all knew he was a great coach and a great player, but more than anything he was a Gator through and through.”
And in swamps, only Gators get out alive.
“Us Gators are comfortable in there, but we want our opponents to be tentative,” Spurrier said in pumping the name two decades ago. “A swamp is hot and sticky and can be dangerous.”
But advantageous to Gators, of course.
Spurrier had huddled several times that offseason with Norm Carlson, longtime UF communications director and Gators historian, to try and come up with a nickname for the homefield. Together, they kicked a few around.
“Some were really stupid,” Carlson said last week. “I think one was ‘Gator Bog.’ Can you imagine?”
Carlson did some leg work.
He hit the books and found how UF president John J. Tigert, back in 1930, had selected the location for a football stadium, describing the area as a “swampy depression” that was ripe to be developed. The school hired engineers to drain the area, running pipes that funneled water down the hill along North-South Drive and dumped it into what is now known as Graham Pond.
Sixty years later, the “swampy depression” reputation made a rousing comeback when Spurrier returned to coach his alma mater.
“We decided to just call it, ‘The Swamp.’ It was so simple,” Carlson said. “But it was perfect.”
Not everyone agreed.
UF’s marketing department was hesitant at first to try and brand the stadium, but Spurrier was steadfast.
Georgia played “Between the Hedges.” LSU and Clemson had “Death Valley.” Penn State had “Happy Valley.” Ohio State had “The Horseshoe,” Michigan the “Big House.”
And Florida would have “The Swamp.”
The 1992 UF Media Guide was the first to reference the new moniker. A double-trucked photo, spread across pages 2 and 3, featured the alligator head statue that stands in the South End Zone tunnel. The picture was accompanied by the following text:
Entering “The Swamp”
a.k.a Florida Field
On Sept. 12, 1992, the fourth-ranked Gators defeated Kentucky 35-19 to open what would be their third consecutive unbeaten season at home. The winning streak reached a nation’s-best 23 in a row until Charlie Ward and No. 1 Florida State won a 33-21 thriller in the final home game of the ‘93 season.
The Gators went a stunning 68-5 at the “Swamp” under Spurrier (that’s a winning percentage of .931) and are 122-18 at home (.871) in the 20 years since Florida Field took on its new and most unique identity.
Next up: Bowling Green on Sept. 1 to kick off the 2012 season.
Happy 20th anniversary, “Swamp.”
Like so many things he did as a Gator, Spurrier nailed the nickname, too.
“His wife, Jeri, once said he doesn’t know how to operate a microwave oven,” Bianchi said of the former ball coach. “That may be true, but he knows what Gator fans like and what makes them tick.”