Rowdy Reptiles: Woman takes helm of Gator fan group

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Kathleen Klimek, who is the first woman elected president of the Rowdy Reptiles, outside the Exactech Arena, in Gainesville April 26, 2019. The Rowdy Reptiles are the raucous student fans at the UF basketball games. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

By Micayla Yates / Correspondent

The Rowdy Reptiles are a force to be reckoned with in the world of college basketball. And for the first time since its creation in 2011, the University of Florida student organization will be led by a woman.

Kathleen Klimek, 20, is finishing up her second year at UF as an international studies major. Originally from New Jersey, she chose UF for the SEC football experience.

But when she and some friends saw a meeting for the Rowdy Reptiles advertised during her first semester, they decided to check it out. Klimek said she found it hilarious that the Rowdies dug up dirt on the opposing team’s players, so she and her friends started attending the games.

The so-called “dirt sheets” are distributed to the student section before the opposing team warms up. They include anything the executive board can find out about the players online that can be used to get in their heads.

The Rowdies have taunted opponents about everything from their height to their hair.

They chanted “Bloomin’ Onion” every time South Carolina’s Hassani Gravett was at the free throw line because his hair resembled the Outback Steakhouse appetizer.

At another game, they taunted a particularly thin-legged player, calling him “Chicken Legs.”

Once, a female Rowdy Reptile purposely matched with Ole Miss guard Breein Tyree on the dating app Tinder, printed out their messages and distributed them to the entire student section to read out loud at the game.

Aside from the insults, these dedicated fans stand for the entire game, being as loud as possible when the opposing team has the ball and not letting anyone forget when they make a mistake. Some lucky students get the chance to hold up giant cardboard cutouts of the Gator team’s heads — including one of Coach Mike White.

The Rowdies have also been known to trick a team or two into shooting the ball early, when there is still time on the shot clock, giving the Gators an edge.

“After I went to the first few games, I was just hooked,” said Klimek. “I couldn’t get enough of it.”

Klimek went to every home game she could and even traveled to watch the Gators play an away game at Tennessee. During this trip, she got to meet some of the Rowdy Reptiles’ founding members.

Hearing how much they missed their time as Rowdies left Klimek feeling like she needed to take advantage of every moment as a Rowdy while she still could. But running for president didn’t cross her mind until later, when she learned that the then-president was graduating.

After catching herself becoming more devoted to the team, even traveling to the Bahamas to watch the Battle for Atlantis tournament over Thanksgiving break, Klimek thought, “You know what? Why not?”

She said there is nothing on campus that she loves more than the Rowdies, so if she were to have any leadership position, she wanted it to be this one.

On April 10, the Rowdy Reptiles held their final meeting of the year to elect new executive board members. As a way to thank the Rowdies, Coach Mike White invited them to tour the men’s basketball practice facility and shoot hoops before the meeting, according to assistant athletics director, Alicia Longworth.

They ate free tacos while White walked around the room and thanked each Rowdy for their support.

“They’re always early, they’re always loud, and they continue to have more fun than any other student section in the country,” said Longworth.

But Longworth said the Rowdies are just as valuable off the court as well. She said people often forget that players are just 18- to 22-year-olds trying to navigate life on a college campus.

“I think having that support system and having people that end up becoming their friends is actually a really good thing for the team and the program,” she said.

Klimek said she feels honored by her new leadership role, but also feels a little pressure being the club’s first female president.

“My biggest fear is that I won’t be taken seriously,” she said. “But I know my stats. I know my stuff – sportswise and as a professional.”

More than half of the new executive board are women, according to Klimek, and there is no shortage of passionate female Rowdies.

She said that she believes she was elected for her dedication to and passion for the group, traits which qualified all of the previous presidents — who just happened to be men.

Klimek said that her focus for next season will be on boosting attendance at both games and meetings. She also hopes to create a stronger bond among members.

“It’s really hard to feel like you can make an impact at a school this big — of 50,000 people,” she said. “But when you go to those games, Mike White has said it, the players have said it, and I’ll say it: You make an impact on that team. And it’s the most fun you’ll have in your time here as a Gator, I believe.”