Retaking The Swamp


Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen directs the band after the Volunteers' 24-10 win over Florida on Sept. 20, 2003. The Vols have won two straight at Florida Field.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, September 13, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 13, 2005 at 12:00 a.m.
While the rest of the Florida Gators made the sad and silent trek to their locker room after the 2003 loss to Tennessee, linebacker Todd McCullough hung back in the tunnel, peering out at Florida Field. He will never forget the scene being played out - and the powerful emotions it evoked.
He watched UT quarterback Casey Clausen standing on a ladder, directing the Tennessee band playing "Rocky Top."
"Tears were almost rolling down my cheeks," McCullough said. "I hated it so bad. It ate me up. It wrenched me. It was like a giant knot in my stomach watching that. I won't ever forget it."
When McCullough first arrived on the UF campus in the summer of 2001, these kind of things never happened in The Swamp, where only Gators got out alive. Opposing teams rarely, almost never, had cause to celebrate after going 60 minutes with the Gators in their house.
But over the past four seasons, it has been an all too common occurrence.
In three seasons under Ron Zook, the Gators were 13-6 in The Swamp. That's one more loss than Steve Spurrier had at Florida in 12 seasons. Under Spurrier, Florida was 68-5 at Florida Field, giving the Gators one of the greatest home field advantages in college football.
That advantage no longer exists. Perhaps the one opponent that did more than any other to vanquish the mystique is Tennessee.
It all started at the end of the 2001 season, when the Vols, in one of the biggest games in Swamp history, upset the Gators 34-32, costing Florida a chance to play for the SEC title and possibly the national championship. As it would turn out, it was Spurrier's final game at Florida Field.
Zook followed Spurrier and The Swamp was quickly drained of its magic. One of the losses, of course, was a frustrating 24-10 defeat in 2003 to the Vols, who have now won two in a row in Gainesville. Clausen directed the UT band after both those games.
Under Urban Meyer and a new coaching staff, the Gators have made reclaiming The Swamp a priority. It's something the coaches and players have been talking about since last January. Now, Florida has a chance to do something about it with No. 5 Tennessee coming to town Saturday night.
The Gators can take back The Swamp with a victory.
"If we're going to take it back, it's got to start Saturday," Florida center Mike Degory said. "We've had this date marked since January. We understand the importance of this game."
Degory, McCullough and the other seniors will be pushing the take-back-The-Swamp theme all week.
"To have a loss in your home stadium in front of your family and your friends, it hurts," McCullough said. "Without wins in The Swamp, it's all just talk (about taking it back). We've got to win. This class is about results, not talking."
The players on this year's UF team weren't around when The Swamp was The Swamp - when the Gators knew they were going to win the big games and where opponents came in nervous and resigned.
Meyer tried to show his players how special Florida Field is by not allowing the Gators to practice or scrimmage on the field in the preseason. Opening night against Wyoming two weeks ago was UF's first full-scale activity in The Swamp since the spring game.
"We made a big deal about that's our stadium," Meyer said. "We didn't practice there in training camp. That's a sacred place. We've discussed that at great length. Not just for the Tennessee, but for Louisiana Tech and Wyoming. That will come up several times this week."
Tennessee is one of many schools that once seemed intimidated by The Swamp. Peyton Manning never won there and five good UT teams (1991-93-95-97-99) fell victim to the mystique in the 1990s.
But the Vols probably don't even remember those futile times. All they know is they've won their last two games at Florida Field.
The Gators think the timing - and opponent - is right to recapture what once belonged to them.
"We're going to turn it around. That's my word," senior defensive end Jeremy Mincey said. "I don't care what I have to do to make a huge play. I'm willing to do it. I don't care what I have to do to get my team going. We're getting that feeling back (that we won't lose at home). We're going to bring it back.
"This is our house and nobody is going to take it from us. We're going to make it look like it was in 1996 and those past years (when the Gators didn't lose in The Swamp). We'll get The Swamp back if we win this game."
Robbie Andreu can be reached at 352-374-5022 or andreur@gvillesun.com

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