Ponce a Gator to the core

From left, Danny Ponce and Al Warrington at a UF-Miami party in Miami in September.

Allison Durham/Special to the Sun
Published: Friday, January 2, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 1, 2009 at 8:02 p.m.

Even for someone who regularly makes a four-hour commute, Danny Ponce has faced an exhausting pace of travel in the past month.

A week in early December took the cake. First he flew on the University of Florida plane with football coach Urban Meyer to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game in Atlanta. As a university and athletic association trustee, he gets such privileges.

The day after the game, he headed to Miami for the selection of teams playing in the Orange Bowl and BCS National Championship games. Ponce is president and chairman of the Orange Bowl Committee, host of both games.

He flew the next day to New York City for football-related meetings with network executives and others. Finally, he hitched a ride back to Miami with University of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops for a news conference with Meyer.

"This is crunch time ... this is moving as fast as you can go," Ponce said.

Ponce, 60, is an attorney with deep ties to UF. He earned his undergraduate and law degrees from UF in the early 1970s, counting him among 37 family members who graduated from the university.

A member of the family has been at UF continually from 1962 to the present, he said, although his own children have attended other schools.

"We have a joke in the family ... you can go to college wherever you want to go, but if you go to UF, we'll pay for it," Ponce said.

As the Gators prepare to play for the national title in Miami, he also represents a tie between South Florida and Gainesville. At his wife Nancy's urging, he moved to Gainesville from Miami in 2000. But he still practices law in Miami representing businesses in complex disputes.

"I said, 'What I do for a living does not exist in Gainesville,' " he said.

He telecommutes most of the time, but heads to the office every few weeks. Ever since direct commercial flights from Gainesville to Miami ended, he's had to drive to Jacksonville and catch a plane there.

"Part of coming up here was an attempt - and I failed at that - to slow my life down," he said.

Ponce said he's the first chairman of the Orange Bowl committee from a university playing for the championship there. He assumed the post as part of a scheduled rotation from a vice president's position, so he said the Gators' appearance there is "purely serendipity."

Ponce has been a major financial supporter of the team. A Bull Gator, the designation for donors who make at least $12,000 in annual contributions, he also organized the largest fundraiser in UF's history. The 2006 Gator Gala raised $6.1 million for athletic scholarships.

"Selling the University of Florida in this day and age is not a tough sell," he said.

He's also a big political fundraiser for both Democrats and Republicans. He served as finance chairman for Rod Smith, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2006. He then became a fundraiser for Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.

"I have an aptitude" for raising money, he said. "I think it's knowing people who are in a position to give and making the right ask."

For the Orange Bowl, Ponce organized a project to mark the game's 75th anniversary. A new high school football stadium will be built in Moore Park, site of the original game.

The committee contributed $2.5 million, which the city of Miami matched. Ponce helped raise another $650,000 to finish the project.

For someone so involved in a major bowl game, it's perhaps expected that Ponce opposes the idea of a playoff for college football's top teams. The bowls provide destination events for fans, he said, as well as allowing players to enjoy festivities surrounding the game.

"They never get a chance to enjoy anything," he said. "The only time they enjoy anything is when they come to a bowl game."

Ponce grew up in Miami along with his four sisters. All of them ended up going to UF and all of them married Gators. While there was no rule that they had to do so, he admits he was glad they didn't get hitched to Seminoles.

"It could have been an issue," he said.

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