Gators are cajun seasoned
Published: Wednesday, December 26, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 25, 2012 at 11:40 p.m.
NEW ORLEANS — They are joined at the hip, but since we're talking about the Big Easy, I guess you could say they are forever sharing beads. Florida athletics and New Orleans don't have a lot in common except they have spent a lot of time together, kind of like ketchup and sauerkraut on a hot dog.
To say Gator fans have had highs and lows in New Orleans would be a Cajun understatement.
You want the best of times? Got it.
You want the worst? Ditto.
And the amazing thing is that they happened two years apart with the team housed in the same hotel both times.
And the opponent, well, maybe that's why it was the best and the worst.
Over the past 20-plus years, Gator athletic director Jeremy Foley has spent enough time in New Orleans to have voting rights. And that's just counting the two major sports: in football and men's basketball. When the Gators face Louisville on Jan. 2, it will be the 16th game since 1991 that a Florida football or basketball team has played in the city.
And during that stretch, there was the best of the best. You can argue for other games, other championships, but, to me, the best moment in Gator history came when the Gators beat Florida State in the 1997 Sugar Bowl to win UF's first national championship.
And the worst? Again, it's open for debate but it's difficult to imagine a worst postseason trip in any sport than what happened after the 1994 season.
Not only did Florida lose to FSU in the 1995 Sugar Bowl, but a bloody fight broke out between teammates two nights before the game. People who were there say they have never seen anything like the fight between defensive lineman Anthony Riggins and linebacker Darren Hambrick.
The two started an argument over a card game on the bus ride from the team hotel to the Superdome where they were to eat dinner on New Year's Eve. It continued to escalate inside and, according to sources who were there, Riggins stuck a butter knife to Hambrick's throat. Hambrick retaliated by breaking a glass and using its stem to carve up Riggins face.
“It was absolutely terrible,” said James Bates, a sophomore linebacker on that Florida team. “I was sitting at the table next to where it happened. It was as bloody as you can imagine and to make matters worse, it's between two teammates.
“It just wasn't the way it's supposed to be.”
Said wide receiver Chris Doering, “I just remember that nobody wanted to eat because they were afraid there might be some blood or glass in their food.”
Two nights later, the Gators had three turnovers and lost “The Fifth Quarter in the French Quarter” to the Seminoles 23-17. By then, Hambrick was home and Riggins was preparing for reconstructive surgery to his face.
The game was almost a sidebar to the fight. But what happened in 1994 had a lot to do with what happened in 1996.
“My senior year, that team was incredibly close, like brothers,” Bates said. “In '94, it just wasn't that way.”
Steve Spurrier coached both Florida teams. In both cases, Florida had won games against Alabama to win the SEC in Atlanta. But the seasons were so different.
“The '94 game, that was just another bowl game,” he said. “In 1996, that meant everything.”
That's another thing about the contrast between the yin and yang of Florida's experiences in New Orleans. In '94, nobody wanted to play FSU. The memory of the Choke at Doak (when Florida blew a 31-3 fourth-quarter lead) was still too fresh. One prominent player even questioned to his teammates whether the Gators should win the SEC Championship Game because it would mean another game against the Seminoles and another trip to the Sugar Bowl.
In '96, everybody wanted another shot at FSU. The Seminoles had ruined the Gators' perfect season and to play them again could mean a chance to reach their ultimate goal — the national title.
That it would be against your biggest rival would make it that much sweeter.
“And we carried the party all the way to Bourbon Street,” Bates said.
That's New Orleans. What better place to celebrate a big win? And there have been plenty for Florida teams (not to mention all of the times Gator fans stay in New Orleans for LSU games).
New Orleans will look familiar to a lot of people connected to UF athletics when they start to arrive Thursday as well as the sportswriters who cover the Gators. I'm not sure I could give directions to Tipitina's, but I know how to get to Bourbon Street.
There has been the good …
*Remember that the 2007 NCAA Tournament run started for the Gators in New Orleans. In fact, the scariest game they played in the second of their national title postseasons was a narrow win over Purdue in the second round.
*And the 1993 Florida football team turned in one of the most memorable bowl performances by a Gator team when it dismantled unbeaten West Virginia 41-7 thanks in part to the interception return of all interception returns by Lawrence Wright.
… there has been the bad …
*The 2000 football team had another chance for a win over a state rival but the Gators were handled by Miami 37-20. This trip was also marred by a fight when players on both teams scuffled on Bourbon Street several days before the game. Florida's Gerard Warren was led off in handcuffs, though not charged. "You've got to get a guy who wasn't a Gator or Hurricane to tell you what happened,” Steve Spurrier said the next day.
*In 2003, with Florida in the midst of a postseason slump under Billy Donovan, the Gators went one-and-done in the SEC Tournament, losing to LSU 65-61. While it wasn't as deflating as the 22-point loss to Michigan State a week later, it was a bad loss.
… and the bizarre.
*The strangest bowl game I've ever covered had to be the Sugar Bowl after the 2009 season. Urban Meyer resigned, then changed his mind the next day, then gave a news conference in New Orleans where he looked like a zombie on Valium. Surely, Florida had no chance against unbeaten Cincinnati with the team in a state of chaos. But this was Tim Tebow's last game and Florida was really good. The Bearcats had no chance. The scene after the game was strange as well with Meyer zoned out and his wife, Shelley, looking at him with a pained expression on her face.
The best two New Year's Eve nights I've ever had have come in New Orleans — in '96 and '09. I've seen things I have never seen anywhere else and not all of them I want to remember.
And as Florida returns again to the land of oysters and speciality drinks and strip clubs and T-shirt shops and history and tragedy and jazz clubs and beignets I know this — memories will be made over the next week — good, bad or bizarre.
Maybe a mix of all three.
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