By Chris Baldwin
Vincent Williams, a 55-year-old truck driver who lives in Gainesville, stood patiently in line waiting to gain entrance to the Gators’ Indoor Practice Facility for the annual Fan Day event on Sunday.
But he also was excited — in particular because of the team’s new head coach, Dan Mullen.
“It’s a new beginning,” he said. “A new coach is an unknown, but he’s coming to a great organization. We are the Gators, so there’s lots to be expected from him, but I’m sure if he puts his heart into it we’ll have a few more championships in the near future.”
“It’s been a while, so it’s time.”
But while many attend the event to meet their favorite players, Williams said he enjoyed the camaraderie.
“For me it’s the people,” he said. “Saying hello to the guy you are standing next to and talking Gator stuff. The players are wonderful, no doubt, but this is us at our best.”
Thousands of excited Gator football fans stood for more than an hour in line, braving heat and rain, to attend Florida Football Fan Day.
The event offered fans the chance to meet and receive autographs from Coach Mullen and UF football team players, while also providing an opportunity to get a look inside the indoor facility, which was built in 2015.
Interested fans also were able to receive information about season tickets and premium seating.
The line to get into the event wrapped around the O’connell Center nearly reaching Gale Lemerand Drive in front of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium an hour before the event began.
At one point, a summer shower fell down upon those in line forcing some to abandon their post to seek shelter in a nearby parking garage. Those who were more prepared brandished umbrellas and held their spots.
The humidity that followed, however, had many sweating as they waited for the line to start moving.
But even such humid conditions couldn’t dampen the level of excitement for fans such as Chris Courtney, 21, who said he loves getting a chance to interact with players.
“I’m very excited to meet the new freshmen coming in — I’ve been following them quite a bit,” he said. “I’m excited to see how the team looks, and to see what the energy is like with the team because it feels like there’s a new energy around it (the program).”
Shortly before 2 p.m., UF staff opened the gates, and fans — led by Gator mascots Albert and Alberta — began pouring into the indoor facility, greeted by cheerleaders on either side who banged their pom-poms or offered a Gator Chomp.
“Go Gators!” shouted one fan in the crowd to cheers from those around him as country music provided by radio station WRUF-FM played overhead.
Many fans promptly made a beeline for tables featuring their desired players, while a clear majority headed for the table featuring Mullen. The line to receive an autograph from the new coach extended from the back wall to the 50 yard line within the first 10 minutes of the gates opening.
Steve McClain, senior associate athletics director, said that players enjoy the connection with their fans because the action in football, unlike a lot of other sports, seems a bit farther away from the fans and the type of equipment is a bit of a barrier between them and their fans.
“So it’s a great opportunity for our fans and our players to connect in a different way,” he said.
Michelle Colorio, of Gainesville, was one of those excited to meet the new coach and get his autograph.
“I want to give him some good energy,” she said. “He’s back, we wanted him and we hope he does well.”
McClain said that Mullen was just as eager to meet fans as they were to meet him.
“He’s all Gator, and he understands the passion and interest from our fans,” he said. “And today is another day to do that. He’s done it since the day he stepped off the plane when we hired him”
Children could be seen frolicking or tossing footballs around in the middle of the artificial field while friends and family posed for photographs around them.
A children’s area also was available for kids to take photos with the beloved Albert and Alberta before getting their face painted or enjoying other fun activities.
Colorio, whose favorite aspect of Fan Day is that it marks the beginning of the season in her mind, stood in line with her daughter Juliana, 10, who said she’s been to every Fan Day since she was born and looks forward to the event each year.
“I like high-fiving the players because their hands are so big,” she said.
Nearly an hour after the event began, a line of fans continued to trickle into the venue, and those just arriving took to the back of the line, which still extended a ways down the sidewalk of the O’Connell Center.
McClain said an estimated 3,000 people attended Sunday’s event, and that it seemed better attended than in previous years.
“Dan’s really energized the entire Gator nation,” he said. “He’s certainly energized the fans and even the players he coaches and the staff. There’s a new energy in the program, and Dan has done a great job of leading that charge.”