College football is as central to identity in the South as sweet tea and filled with as much lore and differences in opinion as the War Between the States. The University of Florida Gators have long been a favorite team and from the 1980’s onward have also become renowned for their legendary players, championship wins, and fans who live and breathe Gator football even in the off-season. When I say I live near Gainesville, people don’t even ask if I’m a Gators fan or not—that’s taken as a given—but instead whether I have season tickets. While the players, the coaches, and the games compose the real heart of Gator football, the tangible aspects of the game are a part of the lore that we can appreciate day in, day out, and also are, beyond icons of the football program and the sites of training and games, essentials parts of the fabric of UF campus life.
Florida Field was built in 1930 as UF’s main football stadium at a cost of $118,000—a steal on a decent suburban ranch house in Gainesville these days, but equal to well over a million and a half in today’s terms. Rudolph Weaver was the architect and was also the founding dean of UF’s School of Architecture as well as a contributor of a number of buildings to the UF campus. Weaver’s architecture, while not the beginning of the collegiate gothic style that makes the old section of the UF campus so beautiful, was really the work that solidified this style as UF’s trademark approach for many decades. Some buildings from the 1980’s and 1990’s evaded the traditional collegiate gothic approach, but more-recent buildings across campus and renovations of extant buildings have attempted to return to this style as much as possible, producing works of architecture that can exist in visual harmony with the oldest buildings on campus. The stadium, under Weaver’s original design, echoed much smaller buildings around it, such as the Florida Gym, the old Infirmary, and Weil Hall—the oldest part of the College of Engineering. Florida Field has, expectedly, undergone many renovations and expansions over the years, yet an impressive degree of effort has been undertaken to make it still fit into its surroundings despite its gigantic size.
With an official seating capacity for football games of 88,548, today’s stadium ranks twelfth in the nation for size of college football stadia. Expansions from 1950 to 2011 have greatly increased the capacity, quality, and functionality of the stadium, and with its 1989 renovations the University elected to rename the stadium “Ben Hill Griffin Stadium” after alumnus Ben Hill Griffin who had made his fortune in the citrus industry and went on to become one of the leading benefactors of the University and its athletics programs. The actual playing surface, however, remains to this day known as “Florida Field.” Why then, do fans and broadcasters so often call the stadium “the swamp”? For that we can thank none other than Coach Steve Spurrier himself, the legendary Florida coach (now with the South Carolina Gamecocks, where he has become the winningest coach at that university in its entire history). Spurrier also played football for UF as a student himself and won the school’s first Heisman Trophy as a senior year quarterback, doing much to put UF football on the map even before he ever was a coach.
Coach Spurrier stated in the early 1990’s, “A swamp is where Gators live. We feel comfortable there, but we hope our opponents feel tentative. A swamp is hot and sticky and can be dangerous. Only Gators get out alive.”
It stuck—probably far more than even Coach Spurrier could have imagined. Maybe most people would expect the “only Gators get out alive” zinger to be the catchphrase to last, but instead the stadium became known as “the Swamp” almost overnight, and the nickname has stuck, now silkscreened on countless T-shirts and painted on one of the interior sides of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium itself.
Inside the Swamp during the day, when no official events are taking place, you’ll find the stadium open and any number of UF students “running the steps,” that is, jogging up and down the steep steps between seats—a workout that becomes all the more brutal in the hot spring and summer months of north-central Florida. The sight of the stadium’s expansive, open, interior is impressive—daunting even. Additions to Rudolph Weaver’s original design have always had three main goals in mind: improvement of playing or (more often) viewing conditions; addition of team spirit through greater use of the famous school colors of orange and blue; and respect of the original architectural and typological ideal of the stadium.
In general, the additions and renovations have been highly successful: as far as outdoor college stadia go, this is a fine and very enjoyable one to visit. The overall interior color is orange, but enough blue and the metallic silver of seating and accents exist to make the cheerful orange less than overwhelming. At night, the orange paint even seems to offer a type of warmth and actually reflects in the aluminum bleachers. The field itself was originally natural but in the 1970’s was replaced with Astroturf. In 1990, however, it was converted back to an all-natural grass playing surface at Coach Spurrier’s request to reduce the possibility of injury to his athletes. Amazingly enough, in a state known in sometimes infamous terms for its sinkholes, Florida Field was actually built in a very shallow sinkhole, placing the playing surface slightly below normal ground level. The walls of the stadium, considering the multitude of renovations, go up at a steep arc and while some have wondered if this feature was to intimidate visiting teams by the sea of orange and blue rising up above them in the form of loyal Gators fans (every home game from 1979 to 2011 has sold out). However, as the stadium sits near both academic buildings and dorms, this design feature was really meant to keep noise from games inside the stadium. Still, during a close game, the combination of the noise of fans and bright, sunny conditions and abundance of orange can certainly make the party atmosphere something at a rare level—even for college ball in the South.
While there is no doubt that football is king at the University of Florida, the Gators have excelled in many sports, especially in men’s basketball and track and field. The Stephen C. O’Connell Center (basketball, volleyball, gymnastics, and swimming and diving competition facility), McKethan Stadium (baseball), and James G. Pressly Stadium (track and field events) are all sited near the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, and in the early evening student athletes going to and from practice and training are a common sight. UF also has a strong tradition of intramural sports, and in this regard we may be seeing some signs of the future: with a growing international and especially Latino/a population, soccer is only growing in leaps and bounds in popularity—especially as an intramural sport. (UF has a women’s soccer team but does not compete in men’s soccer as of 2015.) On weekends, several fields around the UF campus open for intramural sports will be active with multiple soccer matches and the skill goes from those students who may have played a single J.V. season in high school, if that, to some who probably should be on a bona fide college team somewhere.
In all, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and the facilities around it are a powerful physical witness to decades of effort and dedication on the part of UF coaches, academics, and students—plus years of love on the part of some of the most-dedicated college sports fans in the world.