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October 25, 2012

Gators aware of change in public perception, return of fans and 'believers'

Florida Handling Succ_Inde
AP Photo

Winning changes everything.

For everyone with a stake in the Gators' football program, last year wasn't much fun. Mired in a second straight year of mediocrity on the field, fan interest in the Florida football team expectedly dwindled.

You know what I'm talking about. After four straight losses in October, it was a lot harder to wear that Tebow jersey or Gators T-Shirt to work for casual Friday, right? (Note: I'm a fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars, so you know I get it.)

It's only natural. It happens to every team in every sport. Not even the beloved Boston Red Sox are immune, as evidenced by the paltry crowds at Fenway late in the year. Who wants to watch your favorite team implode, especially when it was on top of the world as recently as the Gators and Red Sox have been.

Well, the players notice that, too.

Defensive tackle Omar Hunter said the change in public perception from a 7-6 season in 2011 to a 7-0 start in 2012 has been noticeable.

"It's pretty funny actually," he said. "Just hearing everybody say, 'Go Gators,' you know, whereas last year it was, 'Man, we suck.' Hearing 'Go Gators' now, it's been a complete 360."

Headed up by strength coach Jeff Dillman, the Gators have rallied around the slogan "Florida Never Breaks," represented by the acronym "FNB." Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd had it written on his tape during Saturday's win against South Carolina. Players wear shirts with the slogan or letters as constant reminders.

"They've been preaching it to us all offseason," Hunter said. "When times were the worst this offseason and beginning of the season when no one believed in us, we kept saying it: Florida Never Breaks, Florida Never Breaks. And I think it's just really stuck with guys."

The doubt didn't subside much after the season-opening win against Bowling Green failed to wow most fans. Even after Florida won two conference games on the road in the season's first three weeks, there was still skepticism. Attendance for the first two home games was spotty, with nearly 6,000 empty seats against Bowling Green and roughly 3,000 against Kentucky.

"Coming into the season, we really didn't have many fans like what we're used to," center Jonotthan Harrison said. "We weren't really worried about it. We're playing for each other. We're playing for the players in the locker room, the coaches, the training staff."

But now, after two wins against top-10 opponents, the Gators are ranked No. 2 in the Bowl Championship Series standings and suddenly people care again. Funny how that works.

Before the home game against South Carolina, a sellout, fullback Hunter Joyer said there was a different atmosphere around the school.

"You walk through the campus and there's people telling you good job and keep it up, saying they're really excited for this weekend, so it's a pretty good vibe," he said, adding that the BCS rankings and wins have brought attention from friends "and a couple of old teachers" who he doesn't usually hear from.

Joyer was then asked if it was like that last year, if the Gators had people approach them during game weeks.

"For like the Alabama game, we did," he said.

That game, a devastating blowout loss, set the stage for the winless October and the downturn in fan interest. The stands were nearly empty well before the game ended. They were full three weeks ago when Florida beat LSU, and the bandwagon filled up quickly after the Gators won.

Harrison knew what was coming. After the 14-6 win over the Tigers, he was asked what it meant to play on such a big stage after the nature of the last two seasons. Nothing, he said.

"We clear out all that clutter, especially since in the beginning of the season, our first Gator Walk especially, we had no fans out there," he said. "You know what I mean? Nobody was behind us. Nobody was supporting us, and that's just our motivation.

"The fact that this is a national audience or a full stadium or whatever it is, you know, we just block that out of our mind. We just keep it ourself that, you know, this isn't going to faze us. No matter how many people are watching, no matter how full the stadium is, we're playing for each other. We're playing for the coaches. We're playing for the players to the left and right of us. As long as we do that we will succeed."

Again, that's where "FNB" comes back into play. Quarterback Jeff Driskel called it a "unity-type thing," and it's become clear that the Gators are playing with the right mindset.

"Honestly, we really don’t care how people think we do," defensive end Dominique Easley said. "We take every game that we lost, every game that we lost, that we weren’t close, we take all of that personally. All of that is personal. Because that’s each other. We let down each other. So it’s more than a football game."

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