Simply fantastic

Sentinel Staff Writer

The city erupted in a thunderclap of elation as herds of revelers from all corners of the University of Florida campus spilled on to the streets to herald in the Gators' first national college football title in 10 years.

"One word describes the moment: stoked. We're the national champs," said UF senior David Shecter, 22, as he shimmied in a dance of joy just off University Avenue.

With the 41-14 victory over Ohio State, the Gators and their fans shocked sleepy Gainesville back to life after a monthlong winter break.

It's time to bask in Gators glory.

"Heck yeah! This is awesome!" said Channing Casey, 23, a recent UF graduate from Orlando.

She and her friends -- Eric Mercado, 23, and Cody Tomczyk, 23 -- flew from their chairs near the flat screen TV they snagged at The Swamp, the area's biggest hotspot, at 10:30 a.m.

They followed what Gainesville police expected to be as many as 20,000 people who hit UF's main drag to celebrate the Gators' victory.

The team will arrive in Gainesville today at about 6:30 p.m., but they will not be available to the public until an appearance at halftime of tonight's men's basketball game against Arkansas. There will be a pep rally Saturday at the O'Connell Center. Admission is free, and the gates will open at 10:30 a.m. The celebration will start at noon.

On Monday, police shut down more than seven blocks on the main strip in the middle of the city to give fans breathing room to "yell and scream until they could not yell and scream any more," said spokesman Sgt. Keith Kameg.

Yell they did. The shrieks began minutes before the end, and it seemed like the whole city shouted down the final seconds of the game.

Hoarse, happy and more than a little tipsy, fans sang, chanted and screamed whatever would come out of their mouths.

Coherence no longer mattered.

It's just great to be a Florida Gator.

Ted Ginn Jr.'s 93-yard kickoff return that opened the game threatened to knock the wind out of Gainesville's roaring crowds.

But the school that lives and breathes football quickly resuscitated after the Gators pulled ahead in the first quarter.

"This is awesome. I don't know what to think," said Ricardo Valladares, 20.

For Gainesville, it was over at halftime. Supporters began to trickle into the streets, looking for a party.

But when it finished, the crowd was so thick in front of The Swamp, no one could move.

Crowds amassed on balconies and the brave tried to climb lampposts -- a prank police thwarted by greasing them. Boozy souls who attempted to do that during last spring's NCAA bash made officials a little too nervous. No one was hurt then. And Kameg said he wanted to keep it that way.

By the end of the game, police reported only a few emergency calls for overly intoxicated partiers.

All Lesley Stevens, 22, wanted for her birthday today was a BCS title. Dressed in a party hat and beads, she and her friends brought the party to the O'Connell Center -- with between 10,000 and 12,000 celebrants, one of the biggest bashes in town.

She got her wish.

"I'm going to cry," she said. "I swear this is all I wanted."

Early Monday, students who couldn't find the luck to go to Arizona or the guts to ditch shuffled to the first day of classes in steady rain.

Still, the campus crackled with its own energy. By dinnertime, the rain had died and the party was on.

Coeds hit the bars and barbeques painted with the Gators colors. They sported mascot stickers pasted on cheeks or "We're just better than they are" tank-tops, and carried beads, banners and brew.

Revelers stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the bars: Gator City and Salty Dog, The Swamp.

In Arizona, fans stayed after the game ended to watch the celebration. Many were in disbelief of the final score.

"It's unbelievable," said Jeff Erwin, an 18-year-old UF freshman. "I didn't expect to win this big. My throat is killing me. I don't know what to say."

Many of the players' families stayed long after to watch the interviews on the big screen in the stadium. Offensive lineman Steve Rissler's brother, Doug, said he was expecting the game to be a little closer but felt fantastic with the championship.

"Once we got the big lead, I just wanted the game to be over," Doug Rissler, 29, said.

He already knows how he is going to greet his brother when he sees him.

"I'm just going to tackle him," Doug Rissler said. "We communicate by tackling each other."

Before the game, student Amar Patel and his old UF roommate, Scott Bernstein, went to the game together. Bernstein flew in from Portland, Ore., where he works for Intel. Both had "UF" painted on their faces in orange and blue.

They managed to find one of the biggest tailgate parties, featuring Shelley Meyer, the wife of Gators Coach Urban Meyer. Shelley Meyer had on her lucky orange-and-blue tie-dyed shorts and Gators T-shirt and mingled with the strong Gators contingent.

Patel and Bernstein were standing nearby and spotted her.

"Mrs. Meyer, can we get a picture?" they asked.

She obliged and posed for several photos. She knew a lot of the people at the tailgate, organized by Kristie Campbell, who lives in Jacksonville.

Campbell organizes all of the tailgates for Meyer and the other Gators wives when they go on the road.

Campbell was at the stadium early in the morning setting up everything. She made a big trip to Costco, where she bought sandwiches, chips and dip and plenty of drinks.

"I love doing it," Campbell said. "I bought so much food, I didn't want to run out of anything."

Drew O'Kane, a close friend of receivers coach Billy Gonzales, has been following Meyer since his days at Utah.

He would not have missed this game. It was easy enough for him to get to. He lives in Surprise, Ariz.

But what about all the Ohio State fans surrounding them?

"We're outnumbered, but it doesn't matter because Gators have a lot more teeth than Buckeyes," O'Kane said.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith also was among the Gators crowd, chatting with Shelley Meyer and current Utah quarterback Brian Johnson. Smith became the No. 1 overall pick in the draft thanks in part to Meyer, who helped him flourish when they were both at Utah.

Smith got into town on Friday and spent time with UF quarterbacks Chris Leak and Tim Tebow, even sitting in on one of their meetings.

"I was trying to be more comforting," Smith said. "I just wanted them to know they will be fine all night."

Smith has some experience playing in Arizona. He led Utah to a Fiesta Bowl victory against Pittsburgh in January 2005 in what was the last game for him and Meyer. "It's so weird, I've been having flashbacks," he said.

Smith has stayed close to Meyer and went to visit him in Gainesville in the spring. He was impressed with the fan base while he was there.

"It's fun to be a part of people who are passionate about their school," Smith said. "It's tough to meet a Gator who isn't passionate about their team."

In Orlando, a group of Florida fans belted out the traditional "We Are the Boys" after the third quarter.

"I always thought we would win this, but I never thought we would be up 20 points at halftime," said Jason Johnson, 35, a '94 Florida grad and past president of the Central Florida Gator Club.

One Gator fan used the game as an act of love.

Brandon Crossland, a 2002 grad, had a chance to go to Arizona but opted not to so he could be with his girlfriend.

"I want her to appreciate the fact that this is the most important night in Gator football in the last 10 years," he said.

Erika Hobbs can be reached at Andrea Adelson in Glendale, Ariz., and Sarah Lundy in Orlando contributed to this report.

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