Gainesville, Fla. • In the weeks leading up to the University of Utah’s season opener at the University of Florida, the advice I kept getting from Gators fans was to seek out the RV crowd if I wanted to get the full experience of a big game weekend near the Swamp.
There was one caveat: the RV crowd might not really get humming until the late afternoon or evening on Friday, so I’d first have to kill a little time elsewhere in this college town of roughly 140,000.
If you like college football, that’s not hard to do here.
Let’s start at Spurrier’s Gridiron Grille, an 18,600-square-foot, $12-million restaurant that has billed itself as “polished casual” for the one year it has been open. In that one year, it has garnered rave reviews for two reasons. The food is very good, but it might be a better time capsule than a restaurant.
The establishment’s namesake, former Gators Heisman Trophy winner and head coach Steve Spurrier, has quite literally taken six decades worth of memorabilia and sprayed it all over his restaurant. His 1966 Heisman Trophy is prominently displayed on the ground floor. Conference and national championship rings, Coach of the Year citations, the kicking shoe he used to boot a 40-yard field goal to beat Auburn, 30-27, and clinch that ‘66 Heisman, bowl game watches, a personal letter from President Bill Clinton. It’s all there, and much more.
One nice touch is taking the elevator to the second floor, looking to your right, and seeing a hanging glass case with dozens of Spurrier’s trademark visors from years gone by. The rooftop bar inside the restaurant is aptly named “Visors.”
Two things became clear, if they weren’t already, in walking around the building for 20 minutes. Gators football is the thing most synonymous with Gainesville, and Spurrier, who has been known to touch tables at his restaurant quite frequently, essentially owns them both.
The big recent Spurrier-related news is that a popular local brewery, First Magnitude, has partnered with him to create “Head Beer Coach” selections, a play on his nickname, Head Ball Coach. There is 1966 Lager, of course for the Heisman Year, and 52-20 Pale Ale. Florida’s first of three national championships came in 1996 after it defeated unbeaten Florida State in the Sugar Bowl, 52-20.
Those Spurrier-branded beers are only available in three locations. At Spurrier’s, at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, and at the First Magnitude taproom.
First Magnitude is unassuming and easily missable, tucked away downtown, across from a bus depot, in the middle of a maze of side streets. The tap room is, as craft brewery tap rooms sometimes tend to be, frills-free and to the point. Two bartenders, a bar, the draft list, and the taps. Lots of taps, but only two of them need attention.
The 1966 Lager is on the light side, crisp, refreshing. The 52-20 Pale Ale is hoppy, and perfectly so that you’re not overwhelmed by the first sip. Spurrier will get credit because his name is on it, but whoever First Magnitude’s brewmaster is did a fantastic job.
Over the course of an hour in the late afternoon, the place began to fill up. Blue polos with orange Nike checks, gray t-shirts with the iconic Gators logo and, yes, a little bit of Crimson-colored clothing with the Under Armour logo and block ‘U’ as well.
Still, the mission of the day was to get in with the RV people, and by early evening it was time.
One of seven campus-operated facilities that allows RV parking, Lot 52 is a small triangular stretch encompassed by Archer Road, SW 16th Avenue, and Shelley Drive. As the sun was nearly gone from view, at least a dozen RVs were parked there when I arrived.
Gators flags flying, blue captains chairs set up. A clear excitement for another season starting, a clearer reminder that college football here, in this town, in this region, in this conference is akin to religion.
To some of these folks, the fact the No. 7 team is in town was a sidebar to the fact that, well, Florida is playing. To others, this is an opportunity for the Gators to make a statement with what would be widely viewed as an upset home win over the Utes, who would have their College Football Playoff hopes significantly dented with a loss.
One man in particular, who asked to be referred to as Gator Lifer, summed things up.
“Who we’re playing doesn’t matter so much as the fact that we only get six of these things every year,” he said. “Six opportunities to make a weekend out of it, six opportunities to go to The Swamp, six opportunities to cheer for the Gators.
“We’re playing Utah tomorrow? OK.”
That advice weeks ago to hit up the RV lots was good. Having to wait all day for it was worth it, because Gator Lifer gave off a vibe that Florida football is what matters, and nothing else.
Let’s play a ball game.