GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The experience has been eye-opening and exactly as expected at other times. Mostly, it has been busy and exciting and demanding and fun and countless more adjectives.
I’m talking about this job of Gators chronicler.
One day you might have a 350-pound offensive lineman dripping sweat onto your notepad; the next day, a petite gymnast speaking softly into your recorder. One day listening to Steve Spurier stories, the next, hearing Todd Golden‘s background for the first time.
Each team and each sport offers a unique culture to walk into.
For more than a decade, the view from here has come from inside one of the country’s most recognizable athletic programs. Before joining the University Athletic Association, the view came primarily from outside of Tampa Bay’s professional teams and two other college programs, Florida State and USF.
Not much from the world of sports surprises these eyes and ears other than those magical, decisive and deflating moments that happen in live-action. They remain the best part of the job, the reason most of us fell in love with these games in the first place.
Of course, in college athletics, an undercurrent of change has bubbled into the mainstream in the past few years to create unfamiliar fascination. The transfer portal is omnipresent. The NIL era is here and headed somewhere, but no one has yet been able to produce a clear road map. The NCAA punts on many vital issues, including compliance with certain high-profile cases.
Did you see the way NCAA Commissioner Mark Emmert avoided handing the championship trophy to University of Kansas City coach Bill Self – he has recent history with NCAA compliance officials – on Monday night?
When I was an outsider, I wouldn’t have given much thought to an event such as Monday night’s Gator Boosters Scholarship Endowment Dinner at the O’Dome, other than perhaps dropping a sentence or two into a notebook in the newspaper or on the website . No news, no coverage. It remains that way for most traditional media outlets.
My view has been altered by my time at the UAA. I had been to one of the scholarship endowment dinners a few years ago, but the event has grown and is now held in the entry of Exactech Arena/O’Connell Center.
Phil Pharr, a former UF football player who has spent his entire professional career at the UAA, is now executive director of the Gator Boosters. Pharr bounced around the room with an extra hop in his step as boosters, UAA staff and Gators student-athletes arrived.
“It’s my favorite event of the year,” he said.
The event’s goal is to provide student-athletes and boosters a chance to interact and learn more about each other. If not for the financial contributions of boosters, many student-athletes would not have the opportunities they have.
Gators first baseman Kendrick Calilao and gymnast Nya Reed spoke at the event, as did Pharr, UF athletic director Scott Stricklin and Jeff Guina senior associate athletic director who oversees the Hawkins Center.
“These boosters have impacted our lives in a way that has set us up for life after sport or potential life in a professional environment,” Calilao said.
While Calilao and Reed shared their stories with the crowd, the other speakers were brief. This was a night for camaraderie shaded by a common bond: Orange & Blue.
Seated at a table with Gators linebacker Ventrell Miller and swimmer Katie Mack, I listened as Miller chatted with boosters Carmen and Carey Jones of Jessup, Ga. The couple drove down for the event and learned about Miller’s recovery from his arm injury, his life as a dog owner, and how he grew up in Lakeland. Once dinner was complete, the student-athletes moved from table to table to meet different boosters.
When Gators baseball players Hunter Barco and Josh Rivera stopped by, Carey Jones asked Barco if his sister lived in Fernandina Beach. Barco said she does. Jones told him of how one day she noticed her Gators license plate and struck up a conversation as she walked her dog. When tennis player Ben Shelton visited, the group asked if his dad, Gators tennis coach Bryan Shelton, could still beat him on the court. Ben said he couldn’t. And when basketball player Jason Jitoboh plopped down, the group gave him an unofficial vision test. I have passed.
I was inspired to move around and meet some boosters I had written about but never met. I stopped by the table where former Gators pitcher Dennis Aust and his wife, Karen, sat. Aust pitched for the Cardinals in the mid-1960s and later struck it rich in business. The pitching lab at Florida Ballpark is named after him.
“This has been a lot of fun,” said Karen Aust. “I wasn’t around during his baseball career, but I love hearing the stories.”
Karen Aust pulled out Dennis’ baseball cards from her purse and showed Golden, recently hired as the UF men’s basketball coach.
“You married a baller,” he said.
“You look too young to be a coach,” she said.
A night of friendship and stories and common ground. A night that as I left the building, I realized Pharr had a point.
The scholarship endowment dinner is one of the year’s best events and is now a personal favorite. Yes, college athletics are far from perfect, but the ambiance on this night hit the spot.