Florida fan Jennifer Bradley was excited to get her hands on an alligator. Ohio State alumnus Bill Patberg anxiously awaited an opportunity to get his hands on a ticket.
The day before the BCS National Championship game was marked by a quiet frenzy for Ohio State Buckeyes and Florida Gators fans who have flocked to the Valley. Both teams held their pep rallies Sunday, while boosters enjoyed their last night out before getting their game faces on.
Near downtown Phoenix’s baseball stadium Chase Field, the site of the Buckeye Bash, the streets were awash with 35,000 people dressed in scarlet and gray. Florida’s more intimate rally in downtown Scottsdale turned a large parking lot into a sea of blue and orange.
Chants of “O-H! I-O!” at Chase Field were answered hours later with “Go Gators!” Bands played loudly. Everyone was ready to crown the best team in college football, if the noise was any measure.
The trash-talk was title-caliber, too, especially considering who was doing the talking.
“I’ve said all the nice things to the press about ‘Great team’ and all that crap,” University of Florida President J. Bernard Machen told a roaring crowd. “But tonight, we’re going to leave all that in the hotel room.
“We don’t like Ohio State. We’re going to beat Ohio State, and we’re going to be the national champions in 2007.”
Opening the Florida show was a dance troupe that incorporated into its routine the two-arm Gator chomp. Following were a rundown of the season’s top five plays, an introduction to the coaches’ families and players’ parents, a swaying group singalong to “We are the Boys from Old Florida” and Mr. Two Bits leading cheers.
The school even brought along NaviGATOR, a robot car that the university had entered into a Pentagon-sponsored road race.
Meanwhile, the Buckeye rally at Chase Field drew about 35,000 fans — almost 9,000 more than the average attendance of an Arizona Diamondbacks game last season.
Of course, the baseball team wasn’t on the verge of a second national title in four years, a feat that Ohio State is rushing for.
“I think everyone in our group understands the difficulty of the challenge we have (tonight),” said Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, joined on the dais with the team’s four co-captains. “Thank goodness we have all of you.”
At that praise, the Buckeyes fans exploded with cheers. The crowd was so primed that footage of the team’s hated rival, the Michigan Wolverines, set off a barrage of booing.
Chase Field was chosen for the Buckeye Bash thanks to some longtime Arizona connections of athletic director Gene Smith.
Before Smith came to Columbus, Ohio, in March 2005, he served in a similar capacity at Arizona State University for five years. While heading the Sun Devils’ athletic program, he arranged a women’s basketball game between ASU and Tennessee at the stadium, then known as Bank One Ballpark.
Ohio State officials totaled the cost to rent the stadium at about $82,000.
Patberg, a recent Ohio State graduate who now lives in San Francisco, was among the bash’s attendees. But he arrived late and unprepared; a family emergency didn’t give him time to change into school colors. In fact, his navy blue sweater drew suspicious whispers — other Buckeyes thought he was a Florida fan. He tied the sweater around his waist to end the scrutiny.
Patberg’s day took a turn for the fantastic. Through his fiancee’s network of friends and family, he was offered a ticket that would have gone unused. Would Bill like it?
“I was speechless,” said Patberg, 28. “I thought the only way I’d get one would be to go through a scalper, or by robbing some kid.”
At the Florida rally, speechless was the reaction of one woman who was startled by two men carrying a 6-foot alligator. But Bradley, who waited in the reptile reception line, didn’t turn tail.
“All these years, I’ve never actually touched one before,” said Bradley of Orange Park, Fla. “It’s softer than you’d think.”