TAMPA — University of Florida fans had become so spoiled with success, so used to watching their team compete in late season bowl games and tournaments that mattered, that they almost didn't know what to do with themselves when the Gators hit a drought.
"I found other ways to watch games," said UF alumnus Brian Pittman. "Started gambling. Made up reasons to get out of the house and go to the sports bar. Had to become creative with excuses for my wife to buy me some 'me' time during the week.
"Yeah it's been tough."
But on Saturday, it felt like the good old days again. The Florida Gators men's basketball team defeated the UCLA Bruins 73-65 to advance in the NCAA tournament, after winning their first tournament game since 2007 on Thursday.
"It's good to win," said 30-year basketball and football season ticket holder Jim Gershow.
Fans, who last year at this time had gone for hikes, hightailed it to the beach or — maybe — studied for classes, once again donned blue and orange striped shorts, "Rowdy Reptile" T-shirts and Gatorhead hats to cheer their team back to the mountaintop. Thousands came to the St. Pete Times Forum to watch their Gators follow the same path that had won them national championships in the NCAA Tournament in 2006 and 2007.
And Pittman, 35, was back in his UF jersey and visor, partying at Channelside Bay Plaza — with his wife's blessings.
"Gator basketball is back," the Riverview man said.
The resurgence was especially sweet, happening only two hours from the campus in Gainesville. UF, as well as seven other teams, played second- and third-round games at the St. Pete Times Forum this week, bringing about 18,000 college basketball fans to Tampa from as far away as California and Michigan.
The past year hasn't been easy on Gator fans. While the basketball team had hard times, the football team was a dominant force until the 2010 season. After two SEC and two national championships during the past five years, the Gators saw their top dog status eclipsed by rivals Alabama and Auburn over the last two seasons. The school that had been home to Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow was forced to watch Auburn quarterback Cam Newton hoist the trophy this year, knowing Newton had once been a Gator.
Then, after an already disappointing season, Urban Meyer, the Gators' successful football coach, retired in December.
Before the UCLA game, tailgating friends and UF alumni Andy Oliver and Heath Petersen reflected on the last couple of years while they enjoyed pregame festivities at Channelside Bay Plaza.
"Alabama crushed us," said Petersen, 32, from Bartow. "We were at the South Carolina game, and it turned our stomach, too, especially to get beat by (Steve) Spurrier, a former coach of the Gators."
But Oliver put things in perspective.
"If you can take a step back, it doesn't have to be all about winning," Oliver, 31, of Lakeland said. "It's about being with your friends at the games. Now, if we don't win for a long time …"
Other fans felt the same.
"Just like everything, whatever goes down, goes up," said Ray Serrano, 66, a 1967 UF alum who lives in Gainesville.
"Things aren't as bad as it seems," said Keith Alwood, 50, of Jacksonville. "But you get used those national championships. They are sweet."
Inside the forum, fans scissored their arms together in Gator chomps, told the Gators to "get up and go!" and shouted "blue!" and "orange!" to drown out UCLA fans. Some fans after the game were already predicting Florida would make it to the Final Four.
"Things are looking up now," UF junior Mike Colosi, 20, said underneath an orange and blue wig.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or email@example.com.