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Gainesville prepares for aftermath of Gators-Sooners BCS game

In preparation for tonight’s BCS game, University of Florida workers Chad McRae, left, and John Black gather garbage cans and benches from around the campus Wednesday in Gainesville. “We’re moving anything that can be picked up by the world’s strongest man,” said Black.

Erica Brough | Gainesville Sun

In preparation for tonight’s BCS game, University of Florida workers Chad McRae, left, and John Black gather garbage cans and benches from around the campus Wednesday in Gainesville. “We’re moving anything that can be picked up by the world’s strongest man,” said Black.

This is what the city of Gainesville knows about throwing a national championship party:

Greasing the traffic light poles will keep climbers away.

Traffic cameras can help keep an eye on more than cars.

There will be trash, some 3 tons of it, when the night finally winds down.

And, despite the best-laid plans, a drunken driver can cast the night in tragedy.

Tonight, the Florida Gators can win their second BCS championship in two years — their fourth national title in three years. (They were tops in basketball in 2006 and 2007, and in football in 2007).

Should that happen, the capital of the Gator Nation is ready. Gainesville has become an expert in throwing raging street parties for national championships, having hosted three in quick succession.

"The most wild thing to watch, and I've been to all of them — University Avenue goes from zero to 25,000 (people) in five minutes," said Lt. Keith Kameg, spokesman for the Gainesville Police Department. "Our night is normal, (then) off the chain in five minutes."

• • •

Students make up almost half of Gainesville's 114,000 residents. Nearly all identify as Gators.

About 10,000 fans are expected to forgo alcohol to watch the game in the O'Connell Center —better known as the O'Dome — where the basketball team plays.

Cheerleaders, Dazzlers and the Fightin' Gator Marching Band will perform as the game is simulcast on four large TVs. In prerecorded videos, football players will ask students to behave responsibly.

The UF administration has asked students to wear orange because it pops when the crowd is broadcast across the country.

The school-sponsored viewing party has become such a tradition that the Student Alumni Association makes a T-shirt that says: "Celebrating chompionships in the O'Dome."

Other students will stand in a snaking line at the Swamp Restaurant to get a table for the game. About 500 people will fill the off-campus mainstay. The fire marshal is likely to stop by, to make sure crowds aren't too big.

General manager Frank Villante said he expects to go through 3,000 chicken wings, 240 burgers and 20 kegs of beer.

"We don't run out of anything," Villante said. "The Gators have given us plenty of experience."

UF senior Matt Roberts, 22, has learned what to expect from being a student at the last three championship games. This year, he and his roommate will tap a keg at their preparty about noon. Their house is about a mile from the epicenter, so it'll be easy to get to University Avenue when the game ends.

At Gator Beverage, a few blocks from the action, 150 kegs are waiting. "We'll have beer stacked to the ceiling. We will be prepared," said Mark Barnett, the liquor store's owner for 20 years. "We just get ready like it's going to be nuts."

What no one is prepared for, at least emotionally, is a loss. In this town, it's blasphemy to even suggest it.

There's no recent precedent for a big loss. But history teaches what will happen if they win.

The city shuts down about seven blocks of University Avenue for foot traffic.

Students light random objects on fire. They climb poles greased with Pam and slip off like characters in a slapstick comedy. A student wearing nothing but a blue thong roller-skates through the crowd.

One year, so many fans climbed into a tree that it snapped. Those with less common sense try to climb the palms, realizing too late that the trunks are razor sharp. As police spokesman Kameg jokes, that proves UF "doesn't get all the brightest kids."

Gainesville officials will oversee the action from an Emergency Operations Center — the same nerve center they use for hurricane response. Inside the Gainesville Police Department, they'll monitor the celebration from a swiveling traffic camera.

•••

If the celebration returns this year, a street sign will hang above the fracas. It reads "Lt. Corey Dahlem Drive." It's a sober reminder of why preparations matter.

Dahlem, who grew up in St. Petersburg, was working foot patrol as the celebration wound down for the second basketball championship in April 2007. A pickup slammed into him. Its driver had a blood-alcohol level three times the level at which the state presumes a driver is impaired.

Dahlem, 45, had 22 years of city service, a wife, a son and a daughter.

This year, the city is taking no chances. If the Gators win, more than half a dozen garbage trucks will block vehicles from entering the streets.

• • •

As the partiers wear themselves out and head for bed, the cleanup crew springs into action.

A hulking trash compactor will already be in place. Street sweepers will scrub University Avenue.

Some students will heed the reminder school officials sent this week: classes are in session Friday starting at 7:25 a.m.

The iconic marquee at Gator Bev will declare the Gators national champions.

Almost as quickly as the craziness started, Gainesville will return to normal. By this time, the hoarse voices, headaches and historymaking are just part of the routine.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Gainesville prepares for aftermath of Gators-Sooners BCS game 01/07/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 9, 2009 9:44am]
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