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UF manages a Gator growl

The thousands of Floridians who call themselves "Gators" might have been excused if their annual reunion had been a tad subdued this year. After all, the campus these University of Florida alumni returned to for homecoming weekend was amid a difficult fall.

Five students had been murdered. No arrest had been made.

The football team, around which all Gator life seems to revolve, had been slapped with NCAA sanctions.

There would be no bowl game this year, no league championship. So sad.

But as if driven by a spirit only a Gator can feel, there were no tears in Gainesville this weekend. Alumni noted subtle changes that the bad times had brought to the campus, but the parade, the parties, the banquets, the irreverent political satire and the continual exulting of all things football went on as usual.

"We just came here to have a good time, like always," said Jim Sumoski, a 1982 graduate. "No one seems to be doting on the bad news."

Still, Sumoski and other alumni say they did note changes _ particularly the effect the murders have brought to their school. Students seldom are seen walking alone, he said, a shift from more carefree days. And, Sumoski said, police are everywhere.

Since the August killings, authorities have kept up heavy patrols throughout the city, particularly in the area frequented by students and, this weekend, alumni.

UF officials said that even during a weekend of celebrations, the murders generate an undercurrent of worry that has not left the campus.

"Young people are incredibly resilient," said Art Sandeen, UF's vice president for student affairs. "But this

is still very clearly on everyone's mind. We're missing the one event that will make this all go away _ an arrest."

Police have said they are analyzing hundreds of pieces of evidence and are confident they will solve the killings, but they have been unable to say how soon an arrest might be made.

So this weekend, the students, like the alumni visitors, seemed to turn to Gator tradition to put their worries on a back burner.

To the outsider, it's not always easy to appreciate the activities that were pursued with an almost religious fervor this weekend.

As early as Friday, Alachua County schools had closed. Public offices emptied out, businesses took a break. Thousands of students, alumni and townspeople crowded University Avenue to watch a parade featuring endless variations on Gator themes.

By Friday evening, many of the state's leading politicians _ most of them proud Gators _ gathered for cocktails and speeches. From throughout the city, less august Gators converged at the football stadium for the Gator Growl, a loud, sometimes irreverent celebration of Gatorness.

There were cheers and cheerleader dances and skits that poked fun at school officials and state politicians.

One skit portrayed Gov. Bob Martinez, a non-Gator, as a man suffering from amnesia _ allowing him to forget the, well, sensitive issue of his support for the failed and much despised state tax on services.

"I've got amnesia and you should, too," this Martinez campaign advertisement said. "Forget the past and vote Martinez. And while you're at it, forget the future, too."

The students were no kinder to Martinez's opponent in next month's election. Lawton Chiles is a UF graduate and a former UF professor who took the time to visit the campus this weekend, but he waslampooned for the, well, sensitive issue of his use of an anti-depressant drug during bouts with depression.

A student playing Chiles handed out pills to troubled youths as a campaign jingle boomed through the stadium: "Lawton Chiles _ just the right prescription for Florida's future."

(A later, and tamer law school production portrayed Chiles and Martinez as characters in the old Andy Griffith Show on television. Chiles was a goofy Sheriff Andy Taylor trying to stop Martinez, played by Goober, from scheming to convince schoolchildren to spend milk money on Lotto tickets.)

With 75,000 people at a pep rally screaming "blue" and "orange" _ the school colors _ and lasers, spotlights, fireworks and music booming across the campus, you might have thought the football-playing Gators were about to take on the Third Reich, or at least the Seminoles of Florida State.

But no, the opponent for Saturday's game was the University of Akron _ a team with the firepower of, say, the Kuwaiti army and a nickname that is in noway macho. They are the Zips.

Now there are theories why UF officials wouldn't want a strong opponent for this special weekend.

Two were offered by Homer and Ann Still of St. Petersburg Beach.

Homer, who graduated from UF almost a half-century ago, seemed to think UF wanted to be sure the Gator alumni could watch a football slaughter and leave Florida Field with a nice, warm Go Gators! glow about them.

Ann Still, Homer's wife, thought there might be some merit to that argument, but she pointed out that scheduling a patsy for homecoming weekend would guarantee the school a full house for a game that might not normally draw flies.

Both could be right, of course.

The Gators in pads did trounce the Zips 59-0. And Gators past and present did leave the field all aglow. It was all predictable.

But given the recent fortunes of this school, even a predictable glow was more than welcome.