Hoops, football with FSU and Florida

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Throughout the basketball season, ESPN.com will be spending 24 hours focusing on a person, place, thing or event. Our "Day In The Life" series makes a stop in Gainesville, Fla., for a Friday night hoops game between Florida State and Florida, which was followed Saturday by a football game between -- you guessed it -- Florida State and Florida.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The song rang out with 8:29 left in the game, the students in full throat chanting "It's great to be a Florida Gator.'' Which isn't unusual in the Swamp, the greatest place to be a Gator north of the Everglades.

But on this particular occasion, the Gators were not so great. They were trailing their hated rivals, Florida State, 27-7 in football, and the reaffirming boast was surprising enough that one fan chuckled, "I bet the players are like, 'What the … We're getting killed.'''

Twenty-three seconds later, the Seminoles scored again and, well, "Kumbaya" good sportsmanship only goes so far. Some fans headed to the exits.

Not all of them, not even most of them, and never Lucas Dolengowski. The Florida junior is the current president of the Men's Basketball Rowdies student group, and leaving any game early would be untenable; leaving this game would be unforgivable.

For Dolengowski, this past weekend in Gainesville was a 24-hour post-Thanksgiving feast. On Friday at 7:30 p.m ET, the Gators and the Seminoles tangled in hoops; at noon Saturday they kicked off in football.

There's been a lot said, written and discussed about the high cost and high price of college athletics and the erosion of its purity. All of it is accurate. To ignore the business transactions and pretend it's all about letterman sweaters would be Pollyanna foolish.

But there is still plenty left that is true and good in the game, and when the inner cynic threatens to run roughshod on optimism, it's good to find a student like Dolengowski, his buddies and extended family.

They are a great reminder that games are meaningful because they still do mean something to fans beyond just dollars and cents. And never do they matter more than when two intrastate rivals go head-to-head in a school's flagship sport -- or as it was in Gainesville this weekend, even more deliciously -- sports. The dislike between the two schools, as it is between any rivals, is as treasured as a family heirloom, passed from generation to generation, kids reared in it at Grandpa's knee.

Nearly 20 years ago, I worked at Jacksonville's Florida Times-Union and what I learned then about the Sunshine State still stands true today, even with the rise of Central Florida and the rebirth of Miami.

There are only two choices: Are you a Gator? Or are you a Seminole?

And the answer is never both.

"Anytime we play them it matters,'' Dolengowski said. "In any sport.''

When Billy Donovan first took the Florida gig, the Gators played the Florida State game in Orlando. It made sense for both teams. Neither was terribly good, neither had anything close to a basketball history, so the neutral-court, split house made sense.

And then two national championships happened, followed by a sustained period of excellence in Florida basketball, and there simply was no need to move the game out of Gainesville anymore. So began a more traditional home-and-home.

Eventually Donovan even took it a step further. His basketball program's identity secure at the onetime football campus, he decided to make a Gator-Seminole sandwich, marrying the annual hoops game with the football game.

Though Leonard Hamilton has shaken the cobwebs off the Seminoles and brought Florida State to national basketball relevance, he prefers a separation between church and state. When FSU hosts the Gators, the games are generally played in early December, not on the football game weekend.

"You get the double-whammy on both sides. I love it,'' Donovan said.

He's not alone. By 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon, a hearty line of students gathered outside Gate 3, waiting for the doors to open at 5:30. Most of the folks at the front were members of the Men's Basketball Rowdies, the year-old student organization that Dolengowski is president of and helped form.

With backing from the university, the group has worked to consolidate fan support for the basketball team. They take their mayhem seriously, hosting frequent meetings to go over opponents' lineups and to practice cheers.

In their short time in existence, the group has grown in numbers and fortitude. Last year, they camped out in the middle of a wicked thunderstorm for hours until the university finally allowed them inside.

"No, there weren't any electrical cords involved,'' Sean Millman said. "OK, yes there were.''

Dolengowski is a basketball fan by birth, though not always a Florida fan. The Orlando kid was once a diehard Michigan State fan thanks to his uncle, Paul Erspamer, who grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula with Tom Izzo.

The circled home games this year are Dec. 10 (Kansas) and March 8 (Kentucky). For each, Dolengowski expects to see lines snaking down to the street and beyond.

But this one is big enough simply because it is Florida State, big enough that students left their homes the day after Thanksgiving, though classes don't resume until Monday.

"I kept passing this one car with Florida State flags on it the whole way here,'' said Nicole, another Rowdy in line. "It was awful.''

By the time the doors open, the line has filled up the dividers set up to organize the students.

"My mom is with my relatives now after Thanksgiving and they're all Seminole fans,'' said sophomore Jena Broyles, treasurer for the Rowdies. "She's trying to defend herself.''

The world in Gainesville right now is a little upside down. Florida remains a football school. Even Donovan admits that. But where football season once gave way to the morass of misery known as basketball, hoops has kept step with its big brother for years now.

And this season, basketball will be the welcome salvation from a long fall.

The Gators are headed for their first losing season since 1979. Worse from the UF perspective, with a win over Duke in the ACC championship next weekend, Florida State will be headed to the BCS Championship Game.

But Donovan's crew is ranked 13th in the country and 6-1, with just a loss to Wisconsin despite a laundry list of suspensions and injuries in the early part of the season.

Florida State is markedly better -- two years ago it won the ACC -- but the Seminoles have not beaten Florida since 2008.

"They have a banner the size of our national championship banner just for winning their league,'' said Jake Sillick, the Rowdies' president last year who defines his academic status class of "way too long."

After five-plus hours of waiting, Dolengowski and his posse take advantage of their line position to garner a spot on the front row at midcourt, directly behind the TV crew. They're armed with Fatheads, including one of Bullwinkle in deference to Moose Man, an older fan who sits behind one stanchion wearing a moose hat and waving a green Speedo bathing suit to distract opposing free throw shooters.

"The hardest part is you finally get in and you're all ready to go and then it's like 'Oh, it's only 5:30,''' Dolengowski said.

Eventually -- mercifully -- it's time for tipoff and the fans in the O Dome greet Florida State as you'd imagine -- with deafening boos.

The game, however, turns out to be one worth waiting for. The Seminoles' big-man combination of Boris Bojanovsky and Michael Ojo gave the Gators fits, and coupled with Florida's free throw-shooting woes, made for a tie game with 1.3 seconds left and sophomore Dorian Finney-Smith at the line.

Finney-Smith hit one of two, and Ian Miller's halfcourt heave bounced off the back of the rim.

Dolengowski sits down, exhales and smiles.

One down.

"It would have been bad if we lost that one,'' he said. "I'm just hoping some of the football players were watching.''

Hope should be springing eternal at 9 a.m. on Saturday, but in a ladies' room at the Reitz Student Union two women are talking about the game, and hope clearly has been flushed already.

Instead of imagining what might be, they are ruing the general consensus that head coach Will Muschamp will keep his job despite the lousy season.

"I was at breakfast this morning and the waitress said 'Anything can happen. You never know,''' one lady said. "But I think I know.''

And then she grabbed her cane and shuffled out of the ladies' room.

Yes, it's that brutal right now in Gainesville, where even the diehard septuagenarians are losing faith.

Ernie Santo, a Dolengowski family friend and regular at David's and Ann's (Lucas' parents) tailgates, has missed exactly two home games in 33 years, and one only because his son, Ricky, is a graduate assistant at Colorado State. The Rams played at Alabama and his wife, Marta, convinced him they ought to go there instead of to the Florida-Tennessee game. He grudgingly agreed (and missed one of the Gators' four wins).

Otherwise he maintains you should avoid two things during football season --"'weddings and dying."

Even he contends that "We'll need a miracle today.''

But as tailgating gives way to game time, the mood changes. There is a chance, and after Santo leads the crew in the famed Mr. Two Bits cheer – "two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar! All for the Gators stand up and holler'' -- he changed his tune immediately.

"We can do this,'' he said.

"Of course we can,'' said family friend Joy Jones.

If there is an eternal optimist it is the aptly named Joy. She arrives midway through the tailgate, the speakers atop her tricked-out car blaring from the roof. The little hatchback is turned out in Gators attire from hood to trunk, with a Gator attached to the back windshield. Currently he is feasting on a Seminole, who is perfectly situated so that when the Gator's mouth closes, it looks like he's being chomped.

"She drives around like that every day,'' Ann Dolengowski said. "Well, she takes the speakers off to go to work.''

The entire crew is holding out hope that, despite the Gators' woes, the Swamp will still be its old electric self. Spoiled by the riches of success, the fans have had a hard time handling this season.

Even Sillick, the former student group president and a self-described diehard, admits he's bailed early.

"I've left before the end of the first quarter the last two games,'' he admits quietly Friday while waiting for the basketball game to start.

"You what?'' Millman screams. "What kind of fan are you? You can't do that and you better not do that tomorrow.''

That's the thing about this game. No matter how woeful things might be for the Gators, this is Florida State. You're expected to show up. You're expected to stay.

The Rowdies went so far as to send out a tweet early in the week imploring students not to turn over their tickets to FSU fans.

"It's our student section, not theirs,'' Dolengowski said.

By the looks of things inside the Swamp, most students listened. Their section is packed with chomping Gators, some dressed in typical T-shirts and jeans, others holding on to the SEC tradition of guys turning out in dress pants and women in dresses, as the two schools follow a tradition, with the two bands on the field together to play the national anthem.

Dolengowski is pleasantly stunned to see the opposite side of the stadium, where the alumni sit, on their feet through much of the first half, and the place is rocking as Florida trails just 3-0 after the first quarter.

"Hey, that's a win,'' Dolengowski said.

But reality hits hard by halftime as Florida State extends its lead to 17-0 and the Seminoles fans who have managed to infiltrate enemy territory come out in force with their War Chant.

Left with little to celebrate, during halftime some students take to heckling the Florida State baton twirlers who have the misfortune of twirling directly in front of the Gator fans.

Flustered, the batons start nosediving to the ground with some frequency, too. The Florida State band, though, gets the last laugh as the Marching Chiefs' public address announcer closes out the show by labeling the Seminoles band the "world-renowned and postseason-bound" band.

By the third quarter, things only go from bad to worse when FSU extends its lead to 27-0.

"At least score once for pride,'' Dolengowski said.

And on cue, the Gators respond with a touchdown to open the fourth quarter, with Skyler Mornhinweg tossing a 5-yard pass to Hunter Joyce to end an 83-yard, 14-play drive. The place erupts, with students high-fiving and hugging, as if they'd won the game.

Five minutes later, Florida State scores again. And that pretty much is that.

As the lead grows, the War Chant gains momentum inside the Swamp -- initially answered with a derisive chant aimed at FSU quarterback Jameis Winston, who is at the center of sexual assault accusations -- and eventually the Seminoles get the last word, literally and figuratively.

They walk out with a decisive 37-7 win, the War Chant following Florida fans outside as they head for the gates.

Dolengowski waits for the final second to tick off before finally heading out to reconnect with his family for some postgame tailgating.

The loss was expected, which helps ease the sting. Besides, a promising basketball season looms; Kansas comes to Gainesville next week and the Rowdies are already prepping for the game, even though it's in the middle of finals week.

And he's already got a solution to dealing with Florida State potentially in the national championship game.

"Even if it's Alabama in the national championship, we'll root for them instead of Florida State,'' Dolengowski said. "SEC pride; even if we are all a little sick of Alabama, it's better than Florida State.''

Anyone but your rival.