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Bush-Gore? It's Seminole-Gator Time!

Football: All eyes are on Florida, but in Tallahassee, for a day at least, it's The Game that commands all attention. No lawyers, no chads and a real winner.


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Here in the capital of the Sunshine State, they put the postelection hysteria on hold Saturday and staged a football game.

Instead of Gore versus Bush, it was the hometown Florida State Seminoles against the archrival Gators of the University of Florida. On a fall afternoon unseasonably cold for serious tailgating, political polls blissfully gave way to pints of beer and point spreads.

And, happily, when the clock ran out, this time everyone knew the final score.

For 10 days, this capital city has been awash with reporters and lawyers and politicians, all of them in a froth over the squeamishly uncertain outcome of the vote in Florida, which will decide the next occupant of the Oval Office.

But many Floridians punted talk of the presidency near week's end as fans focused on the coming of the annual fall rite known hereabouts as simply The Game.

Over at the Garnet Spear, a shop named for Florida State's school color (red) and Native American mascot's pointed weaponry, a herd of happy fans kept owner Michele Nelson busy selling her collection of T-shirts and other gear.

"Right now they're more interested in the game than the election," Nelson said. "It's a little more exciting--and there will be an actual outcome. They won't have to recount."

Punted too were lots of politicos and network correspondents, uprooted from Tallahassee hotel rooms to make way for the weekend throngs, who hoovered up reservations months in advance.

Rooms were booked by fans for a 50-mile radius. Even former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Bush's Tallahassee point man, got the boot by the local Doubletree Inn. He wound up in a rent-by-the-week apartment.

Baker's Democratic opposite, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, got to stay in his room at the Governor's Inn. He was even spotted Friday night by FSU student Ryan Taylor, a 21-year-old junior studying sports medicine, at the huge pregame festival and beer bust known as "Downtown GetDown."

"I don't know if a guy like that gets down, but he definitely was out there," Taylor said.

Signs of big-game fervor sprouted 70 miles from Tallahassee, way out beyond the Suwanee River, which cuts its famous and song-inspiring course far to the east. On a bridge over Interstate 10, fans put up a sign warning arriving Gator faithful: "Beware: You're entering Seminole territory."

It's just that way in Florida. While most Americans may think of the state as an amalgamation of beaches, space shuttles, Elian Gonzalez and now bickering election lawyers, football is a riveting center of life.

And in few spots does the pulse beat on game day like in Tallahassee, presidency at stake or not.

Though one of the northernmost big cities in the state, Tallahassee is also one of the most Southern, the embodiment of the old saying: To go south in Florida, you go north. Spanish moss hangs on the trees. People speak with a deep Southern accent. And football--pronounced with at least three syllables--is king.

"Hey," said Tommy Sims, a deputy sheriff from Panama City who chewed boiled peanuts as he walked to the stadium, tossing the soggy shells beside him, "Florida's a football state."

On this day, Bush and Gore bumper stickers were far outnumbered by the fluttering flags of Seminole red and Gator orange that fans in these parts fly proudly on their cars and trucks.

Seminole fans engaged in the practice known as "dragging the gator," which generally involved dangling rubber or stuffed alligators from their trunks or tailgates.

An automated, flashing traffic sign near Doak Campbell Stadium alternated between "Right Turn Only" and an insult directed at the University of Florida.

Despite 40-degree cold and a sky that looked like a dirty sponge, fans broke out the beer and barbecues.

Not a hanging chad was in sight.

This game, like the presidential choice that Florida will decide, had national implications. Both teams have a shot at the year-end national championship.

Politics was good for a laugh--and not much more.

"We're going to demand a recount if we lose!" chortled Tony Wallace, a retired Army sergeant and Gator fan since his university days in the late '50s.

"I'm not worried about the election," Wallace said. "We can always get a president. But we've got to kick Florida State's tail!"

Forget picking a commander in chief. Under the Saturday night lights, Tallahassee had real field generals: Florida State's venerable Bobby Bowden facing off with the Gators' tempestuous head coach, Steve Spurrier.

"I'd vote for Bobby Bowden!" chirped a gleeful Melissa Walters, a plastic cup of beer in hand, a Seminole sticker plastered to a cheek. On election day, she backed Bush.

"Yeah! Bobby Bowden for president!" hooted her friend, Karen Lamar, as husband Teddy watched over the flaming charcoal.

T-shirts sold near the stadium seconded their choice. The front said: "I voted." The back: "Bobby for president."

Another said: "Electoral college? They don't even have a football team!"

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