Mounds of sweat-drenched tape and pre-wrap were scattered between piles of shoulder pads, hip pads and spandex. A few empty bottles of Gatorade and 5-Hour Energy Shots were littered around. Stretched-out, recently worn socks and unlaced cleats were there, too.
It was the post-battle scene I had seen several times before.
After basically jogging to the door, I inhaled to catch my breath but quickly exhaled.
It smelled like a locker room, which made sense, because it was locker room.
Eww, that smell — that unforgettable smell we all wish we could forget. It’s kind of like a mix of Axe body spray and stinky feet, for those who have never experienced it.
I didn’t care. After a year of stale news conferences, I could handle the smell. I was just happy to be there for the Sugar Bowl postgame, and no Dominique Easley, none of the media enjoy seeing grown men naked. (Inside joke — He’ll get it when he reads this. Think the scene from Airplane!, with Easley playing Peter Graves’ character.)
What we do enjoy is seeing players like Easley’s personality for a change. Sure, we all figured Easley was one of the more colorful figures on the team. After all, dude carries a Chuckie doll during Gator Walks and displayed sideline dance moves, but we rarely get a chance to see the personality beyond those antics.
After working past an overzealous Superdome usher, myself and other media members made our way to the locker room entrance.
“Offense on the left, defense on the right,” shouted one of the UAA’s finest.
With so many defensive players expected to declare for the 2013 NFL Draft, I headed directly into the defense’s locker room, only to be met by the aforementioned pile of crap.
I paused momentarily to survey the scene (if I could go back in time I wouldn’t have inhaled so deeply). Reporters were crowded around Easley, Matt Elam and Sharrif Floyd, of course. They were the juniors everyone wanted to drill with draft questions.
Instead of getting the also-ran quotes everyone else would have, I tiptoed through the mess over to Damien Jacobs, a junior college transfer. Because the defensive tackle is a first-year player at UF, he wasn’t made available for interviews all season.
Not to disparage any junior college players (hey, I’m a former JUCO guy), but they’re not typically the most well-spoken young men. I mean, they had to go the junior college route for a reason, and that reason usually was academics. However, Jacobs was an articulate and intelligent individual who provided awesome insight into what it was like returning to play in his home state.
The time with Jacobs was well spent, but also pre-planned. By the time that interview was finished, the crowds around the juniors had cleared up. I headed straight to Elam first because he was one of my favorite players to watch. Plus, I already knew Floyd had announced.
In the two minutes I spent with Elam before other reporters began piggybacking the interview, I found him to be kind and actually nice, not the crazed madman I thought he was after watching him play.
Of course, we had interviewed Elam in a news conferences before, but I never believe we see the real person when they’re standing at a podium in front of dozens on print geeks and TV cameras.
That said, nothing blows more for a reporter than a press-conference setting.
The structured format of back-and-forth between reporters and coaches or players isn’t conducive to creating the conversational-style interview I was taught early on in my career.
When players are relaxed, that’s when they say the best stuff.
Occasionally, coaches like Florida’s Will Muschamp display hints of personality, but for the most part, news conferences become cliché central where coach speak rules.
In the rare instance there is an interesting quote, it’s tweeted out within seconds — long before it can be crafted into a clever feature.
News conferences are boring. One reporter — not me, for the record — appeared to be dozing in and out of consciousness during one of Charlie Strong’s in New Orleans.
But who could blame him? A hand grenade (another inside joke for the reporter, who doubled down on a New Orleans drink called a “hand grenade” the night before) would have to go off to charge up the room during these snooze fests.
Moreover, they’re impersonal. Fans, and the media, rarely get a glimpse into what we suspect are interesting personalities. That helps us write with color, which is where writers try to paint a picture that’s more interesting than what color shirt a player is wearing while standing at a podium.
During the regular season, there were probably 100 player interviews — all in news-conference settings. Maybe only the one with Neiron Ball I wrote about this past week was heartfelt.
Because the media rarely knows what players are going to be made available in advance (which isn’t the UAAs fault because players are finicky about doing those interviews), no pre-research is done as far as what would be decent questions for specific player. That often results in generic lines of questioning, like “What do you think about the upcoming opponent?”
The results can be even worse than that such as when a reporter asked how Ball’s parents react after games. His parents both died of cancer-related issues before his 10th birthday.
So, when I heard the locker room would be “open” for 30 minutes after the Sugar Bowl, I did a little “woohoo!” cheer inside my head — remember, we are reporters, so cheering aloud is not allowed.
While the Gators were en route to an embarrassing 33-23 loss against Louisville on Jan. 2, all I could think about is what the locker room would be like.
Would this spoil the mood of the locker-room interviews? Would the Gators be so upset by getting upset that we wouldn’t get anything decent?
No. Not at all, interestingly enough.
Other than Chris Johnson, who blamed himself for the loss after being ejected for a personal foul, the team was somewhat jubilant. perhaps relieved to put what surely was a stressful season behind them.
But that’s not the point of this ramble.
There have been a few local scribes scribble recently about a disconnect between Gators fans and Gators players, opining that it could be among the reasons for record-low turnouts at games. This year’s Sugar Bowl attendance was the lowest since 1939 — when the economy was definitely in the dumps.
I have the solution, and it isn’t opening practices to the public.
Open the locker rooms after games. It doesn’t even have to be 30 minutes. Heck, I would be happy with 10 minutes. Even five!
That would give us media hacks the opportunity to grab a few exclusive quotes and do some real interviews to help fans can get to know the real personalities behind the playmakers.
For example, I was able to spend five minutes with the future of Florida’s running game, true freshman Matt Jones. He opened up about how having a one-year-old daughter has helped him mature faster than most true freshmen.
I’ve received more positive feedback on that one feature than probably all of the features I’ve written combined from the past season. Fans — Gators fans — talking about how they didn’t know that about Matt, how he seems like a great kid and that they have a new appreciation for what some of these players go through.
That’s an interview that wouldn’t have been quite as genuine had Matt been standing behind a podium or sitting in a chair while encircled by standing reporters — a scene similar to vultures feeding on a carcass.
Because he wasn’t, a few more Gators fans are Matt Jones fans.
Who knows? Perhaps it will inspire a few more to show their support for him by filling seats on game days.
Even the Gator Walk doesn’t seem quite the same as it did when players like Tim Tebow or the Pouncey twins high-fived fans on their way into stadiums.
There is a clear disconnect that has coincided with the increasing lack of access to players.
If nothing changes, there will never be another iconic figure like Tebow was during his time at Florida. Ben Hill Griffin Stadium will never consistently be full again, no matter how successful the Gators are, and that hurts the local economy and the school’s football revenue. I bet No. 15 jerseys still sell more than all of the players’ numbers that have been featured in recent years combined.
In Week 11 this season, an announced crowd of 82,691 showed up for a 23-0 win against Jacksonville State.
In Week 11 just five seasons ago, 90,107 attended Florida’s 59-20 blowout win against Florida Atlantic.
That 2007 team was 7-3 and No. 14 nationally heading into the game.
This year’s team was No. 3 in the final BCS rankings of the regular season and became the fifth UF team to reach 11 wins.
If a team that successful cannot fill the stadium, there is a problem.
Wouldn’t it be worth trading a few post-game minutes for a few more butts in the seats?
We can handle the smell.