On a cold night outside the O-Dome

The big blue tarpaulin that has been housing Pam Buckard and all her friends since Thursday is called “The Mansion” by envious student campers whose collection of homemade and store bought tents stretches all the way from Gate Two of the Stephen C. O’Connell Center to Stadium Drive. The campers have braved rain and temperatures that will dip near the freezing level overnight just so they can be first in line when the doors open for ESPN’s College Game Day Saturday morning. By 9 p.m., when the Gators face Kentucky, they will be in rare form, ready to make the O-Dome a miserable place for the Wildcats.

Buckard has a full-time residence in Gainesville but since Thursday she’s lived in “The Mansion” along with her friends. Inside, she says “The Mansion” is filled with “mattresses, sleeping bags, chairs and later on we’ll probably have a TV and video games and board games and lots of people. No heat but lots of blankets.”

She came up with the idea of “The Mansion” a year ago. Kentucky was coming to town for the final home game of the 2006-07 season and it would be the last chance to watch the 0-Fours — Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Joakim Noah — and seniors Lee Humphrey and Chris Richard play a game at the O-Dome. She bought a huge tarp, turned it into a tent and camped out with friends for a couple of days so they could be first in line when the doors opened for students.

Earlier this week when ESPN announced it was sending the Game Day crew of Rece Davis, Jay Bilas, Digger Phelps and Hubert Davis to Gainesville, it transformed Florida-Kentucky from an SEC game between two rivals into a nationally televised event. Buckard and her friends decided to do the tent thing once again.

“I bought the tarp last year for Kentucky and we put it up the same way this year,” she said. “We’re just going to do it every year.”

Buckard figures to be in Gainesville a long time so she figures the tarp will get several years of use before it’s retired. She came here seven years ago from Cape Coral to attend the University of Florida and never found a good enough reason to leave.

“I’ve been here long enough that it’s home,” she said Friday evening about 10 p.m.

Gainesville is home because it’s easier to feed her basketball addiction if she actually lives here. To support her very serious basketball habit, she teaches first grade. That allows her to be a part of the Rowdy Reptiles, Florida’s infamous student section that helps make the O-Dome one of the toughest venues in all of college basketball.

She still takes courses at UF even though she’s already got her undergraduate degree.

“I am first grade teacher in town (Hidden Oak Elementary) and I take one class every semester so I can go to basketball games,” she said.

She has a love affair going on with Florida basketball. If the Gators are playing, she and her friends are there with about a thousand others to fill the lower level bleachers behind press row.

She’s been in the same place for quite some time now. Just as she is at the head of the line to get in the O-Dome for the Game Day activities, she is as up close and personal as a Rowdy Reptile can get once the whistle blows and the games begin.

“I’ve been going to basketball games and I’ve been in the front row for five years with the same group,” said Buckard. “We’re all just trying our best to cheer them [the Gators] on.”

Saturday night they will be cheering on the youngest team in college basketball. The Gators are 15-3, 2-1 in the Southeastern Conference. These Gators aren’t the same Gators that won the last two NCAA basketball championships but they are a work in progress that will go head to head with another work in progress type.

Everybody figured the Gators would be a work in progress team this year. Six of the first seven from two national championship teams play for pay these days so this is a team that has to grow up a little bit more every time they take the floor. They began the season unranked and with the exception of one week, that’s the way they’ve stayed.

Kentucky, on the other hand, was ranked in the preseason top 25 but the transition from Tubby Smith to new coach Billy Gillispie hasn’t been an easy one. Kentucky is 7-8 for the first time since the short-handed probation-saddled team that Rick Pitino took over in 1989. There are embarrassing losses to Gardner-Webb and San Diego on the schedule but there is a win over then unbeaten Vanderbilt that gives the Kentucky faithful reason for optimism.

Kentucky can even its SEC record at 2-2 by beating the Gators and the Wildcats figure that would be a huge step towards righting a listing ship. Florida, on the other hand, has a chance to improve to 3-1 in the SEC and with five or six more wins, the Gators could secure their tenth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.

But whether the Gators win or lose this game, Pam Buckard and her friends will be on the front row of the O-Dome every time the Gators play. There might not be another tent city game like this one this season and there probably won’t be another Game Day appearance in Gainesville, but that doesn’t matter to them.

“It’s not about TV,” says Buckard. “It’s about being there for the guys.”

She and her friends were bundled up in sweatshirts and cold weather gear Friday night. The forecast called for rain, too, but nobody seemed to care. The song says “in all kinds of weather we all stick together.”

Pam Buckard, her friends and all the campers outside the O-Dome were living proof of that Friday night.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.