Gator Nation News

More Than 100 Years of ‘Welcome Home’

Homecoming traditions have come and gone (Synchronized swimmers? Bring your weight in firewood?), but since 1916, Gator spirit has always won the day.

Homecomings are a cherished tradition at schools throughout the nation. The origins of the homecoming tradition are hotly debated, but the first homecoming celebrations in the United States were held sometime around 1910.

UF’s first Homecoming occurred in 1916 and was organized by the UF Alumni Association. Two hundred “old grads” arrived to cheer on the alma mater in a contest with Alabama on October 21. Festivities began the night before with a bonfire rally on the football field. The game was preceded by a parade led by the University Band and featuring the entire student body, the 200 alumni and 100 automobiles decked in orange and blue streamers. The Crimson Tide’s victory over the Gators was the day’s only disappointment.

Homecomings were held sporadically after 1916. The 1923 Homecoming saw the creation of Blue Key, now Florida Blue Key. The Knights of the Blue Key, as its members were called, were sworn to serve the university in any way possible but were given the specific task of entertaining visitors. Blue Key was given full responsibility for homecoming events the following year, and all Homecomings since 1924 have been student organized and produced.

The Homecoming Pep Rally became Gator Growl in 1932 and was held in the stadium until it was recently relocated to the band shell at Flavet Field. The first themed Homecoming Parade with floats and marching bands took place in 1948 on the Friday before the Homecoming game. The parade is now as much a local event as it is a university one, with thousands of children lining the parade route and hundreds more marching in the parade or riding on floats.

Several homecoming events have passed into oblivion while others linger on. In the early days, freshmen brought their body weight in combustible materials for a Growl bonfire. The bonfire disappeared in the 1950s. The homecoming house decorations that festoon lawns and porches at the Greek houses today do not quite match the splendor of earlier years. One of the more unusual homecoming events of the past were the Swimcapades, an aquatic ballet involving synchronized swimmers, divers and poolside dancers. The Swimcapades were introduced in 1948, shortly after the university became coeducational in 1947. The women’s Swim Fins and their male counterparts, the Aqua Gators, were the principal performers. Due to limited seating at the Florida Pool, three performances were held, one before Gator Growl and two on Saturday morning. The last Swimcapade occurred at the 1965 Homecoming.

There was a homecoming hiatus at the height of World War II in 1944, when college football was simply not feasible. This year, football seems feasible, but crowded venues are not, so homecoming events will be virtual. The theme? The Gator Still Growls.

All photos courtesy of University Florida Archives, George A. Smathers Libraries

UF’s one and only matchup with Drake University happened on November 27, 1924. Playing on Fleming Field in front of a Homecoming crowd, the Gators trounced the Bulldogs 10 to 0. Halfback Dick Brown was the game’s standout performer.

Decades ago, Homecoming festivities culminated in a big bonfire, held at various locations throughout the years. This poster for the 1936 Gator Growl informs freshmen of their duty to bring their weight in firewood for the Homecoming bonfire. Upper classmen are urged to attend Gator Growl and “see Maryland’s chances go down as the Gator Flames go up.”

Fraternity members sit in front of Phi Beta Delta house during Homecoming weekend in November 1938. The front of the house was transformed into a movie marquee for “Delta Theatre,” welcoming alumni. (Phi Beta Delta merged into Pi Lambda Phi in 1941.)

Sorority members of Alpha Chi Omega perform a skit at Gator Growl on October 21, 1949. Earlier that day, UF dedicated the new Florida Gym. While the Gators lost to Georgia Tech the following day, the 1949 season is notable for the introduction of the Mr. Two Bits tradition.

Members of Sigma Phi Epsilon ride down University Avenue on a decorated float in the Homecoming Parade of October 21, 1949. About 29,000 alumni, family members and friends were expected in Gainesville for Homecoming events that weekend, according to the Florida Alligator.

UF students from Latin America pose in native dress, with their countries’ flags, on a float in the Homecoming Parade on October 23, 1953. The parade boasted 70 participating units, including UF sororities and fraternities, Gator Band and 17 high school marching bands.

The 1957 Homecoming featured a Swimcapades performance of the story of Scheherazade in University Pool. Swimcapades was UF’s version of the aquacade, an entertainment spectacle involving divers and synchronized swimmers. Members of Swimcapades were drawn from the UF men’s and women’s swim clubs, and the spectacle reached its heyday in the 1950s, with 100+ swimmers and elaborate choreography in each production.

The 1961 Homecoming brochure featured artwork by Don Addis, a UF alumnus and editorial cartoonist for the Evening Independent and St. Petersburg Times. Drawn in his trademark irreverent style, this image depicts cheering fans, raucous cheerleaders, deal-making alumni and a former lineman in a three-point stance, reliving the days of his youth.

The headliner for the 1988 Gator Growl was laconic comedian Steven Wright, one of the most popular acts on the college circuit at the time. Warming up the crowd for Wright was Jerry Seinfeld; his show “Seinfeld” would debut on NBC the following year and become one of the most influential sitcoms of all time. Here 1988 UF Homecoming Sweetheart Rachael Jackson clowns with Wright and Seinfeld.

Actor/comedian David Alan Grier revs up the crowd at the 1992 Gator Growl, where he shared the stage with comic Larry Miller. At the time, Grier was a principal cast member on the Emmy Award-winning “In Living Color.”

The Pride of the Sunshine performs at the Homecoming Parade on October 23, 1992. The following day, the Gators, coached by Steve Spurrier, would beat Louisville 31 to 17 at The Swamp.