The Gatorade Shower: The victory ritual that can’t be ducked

January 4, 2012

In ancient Rome, successful military commanders were honored with the Roman Triumph, a ceremonial celebration granted by the senate and involving elaborate animal sacrifice, the burning of incense and a procession in which the victor was showered with flowers tossed by adoring crowds. Rituals of victory are necessary rites in a society, as we feel compelled to note this week, the sanctified American Running of the Bowls. The rite by which we honor our heroes is dumping Ga­tor­ade on their heads.

“It is cold,” says Dan Mullen, the head coach at Mississippi State and, after his 23-17 victory over Wake Forest at the Music City Bowl, a dumpee. “It is really, really cold, depending on how they hit you. If it ricochets off your jacket, you’re okay. But if you ever get it down the neck, it’s no good.”

You can try to sidestep it. Some coaches try to sidestep it. See: the Ga­tor­ade Shower Fail recently launched by the Oklahoma Sooners on head coach Bob Stoops, who deftly shimmied out of its way. Their problem was that they came in from the side. You’ve got to come in from behind.

“You just have to get a towel and manage the best you can,” says Florida State Coach Jimbo Fisher, whose team beat Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl. “What’s funny is that you forget about it. I have never seen it coming.” He sighs. “It’s a necessary evil.”

Everybody must get dunked. Or dipped. Or showered. There are disputes on the correct vernacular, but no disputes as to whether it must happen, for the nation that has declared the noogie an acceptable display of affection has also deemed the Ga­tor­ade Dump an appropriate sign of respect. Fathers and sons around the country watch the Ga­tor­ade Dump on television, slug each other in the arms and say, “Nice game,” and what they really mean is, “I love you.” Also: “Pass the dip.”

“It’s really remarkable that people haven’t found anything else to do,” says Darren Rovell, Ga­tor­ade historian, who composed the definitive sports-drink history, “First in Thirst.” So many rituals of yore have disappeared. “The bullpen car is gone in baseball. Or how many people are really putting on eye black? Sports traditions don’t really last anymore. Players don’t stay in cities.” Trades happen. People move on.

A sports fan must find something to give the experience continuity. That thing shall be called “electrolytes.”

The most oft-cited original dumping — others might have come before, but this was the one to make it a “thing”­­ — apparently occurred in 1984, at the end of a matchup between the Redskins and the Giants. The perpetrator was defensive tackle Jim Burt. The victim was Bill Parcells.

Parcells, now with ESPN, is e-mailed for his recollections on the momentous occasion. “The chief perpetrator was Jim Burt,” he responds. “I had kind of been on him a little bit during the week. That’s probably a little bit of an understatement. So he just dumped the bucket on me.”

It spread to other teams. It spread to basketball (and then un-spread — too sticky on wooden floors). It spread to the White House, where Ronald Reagan’s aides presented him with a cartoon depicting a Ga­tor­ade Shower on the occasion of his birthday. From time to time, Rovell says, doctors have warned about the potential harm of pouring frigid liquid over the heads of old men in subfreezing temperatures. In 1990, Long Beach State’s coach, George Allen (formerly of the Redskins), received a dousing. Allen, then 72, died six weeks later. He had said he hadn’t felt healthy since the Ga­tor­ade shower — which, incidentally, was not Ga­tor­ade at all: His cash-strapped team had used ice water.

And now for the numbers: Approximately 20,000 gallons of Ga­tor­ade are consumed by NCAA football teams each year. An additional 14,500 gallons are consumed by the NFL. That’s Gatorade’s word, “consumed.” It does not specify how many of those gallons are consumed by players and how many of them are consumed by the permeable fabric of the hypothermic coach’s sportswear.

Teams are allowed to select any flavor of Ga­tor­ade they prefer, though Ga­tor­ade publicist Emily Lyons shares that lemon-lime and orange are the most popular flavors. Fruit punch is an infrequent selection, she says, “and that likely has more to do with fear of staining their uniforms.”

Yes, what about that? ­­

“It’s a pain in the butt. My first thought when I see that happen is always, whew — who does the laundry?”

That’s Heloise, Heloise of “Hints From” fame, the one-named Madonna of Borax, who has been called upon for color commentary. “Now. Sports drinks. They may have glucose in them. They may have sodium. They have artificial coloring and artificial flavoring.” These are difficult stains to remove, and combined with the warmth of body heat and the prolonged setting of the liquid, “it really is the perfect storm of stains,” Heloise confides.

“It really boils down to who you can trust,” Purdue Coach Danny Hope says. “Up until the other day, one of my staff members has always kept an eye out for me.” Then, after the team’s Little Caesars Pizza Bowl victory, “he set me up. He put his arm around me like he was hugging me, and really he was just holding me in place.”

“They’re pretty intent on getting it done,” sighs Ohio University’s Frank Solich. “But if you don’t get it, well, you start to wonder what’s going on.”

Last month, the University of Toledo made Matt Campbell, 32, the youngest coach in the NCAA. A couple of weeks later, he won the Military Bowl in Washington, against the Air Force — final score 42-41. Great game. Great dunk. The first one of his career.

“You’ve seen it happen. You’ve been a part of programs where it’s happened,” says Campbell, reached via telephone and still sounding genuinely touched by the whole experience. “To now have it happen to him? “It’s a privilege,” Campbell says. “It’s a privilege.”

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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