COLLEGE FOOTBALL is very big in Florida, to the point that even Santa Claus can get caught up in the excitement.

I am referring specifically to that unfortunate incident in Jacksonville recently in which a mall Santa told a 6-year-old he wouldn't get any presents this year if he was a fan of the Florida Gators."Santa Claus doesn't like Gator fans," spoke the bearded one, according to The Florida Times-Union. "Santa Claus wishes that Florida State would beat the Gators in the Sugar Bowl."

When the boy's father objected to the remarks, Santa challenged the man to a fight.

"You want to do something about it, right now, pal? Right here on stage?"

I am pleased to report that the episode ended nonviolently and that Santa quit his mall job and is now working at a local nursing home.

("I'm sorry, Mrs. Jones. There will be no lithium for you today unless you promise me that you are not now, nor ever have been, a Yankees fan.")

I'm kidding about that nursing-home business, of course, but the shopping-mall story does make me wonder how many other Santas there are out there who are . . . how can I say this sensitively? . . . nuttier than a fruitcake.

While a routine background check may reveal whether Santa has a criminal record or a problem with drugs or alcohol, it's much tougher to weed out rabid college football fans.

Sure, there's the sloped forehead and the way their knuckles drag on the ground, but that doesn't differentiate them from, say, rabid professional wrestling fans, who, to the best of my knowledge, make terrific mall Santas.

The important thing to remember here is that Santa is under a lot of stress this time of year and may snap at the slightest provocation.

That's why when I hopped on Santa's lap this year, I tried to keep the conversation as noncontroversial as possible.

"I've been a good boy all year, Santa," I lied, "and I'd really like a new set of Ping Zing golf clubs."

"I'm sorry, m'boy," Santa said. "Santa doesn't carry Ping Zings, but if you'd like a nice set of Ring Dings, he'll see what he can do."

"I don't want Ring Dings," I said. "They are poorly crafted and unappealing to the eye."

"I beg your pardon," the jolly old elf said, "but Santa himself plays Ring Dings and has added anywhere from 8 to 12 yards to his drives, depending on who's doing the measuring."

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"Far be it from me to be disrespectful," I said, "but I think it's only fair to point out that Santa is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,700 years old, 150 pounds overweight and plagued with a terrible reverse weight shift. I hardly think that that qualifies him as an expert in golf-club technology."

"I'll have you know that I've won the North Pole C.C. club championship 200 times in a row," Santa said, his nose growing redder than a taillight on a Volvo. "Besides, I wouldn't be making comments about anyone's weight, if I were you. My leg's been numb for 15 minutes."

"So I can count on a new set of Ping Zings under my tree this year?," I asked.

"Maybe a dozen golf balls," he replied. "Made out of coal."

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