Working in Charleston I got a chance to come to Jacksonville to cover the Gator Bowl in the late ‘70’s a couple of times. After the 1978 game between Clemson and Ohio State (the one where Woody Hayes famously punched Charlie Bauman on the sidelines) I asked an usher on the way out, “What else do you do with this stadium?”
She looked at me like I was from another planet and said, “We have the Florida/Georgia game every year!”
As an out-of-towner I shrugged it off, not knowing the magnitude of the yearly contest. I also didn’t realize that just by saying, “Florida/Georgia” she identified herself as a Gator fan.
So when I moved here, I quickly realized there’s not much agreement across the border about the annual matchup, from how many times they’ve played to even what the game is called. I decided I’d list the current winner first after that, so this year, it’s Georgia/Florida.
There aren’t many games like it, if any. Perhaps Texas/Oklahoma, but that has the state fair going on at the same time so it’s not a fair comparison.
Georgia/Florida is a big deal. We need to make it a bigger deal.
Playing the game at a neutral site is unique, but between Jerry Jones in Dallas and Chick-fil-A in Atlanta, we have some competition when it comes to neutral site attractiveness.
And don’t think the game isn’t on other cities’ radar. Or that the two universities wouldn’t listen to suitors, or even think about keeping it in their own backyards. Their stadiums are plenty big and their fans plenty anxious.
Jacksonville has been the host since 1933 (except for 1994 and ’95 when it went home-and-home because of stadium renovations here). The current contract has a few years left on it so now’s the time to ramp it up and show what we can do. There’s about $14 million in direct spending on that one day in Jacksonville just from the game. The actual economic impact is well over $30 million. For one day. Imagine if we created a three-day festival around the game and really had some fun?
As big as this game is for the city I still don’t think we do enough as the host. It’s one of two days a year (the other being Gate River Run) that people come downtown for an event, some with no intention of going to the game, or running. And when it’s over, we just basically tell them to go home.
Aren’t city leaders always talking about how to bring people downtown?
Gator Bowl Boulevard is already closed to traffic, why not line it with street vendors and live music and make a real festival of the day just like we did when the Super Bowl was here? We ought to invest in some big custom balloons and fly a Gator over one end of the stadium and a Bulldog over the other.
A few years ago the city put up big screens in the parking lots to accommodate the fans who weren’t going to the game. Then-Florida President Bernie Machen nixed the idea saying it promoted drinking. I applaud Machen for the work he did in brining attention to the issue of over-indulgence at the game. But getting rid of the big screens wasn’t the solution. When they didn’t appear the next year all you had was crowds of people jostling for position around all of the little screens already in the parking lot. Bring those big screens back.
With the loosening of some of the alcohol restrictions at NCAA events, selling alcohol in our stadium at Georgia/Florida not only makes sense but it’s coming. It will take away some of the time-honored tradition of how to sneak cocktails into the game (my favorite is the bandoliers of shots strapped to your body that you can buy at liquor stores now. What ingenuity!) But it will also keep fans from chugging anything and everything before they get into the game.
We’ve taken steps to create a safer environment for our guests in town that weekend for the game. The JSO walks a fine line between keeping the peace and understanding what’s going on here and they do a pretty good job of it. The city has created safety zones for fans at the behest of both schools. There’s a better understanding I believe among the people who are going to the game of the pitfalls regarding the over-use of alcohol.
If we’re always talking about taking the next step in the city’s development, why not build on something we already have here?
I know it’s politically incorrect to call the game “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” but that’s what it is. When former Jacksonville Journal Sports Editor Bill Kastelz coined that phrase he knew exactly what he was talking about. And I’ve been to plenty of cocktail parties where everybody had a great time and nobody left drunk. So it is possible.
We need to think bigger. And do it fast. The sirens call of big money from other cities could easily block out the tradition that’s uniquely ours.
Don’t let that happen.
In 1994 and ’95 our stadium was being renovated so the game went to Gainesville and Athens. It was at that ’95 game in Athens; won by the Gators 52-17, that Head Coach Steve Spurrier called a trick play at the end of the game to add insult to injury.
“Calling timeout and running that trick play at the end of the game is the single most unsportsmanlike thing I’ve ever seen,” I told the HBC as he boarded the bus outside Sanford Stadium late that afternoon.
“Lawson (Holland, an assistant on the Florida staff) told me nobody’s ever hung half a hundred on them here so I called timeout,” Steve explained. “And we did.”
“I don’t care,” I said
“Come on Sammy, they’ll get over it,” Steve called over his shoulder as the door closed.
No they haven’t.
Just like some Florida fans still remind everybody about the 1942 game, a 75-0 drubbing at the hands of the ‘Dogs. And the ’68 game when Georgia won 51-0. Or the Mark Richt –inspired end zone dance in 2007, which begat the Urban Meyer timeouts in 2008, and on and on and on.
It’s an unparalleled rivalry. I liked it better when the stadium was split into quadrants but understand the “half and half” nature that was necessary after the stadium was reworked.
Being part of the game, Florida Head Coach Dan Mullen calls it, a “healthy” rivalry.
“A lot of times in college football and college sports there are some rivalries that are not as healthy,” Mullen said regarding what he’s seen in his career. “They’re tough, they’re nasty; they’re a great rivalry, but they can become unhealthy. I think this is a healthy rivalry between the two fan bases.”
But he couldn’t help but fuel the fire on both sides of the border when asked about the matchup at his first SEC media days appearance as the Gators head coach this summer.
“Listen, making it to one SEC Championship Game doesn’t make you a dominant program, you know what I’m saying?” he said referring to Georgia’s appearance in the Atlanta game last year. “I mean, two out of the last three years we’ve still been to the SEC Championship Game. So even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.”
Mullen knows Kirby Smart isn’t creating a “blind squirrel” situation in Athens and I took his comments as evidence that he understands the game.
Should be fun.