Sandestin, Fla.—Since 1933, with only two exceptions (1994, 1995), every football game between Florida and Georgia has been played in Jacksonville at the stadium formerly known as the Gator Bowl.
The current contract between the two schools and the city runs three more years through the 2021 game.
Georgia Coach Kirby Smart raised some eyebrows at the SEC Spring Meetings this week when he was asked about the possibility of moving the game back to campus.
“I don’t know. I think that’s always up for discussion,” Smart said. “I think you’re always looking to see what you can do to help your program get better. Nothing’s off the table. But nothing’s been decided either.”
Did the fourth-year Bulldog coach, who has played in two straight SEC championship games, just say that he’s open to the idea of pulling the game out of Jacksonville?
The argument to keeping the game North Florida is tradition. Tens of thousands of Georgia fans make the trip each year and turn it into a mini-fall vacation. Georgia cancels class on the Saturday before the game. The game, quite literally, is baked into the culture.
The argument to move the game is a practical one because every year Georgia or Florida loses an SEC home game and the corresponding opportunity to host recruits. The local merchants in Athens and Gainesville have long lobbied to get the extra home game because it’s good for business.
Scott Stricklin, Florida’s director of athletics, said it is his hope that the game remains in Jacksonville “but you always have to look out for the good of your program.”
Dan Mullen, the Florida head coach, said “you never know which direction college football is going in at that point.”
Here is what’s going on.
In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that since 1984 I’ve been traveling to Jacksonville with three of my fraternity brothers to enjoy the Georgia-Florida weekend. We gather in a condo in Ponte Vedra, eat in our favorite restaurants, spend some time on the beach, tell lies about our misspent youth, exaggerate our golf game and have a wonderful tailgate experience.
There is also a football game.
It’s funny how these kinds of discussions always seem to come up when the end of the contract begins to draw near.
I remember a time when Vince Dooley, the Georgia director of athletics, thought seriously of pulling the game from Jacksonville when the local merchants got greedy and, in some cases, started demanding three-night minimum for hotel rooms. That problem got worked out and a new contract was signed.
This time there will again be all kinds of arguments to move the game, but Jacksonville will sweeten the financial package and the deal will get signed.
Greg McGarity, the director of athletics at Georgia, has seen the rivalry from both sides. He was a student at Georgia in the 1970s and eventually spent 18 years at Florida as the top assistant to AD Jeremy Foley. He returned to Georgia as the top dawg in 2010.
McGarity, of course, supports his head football coach, saying that Smart “makes a very valid point” when he brings up the recruiting component to playing the Florida game in Jacksonville.
“But what we have to do as a staff is examine all aspects of the game,” McGarity said Wednesday. “There is the history of the game. There is the experience that our fans in South Georgia and North Florida have. There are so many things to consider and recruiting is certainly one of them.”
Yes, recruiting is an important component of college football. But it’s not the only one.
Bottom line: This game has its own Hall of Fame. Move it to campus and it becomes just another game. It will still be big. But it won’t be special.
College football needs to hold on to all the special it can.