I'll be in Jacksonville Saturday for my 30th personal experience with the Georgia-Florida game. My first one was in 1976 when I was a UGA freshman. I've seen 27 of them in Jacksonville and one each in Gainesville and Athens. During my coaching days, I missed the 1989 and 1992 games due to having a game on Saturday night. What a bummer.
In the old days of the Gator Bowl stadium, I can mostly recall a drunken brawl. As a college student the experience could not be described with my limited vocabulary. I used to say that I would quit my job before I missed that game. Getting married and having children changed that, but through about 1988 I still had a ball even with the wife along.
Ray Goff, the quarterback, was the hero of my first one in 1976. Florida had a two-touchdown lead at halftime but Goff ran wild in the second half. I can remember him ripping through three tear-away jerseys (since outlawed) on the way to a big day. Georgia won 41-27 helped by Florida coach Doug Dickey's "fourth and dumb" gamble that backfired on his own 29-yard line.
What I can remember about the other three games during my college days is clouded. Then came 1980. That was my last one as a single guy and Buck Belue, Lindsay Scott and Cousin Herschel made it special.
We were gathered in the parking lot after the 1982 game when a drunken Florida fan stumbled up to us. Georgia had won 44-0 and we were really feeling our oats. We expected him to give us some grief but all he could say was, "that Herschel Walker, please don't bring him back down here again." We didn't.
In 1984, the old Gator Bowl was getting in bad shape. After winning 27-0 and breaking a six game losing streak to Georgia, the Florida fans contributed to the shambles. They stormed the field and tore down a goal post. They put the cross bar on their shoulders and paraded it through the parking lot. We got them back the next year when they came in ranked number one in the nation. Georgia won 24-3.
Coach Vince Dooley finished his coaching career with easy wins over the Gators in 87 and 88. He had a knack for doing that. I watched on TV as Ray Goff, the coach, beat the Gators 17-10 in 1989. Florida was playing under an interim head coach by the name of Gary Darnell. Georgia would not beat Florida again until Jim Donnan's team managed it in 1997 by the score of 37-17. Perhaps the most disappointing loss came in 1992. Georgia appeared on cruise control toward the inaugural SEC Championship game but even Zeier, Hearst and Hastings could not beat Florida.
A lot changed about this series during the 1990s. Steve Spurrier took over as the Gator coach and built a dynasty. The Gator Bowl became a victim of the wrecking ball and the game was played in Gainesville in 1994 and Athens in 1995 while a new stadium was built on the same spot. Florida hung 52 on Georgia in both of those games away from Jacksonville.
Mark Richt took over and built some very good teams but like Goff and Donnan has tasted victory over the Gators only once. Georgia entered the game 5-1 in Richt's first year of 2001. The SEC Championship teams of 2002 and 2005 entered the game undefeated and both lost. The 2003 team entered with only one loss and, well, you know. Only in David Greene and David Pollack's senior year of 2004 has Georgia won under Richt.
Saturday's game and the next two will be high stakes games not only for the Bulldog team but for their fans as well. I have a hunch that the negotiations on where to play the game after 2010 will see the city of Jacksonville having to make a financial offer that Georgia can't refuse in order to keep it in the River City.
Coach Richt has often mentioned that he thinks it would be a good idea to play the neutral site game in Atlanta every other year rather than on Florida sand annually. Georgia is also giving away a home game and all of the money it brings in as well. Next year's schedule will have only six home games for instance. Most major schools need seven home games to support their athletic programs and many have eight.
I'm a traditionalist and would like to see the game stay in Jacksonville. The Georgia Dome seats about 10,000 less than the Jacksonville stadium. That means that 5,000 less fans from each school could attend. Atlanta does not have the coastal resorts that Georgia fans enjoy during game week either.
Moving the game to a home and home arrangement would result in only about 10,000 tickets for the visiting fans. I would rather play in Jacksonville with 42,000 of us and 42,000 of them every year than with only 10,000 of us every other year in The Swamp. Besides, if we can't beat them in the city too far north to be Florida and too far south to be Georgia what's to say we will ever win on the Gators' home field.
I don't buy the idea that Georgia can't beat Florida because they have to fly down every year while Florida rides a bus. It is not that long of a trip and it sounds too much like an excuse to me. I understand that the decision must be made based in the best interest of the University of Georgia and not for the fans. When Coach Dooley was Athletic Director he once went to great pains to poll all Georgia fans, not just the rich ones, about the location of the game. You can bet this administration won't do that.
Ideally, a couple of Georgia wins will slow this talk of moving the game out of Jacksonville. Realistically it will come down to money. The bank account will trump the chance to win the game every time. I do know that if Georgia ever plays again in Gainesville, win or lose, the coaches, players and fans will be thinking that they wished the game were still in Jacksonville. I'll be there wherever, unless I have to work.