JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Georgia head coach Kirby Smart has been grumbling for years about the Florida-Georgia game being held in Jacksonville. He continued that during Southeastern Conference Media Days this week when Smart renewed his calls for the annual rivalry game to be played on the universities’ campuses instead.
Legendary former Gators quarterback and SEC Network analyst Tim Tebow was the one to throw the hard-hitting question at Smart on set Wednesday, asking him why he no longer wants to continue the tradition in the River City despite its electric environment.
Smart: “Why is it one of the best environments? I think, how many times did you play in Athens, Tim?”
Smart: “How many times did we get to play in Gainesville?”
Smart: “I think that’s special. I think that’s special.”
Tebow: “But you get a lot of home and road games, but you only get one where it’s split 50-50.”
Smart: “No you don’t. We’re gonna play Oregon this year in [Mercedes-Benz Stadium].”
Tebow: “I know. There’ll be pockets full of it, but this one’s literally split right down the middle — orange and blue, red and black.”
Smart’s argument for wanting to do away with one of the only neutral-site rivalry games in college football (the other prominent one amongst Power Five teams being the Red River Rivalry between Oklahoma and Texas at the State Fair of Texas): It’s a recruiting disadvantage.
“For me, I’m competing against guys all across the SEC who host kids at their biggest game,” said Smart, who’s entering his seventh season leading the Bulldogs. “When Auburn plays Alabama, guess where the recruits are? They’re at Auburn. When LSU and Alabama play, guess where the biggest recruits want to go? It’s an opportunity for us to bring these kids who fly in from all over the country. What game do they want to see? They’d like to see Georgia play Florida, but they can’t do that.”
But Georgia hasn’t been hurting in the recruiting arena. Since Smart returned to his alma mater in 2016, Georgia has produced top-five recruiting classes every year except his first (which was still a top-10 class). And the championship-winning coach was rewarded with a contract extension through the 2031 season, a 10-year agreement worth more than $110 million, that was announced Thursday.
First-year Florida head coach Billy Napier, who spoke at the podium at SEC Media Days in Atlanta after Smart, was asked for his thoughts on whether the game should be moved but said he can’t weigh in on that quite yet.
“I want to experience the game first, right? I’d like to see that game in Jacksonville, experience that game before I have an opinion on that. There’s a lot of credibility to both, right? The home-and-home obviously would be fantastic. But there’s also some tradition there. There’s a rivalry there,” Napier said. “Time will tell. I agree, that’s above my pay grade. But I’m looking forward to the opportunity to participate in the game.”
A day later, Jacksonville Mayor Curry was asked about Smart’s desire to alter the matchup at TIAA Bank Field to a home-and-home series going back and forth between Athens and Gainesville.
“We deal with this, it seems like every year or two, and I understand, look, everybody’s got a job to do. Coaches at that level are incredibly focused on recruiting. And so I hear their argument. But we believe it’s really important that, that rivalry game stay in Jacksonville. That is why after I was elected in 2015, when there was no contract extension before I was sworn in, I called both athletic directors and we started working on an extension. We got it. We’ve gotten another extension since then, that game is locked in Jacksonville through 2023,” Curry said Thursday as he presented his budget proposal.
“And I would hope, there’s going to be a lot of candidates on the ballot in this upcoming election, I would express to all of them the importance of relationships with the athletic directors in the universities and in doing everything we can to keep that football game here. We’ve done it, we’ve negotiated with them, and I think it’s important that it stay here.”
Last year, the Jacksonville City Council voted unanimously to approve a contract that would keep the Florida-Georgia game, which has had an economic impact of millions of dollars each year, in the city through at least 2023. The agreement with the city, the University Athletic Association and the University of Georgia Athletic Association includes a two-year extension option for the 2024 and 2025 games.
The game, which has also been referred to as “the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” or “the War for the Oar,” has been played in Jacksonville since 1933 except for 1994 and 1995 when the contest was held at Florida’s and Georgia’s campuses, respectively, as the stadium in downtown Jacksonville was undergoing construction due to the Jaguars entering the NFL as an expansion team.
This isn’t the first time Smart has hinted that the series is not locked into Jacksonville, which is about an hour and a half away from Gainesville and nearly six from Athens. In fall 2018, he griped about the neutral site.
“Yeah, absolutely it costs you a recruiting weekend. You don’t get to have anybody, they don’t get to have anybody,” Smart told 247Sports’ Georgia site, per the Orlando Sentinel. “So, our version of the LSU-Alabama game is held in Jacksonville and we don’t have prospects. So it’s not conducive to recruiting, absolutely it’s not.”
And at the 2019 SEC spring meetings in Destin, Smart said that the possibility to move the game to a home-and-home series is always open for discussion.
“Nothing’s off the table,” Smart said at the time. “Nothing’s been decided, either.”
A few months later, he was noncommittal when the discussion over the series came up in July 2019 during SEC Media Days, which has come to be known as the unofficial start of the college football season.
“I look at it from a perspective of 10,000 feet where I say: What is best for our program? And it’s that simple,” Smart previously said. “And we’ll make that decision as a group and go with it.”
According to ESPN, under NCAA rules, recruits aren’t allowed to attend the neutral-site game.
Do you think the Florida-Georgia game should stay in Jacksonville or be played on the universities’ campuses? Let us know in the comments below.