UGA / Florida a perspective from Loran Smith

loranThe Florida game in Jacksonville has been a fixture on the Georgia schedule since 1933 (except for two years when the Jaguars stadium was being built) and has been treated as fall vacation for Georgia fans who consider it an opportunity to enjoy the beaches of North Florida and the Georgia coast in October and November.

When the game became established in Jacksonville, season ticket sales in Athens and Gainesville were not subscribed to as would be the case with the passing of time.  For Georgia the game was attractive to the many Bulldog fans, who lived in the lower half of the state–to see Georgia play a game geographically closer to their hometown.  They might see a game in Athens once or twice a year, but the big game for them was the Georgia-Florida game in the old Gator Bowl.

As time went by, Florida, dominated by Georgia early on, improved in football and began to enjoy greater success in Jacksonville.  Game management was, by mutual agreement, handled by Florida.   Florida had more fan support that Georgia in the late years of Coach Wallace Butts.  Ray Graves had become the head football coach and Athletic Director at Florida.   Florida, with more demand, assumed the best seats and claimed the lion’s share of tickets.

In late 1963, Joel Eaves became Athletic Director at Georgia.   He immediately set about making Georgia a co-equal in the contract with the city.  He demanded that Georgia get half the tickets to the game and half the good tickets.  Florida got a few extra tickets, like 1,500 or so for managing the game but Eaves decreed that these tickets would not be the best seats.

Even with contract equality, Georgia ticket demand was exceeded by Florida.   Many Gator fans bought tickets via the Georgia Athletic Association.  One day, I got a call from Graves, asking if we would send Florida an allotment of Georgia’s unsold Florida tickets.  “Joel is too tough,” Graves complained.  “We’re hurtin.’   Why don’t you let us sell those unsold tickets.”    Coach Eaves would not budge.   It was a matter of principle with him.   He may not have been clairvoyant, but it wasn’t long before those surplus tickets were taken by Georgia’s eager fans.  There was good reason for that circumstance—Vince Dooley.

His teams started winning games in Jacksonville, and it was great fun for the Georgia fans to flock to the Georgia coast and the resorts of the Jacksonville area.  The game became a must with Bulldog fans.  Today, the fall vacation has all sorts of options from golf, primarily, to tennis to fishing.   Fans start making their plans early in the year for the Florida weekend.

Even with Florida’s success in the nineties and the early part of the first decade of 2000, the Bulldog fans soldiered on and kept a stiff upper lip.  Network television became an annual companion.  This game has become one of the most popular on the fall TV schedule.

“The atmosphere for that game is one which is very special,” says Verne Lundquist, long time play-by-play announcer for CBS.  Lundquist heads to Ponte Vedra on Thursday to enjoy dinner with friends.   “The weather is usually just right and the fans of both teams are always primed for a peak performance,” he adds.  “Usually it is an exciting game.”

Georgia fans should lift a glass this weekend in memory of Joel Eaves who made it a central objective to bring equality to the game which went beyond maintaining that Georgia would get half the good tickets and half the tickets printed for the game.

There were other significant issues.  Florida took it for granted that they would run the game and distribute the tickets in their best interests.  The city of Jacksonville was even more cavalier.    They paid no attention to the real needs of the Georgia team.   For example, it is commonplace for teams to book only a one night motel stay when they travel to out of town sites.  The motels in Jacksonville did not want to host the Bulldogs.  They expected to get a two night minimum.  Coach Eaves then threatened to move the game to a home and home rotation.   It was not a bluff and they city finally realized he meant business.    He further demanded that the city find the Georgia team attractive, comfortable quarters at a reasonable rate.    The city met with the motel/hotel association and a deal was struck.

As you enjoy the Georgia-Florida weekend, be mindful of the influence Joel Eaves had on this game.

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