By Garry Smits, GateHouse Florida
JACKSONVILLE — Coaches keep throwing shade on the future of the Florida-Georgia game in Jacksonville.
Two months after Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart made the most recent of several public complaints that having a neutral site game every year in Jacksonville hurts his recruiting, Gators coach Dan Mullen chimed in on Monday at SEC Media Days with the opinion that “you can make an argument either way” about whether the game should remain in Jacksonville — where it has been for 85 years — or be taken to the respective home stadiums of each school, or to another neutral site such as Atlanta.
“I think you can make arguments on both sides of why it should stay in Jacksonville, why it should leave Jacksonville and be a home-and-home,” he went on, speaking at a Hoover, Ala., hotel. “It think it will be an interesting discussion the next couple of years of when the contract runs up of what the future is going to be for that game.”
The Gators will have two neutral-site games this year, opening on Aug. 24 in Orlando against Miami, then facing Georgia on Nov. 2 at TIAA Bank Field.
The Florida-Georgia game was first played in Jacksonville in 1933 and has been there every year except 1943 (because of World War II) and in 1994 and 1995, when it was played in Gainesville and Athens, Ga., because of renovations to the stadium for the Jaguars entry into the NFL.
The game is estimated to bring $35 million annually in economic impact to the First Coast and the Golden Isles in south Georgia.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry has been adamant that the city will do what it takes to keep the game, and conversations with the schools have been ongoing. The current contract expires after the 2021 game.
“Jacksonville is proud to host this game,” Curry said in a statement following Smart’s remarks in May. “The [Curry] administration is in active discussions with both schools to keep this long-standing tradition in Jacksonville where it belongs.”
It’s also worth noting that Mullen and Smart are not part of the negotiations. The city deals with the athletic directors, Scott Stricklin of Florida and Greg McGarity of Georgia.
Under the current terms of the contract, the teams are paid $250,000 per year and split the gate, which comes to around $3.3 million each.
Mullen admitted that the history of the game would make it difficult to justify a change in venue. The only other annual neutral-site games in the Football Bowl Subdivision are Texas vs. Oklahoma in Dallas and Army-Navy, usually in Philadelphia.
“Being in a neutral site obviously makes it a very special game, a very unique game you get to coach in,” he said. “There’s not many of those in college football. That’s something special to say that you got to play in this very special, unique game.”
But he also fell back on the loss of one home game as it pertains to fans and recruiting. Each team gets around 40,000 tickets for Florida-Georgia, while a home game makes more than double that amount available.
“You’re taking one of your biggest rivalry games every year, and you’re moving it off campus where you can’t host that in your home stadium for your fans, all of your season ticket-holders, for recruiting,” he said.
Georgia leads the series 50-43-2 and won 36-17 last year. The Gators are 21-7 against the Bulldogs since 1990.
Garry Smits is a sports writer with the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.