Sorry, Kirby Smart: Florida and Georgia should always play in Jacksonville | David Whitley

David Whitley
Gator Sports

Timing is everything. So here’s hoping Georgia officials were too busy backing up the Brink’s truck to hear what Kirby Smart said during SEC Media Days in Atlanta.

As they were finalizing details on Smart’s new contract, their coach was again lobbying to move the Florida-Georgia game out of Jacksonville.

Of course, it’s hard to ignore a guy you’ll be paying $112.5 million to over the next 10 years. So when word of Smart’s stump speech got back to Athens, we can hope Georgia administrators quietly shook their heads and whispered, “That’s just Kirby being Kirby.”

Please, Dawgs. Give him another $15 million in unmarked NIL bills. Name a new variety of peach after him.

Just don’t let Smart talk you into moving the Florida-Georgia game.

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Let's not spoil this tradition 

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart speaks during NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days, Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Or is it Georgia-Florida?

That largely depends on which state you live in. Though I grew up in Jacksonville, I never was quite convinced the city was located south of the state line.

When the conversation turned to football, it seemed there were as many Bulldogs as Gators who’d chime in. That made Jacksonville the perfect spot for the border battle.

Georgia fans invade the vacation islands just north of the border. RVs show up 96 hours before kickoff. Downtown is overrun by partiers who (mostly) observe a friendly détente.

I know I sound like an old man yelling at Kirby to get off my Duval County lawn, but seeing half the stadium in red-and-black and the other half in orange-and-blue really is a sight to behold.

Georgia-Florida in Jacksonville is a — and forgive my nostalgia — tradition.

You remember those?

Given the upheaval in college sports and society, maybe not. But I’m old enough to remember when USC didn’t schedule conference games in New Jersey. I fear the day is coming when Gator fans will sing, “We Are the Zes From Old Florida.”

Georgia-Florida has been played in Jacksonville since 1933. Other than a 1943 break for World War II, the only break came when the stadium was being rebuilt for two years in the mid-1990s.

Crews excavated a bathroom containing a couple of passed-out frat boys with long beards. They were revived and immediately yelled that Doug Dickey should be fired for going for it on fourth down on the Gator 29-yard line.

The on-campus games were interesting. Florida fans will forever be grateful Spurrier was allowed to hang “half a hundred” on the Bulldogs in Athens in 1995. But mostly, they felt like just another big game on the season’s schedule.

Nothing matters more to some coaches than recruiting

Smart was a freshman safety on that ’95 team. You’d think he’d have more of a soft spot for the rivalry, but that’s not what makes Kirby Kirby.

He is a coaching automaton. The kind of guy who works 140 hours a week and lives in constant fear that somehow, somewhere a rival coach might be outworking him by breaking down game tape at 3 a.m.

When it comes to such work, nothing matters more than recruiting. Smart would reschedule Christmas if opening presents kept him from texting a three-star cornerback from Moultrie.

He’s convinced that nothing impresses recruits quite like seeing a big home game. Playing in Jacksonville means one fewer SEC game at Sanford Stadium.

“It’s an opportunity for us to bring these kids, who fly in from all over the country,” Smart said. “What game do they come see Georgia play? They’d like to see Georgia play Florida, but they can’t.”

That doesn’t seem to have hurt Georgia’s recruiting lately, but who knows? Maybe Arch Manning would have committed to the Dawgs if last year’s Florida game had been between the hedges. That microscopic possibility is what haunts guys like Smart.

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But if big home games are so vital, why did Georgia sign on for neutral-site games against Oregon this year and Clemson in 2024? There’s also money to consider, especially when you’re paying your head coach about $11 million a year.

UF makes approximately $6 million to $7 million on home games, but zero on road games. Both teams pocket about $4.5 million a year from Jacksonville, so they’d be losing at least $1 million a year if they went home-and-home.

That current contract runs through 2023, with two option years. What are the chances this will be the last deal and Jacksonville will be abandoned come 2026?

“No one from their administration has brought this up to us,” Florida Athletic Director Scott Stricklin said Friday.

If they do, let’s hope it’s just to humor Kirby. He’s a great coach and worth every penny of his new contract. But he needs to realize there really is more to life and college football than recruiting.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley