Gene Frenette: Florida-Georgia tradition should take priority over Kirby Smart's recruiting obsession

Gene Frenette
Florida Times-Union
Georgia football coach Kirby Smart, seen here speaking at SEC Media Days, is adamant about taking the Florida-Georgia game out of Jacksonville to a home-and-home series so he can host recruits at the event every two years.

College football traditions as we once knew them continue to be cast aside like a single-digit iPhone.

Between legal seven-figure NIL deals for athletes once paid under the table, to USC and UCLA leaving the Pac-12 for Big Ten riches, who knows what this game might look like in five or 10 years. 

And if Georgia coach Kirby Smart has his way, the sacred cow of the annual Florida-Georgia game remaining in Jacksonville would also be no more. He’s ready to take nearly a century-old event and kick it to the curb, so Herschel Walker, Appleby-to-Washington and Belue-to-Scott be damned. 

Smart’s reasoning, which he reiterated at SEC Media Days and then verbally jousted with Florida Gator legend Tim Tebow about it on SEC Network, is he feels obligated to remove the Bulldogs’ competitive disadvantage in recruiting. 

Gene's previous three columns:

The biggest thorn in Nick Saban’s side feels not being able to entertain recruits on campus for a big rivalry game every two years — always playing Florida at neutral-site TIAA Bank Field robs him of that opportunity — might compel some 4-star and 5-star prospects to go elsewhere. 

Never mind that Georgia or anybody else can’t sign every big-time recruit who visits its campus. Or that Smart’s last five classes, according to 247Sports, have been nationally ranked No. 3, 4, 1, 2 and 1, respectively. Or that the ‘Dogs have won four of the last five meetings against the Gators with relative ease. 

That’s not good enough for Smart, who is so uber-focused on recruiting that he couldn’t care less about the game played continuously in Jacksonville since 1933, except for 1993-94 when the Gator Bowl was refurbished to accommodate the Jaguars’ NFL arrival. 

“The historical nature of [Florida-Georgia] isn’t important to Kirby,” said former Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity, now CEO of the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. “But to those who played in it, they always remember that game. With the 50-50 split of fans at the stadium, it’s a great experience. 

“Remember, if you change it [move it to a home-and-home series], you’re changing it for good. I don’t think that’s a wise thing to do when the vast majority enjoy the experience. Plus, it’s something unique and unusual.” 

McGarity hired Smart, who brought up moving the event once known as the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party every year to his boss. The request didn't get far, mainly because Georgia came out $2 million ahead each year from the game payout. 

“You’re never going to make anyone happy in the decision, therefore you do what’s best for the institution,” said McGarity. “It was both a financial and historical decision.” 

It's also the right call. If Smart thinks beating Saban’s ‘Bama dynasty twice in the same season is an arduous task (he won the biggest matchup last year in the CFP championship), then trying to pry the Florida-Georgia game out of Jacksonville might feel almost like a climb up Mount Everest.

Between college football fans in the 904 relishing this spectacle, the Jaguars’ symbiotic relationship with the city on prioritizing the Florida-Georgia game, and a tradition predating World War II, moving this event out of Jacksonville is going to be more daunting for Smart than any of his recruiting battles. 

“Why mess up a good thing?” 

There’s no question Smart’s unabashed stance on moving the game to school campuses carries weight, especially with him leading the Bulldogs to their first national title since 1980 and recently signing a 10-year, $112.5 million contract. 

But there’s a difference between what a high-profile coach wants and what he gets, especially in a debate where finding influential allies isn’t easy. 

Speaking with several former Georgia players from a past generation, you’d be hard pressed to find many who like the idea of sabotaging tradition.  

“I love Kirby [Smart], think he’s an awesome guy and coach, but that’s one thing I disagree with him on,” said Gordon Terry, a Bulldogs’ defensive end (1976-79) and product of The Bolles School. “There’s too much tradition. To have it go back and forth between Athens and Gainesville, that doesn’t really work. 

“He’s done a good job without [the game being home-and-home], so why mess up a good thing? It’d be a shame if they did away with it.” 

Tommy Thurson, a Bishop Kenny graduate and three-year Georgia starting linebacker (1980-83), has worked at Georgia Southern for over a decade and can’t wrap his head around the idea of moving the Florida-Georgia game. 

“Those are Kirby’s thoughts and he does a great job, but I don’t feel that way,” said Thurson. “I wasn’t even 18-years-old when I played in my first game against Florida. With that stadium being half and half, it’s a different feeling playing in that game. 

“Just the whole area and atmosphere, you can feel it. I think that’s something a young man would like to experience. It’s a great thing, it being in Jacksonville. It needs to stay.” 

Obviously, this isn’t a one-sided debate. Plenty of Georgia fans see merit in Smart’s position, maybe more so now that he’s brought ‘Dawg nation a long-awaited national title. 

Pete Anderson, a New Jersey native who made All-America in his third season as a starting center for the 1985 Bulldogs, appears a bit conflicted about the Florida-Georgia venue topic. 

“I’d hate to see the game leave Jacksonville, but in Kirby we trust,” said Anderson, who works in the real estate industry in Jacksonville. “In college football, everything is off the books. All the traditions are being threatened."

Smart fires back at Tim Tebow 

As the third longest neutral site rivalry in college football — behind Army-Navy that is played in Philadelphia and other venues, along with the Red River rivalry clash between Oklahoma and Texas in Dallas — it'd take an extraordinary set of circumstances to get the game yanked out of Jacksonville. 

For one thing, neither Jacksonville mayor Lenny Curry, his successor next year or any city politicians want to see this game lost on their watch. That’s not a gut punch any of them care to absorb. 

Those in positions of power at Florida, including athletic director Scott Stricklin and predecessor Jeremy Foley, have been adamant over the years about keeping the game in Jacksonville. 

Even if Smart could get his AD, Josh Brooks, and Georgia president Jere Morehead to side with him, it’d still be an uphill fight to move the game out of TIAA Bank Field. 

The current contract guarantees the game will be played here for the next two football seasons, with options for 2024 and ‘25. That likely means negotiations for a contract extension, which has a deadline of June 30, 2023, will probably start early next year. 

Just don’t expect the recruiting-obsessed Smart, for as long as he’s at Georgia, to not be a bulldog about moving the game out of Jacksonville. When Tim Tebow initiated a discussion with him on SEC Network, telling Smart “I’ve got a bone to pick with you” and questioning his position on moving the game because “it’s literally one of the best environments,” the Georgia coach immediately returned fire. 

“Why is it one of the best environments? How many times have you played in Athens, Tim?” said Smart. 

After Tebow replied none, the Georgia coach added: “How many times did we get to play in Gainesville? I think that’s special.” 

Smart went on to argue that other SEC teams get to host recruits at their biggest rivalry games and he simply wants equal recruiting time to do the same. From a coaching perspective, it's a fair argument and Tebow conceded that point.

But it doesn’t change the fact it’d take close to an act of Congress for Jacksonville to lose the Florida-Georgia spectacle. The annual pilgrimage to the banks of the St. Johns River means too much to generations of fans on both sides of the aisle.

Jacksonville makes Florida-Georgia special 

McGarity understands the dynamics from both sides as well as anybody, having spent about two decades working in athletic administration at both schools. He remembers what a different feeling it was during those two years when the game had to move to campus sites. 

“We tried home and home, but the buzz around the game was no different than it was for LSU or Auburn,” said McGarity. “The visiting team got only 5,000 tickets. It was just like another home game. Nothing special.” 

That’s the risk of taking the game away from Jacksonville. It’s more than just losing tradition. No longer seeing the stadium split in quarters — equal parts orange and blue and red and black — would diminish the vitality of the series.

Curry, a UF graduate who has fond memories of attending his first Florida-Georgia game as a young teenager, says he understands Smart wanting to move the game for purposes of leverage in recruiting. But he believes the event's tradition and its importance to Jacksonville is too big to ever let it go elsewhere.

“It’s not just about recruiting the best players in the country and winning a football game," Curry said." It’s much bigger than one person or one era. There's political leadership, business leadership, a lot of stakeholders that transcend what happens on the field. Those voices have to be heard. In the end, mayors, ADs, coaches, players, journalists, we’re all going to come and go. What remains is the generations of tradition. That transcends the game.

"When I leave office, whoever's in there -- Republican, Democrat, Green Party, whatever -- I'm all in with them keeping this game here. You never take this game for granted. I don't see that game not being in Jacksonville."

Former Georgia safety and Jacksonville native Mike Fisher, who sealed the Bulldogs’ 1980 victory with an interception in the final seconds, has a different reason for maintaining the status quo. He doesn’t want future players denied the privilege of being part of this neutral-site extravaganza. 

“I remember coming out of that tunnel for the first time in 1978. All I could smell was the alcohol,” said Fisher. “You can’t relive that. You may never get that chance again. 

“This game goes through grandpas, daddies and kids. It’s hard to define that unless you’re a part of it. But it’s in your blood. It’s too good to give up on.” 

Kirby Smart is a terrific salesman who will probably win a lot more games for a long time at Georgia, but fighting to move the Florida game out of Jacksonville is as close as it gets to a no-win situation. 

College football is losing enough tradition. It’s better off having Jacksonville hang on to this one. (904) 359-4540 

Gene Frenette Sports columnist at Florida Times-Union, follow him on Twitter @genefrenette