Kirby Smart may be getting his wish, at least temporarily, regarding the location of the annual Georgia/Florida football matchup.
Jacksonville mayor Lenny Curry conceded yesterday during a radio interview that renovations to TIAA Bank Stadium will likely force the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars to play elsewhere in 2025 and 2026. But he also allowed that the work will likely force the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party to a home-and-home rotation during that period (discussion of the WLOCP begins at the 2:30 mark).
Ideally the teams would then return to the banks of the St. Johns in 2027. For those of you making long range travel plans, the Bulldogs are the home team under the current schedule configuration during even-numbered years, so that the 2025 game would likely be in Gainesville and the 2026 contest in Athens. This is of course subject to the other SEC scheduling shenanigans surrounding the expansion to 16 teams and demise of divisional play.
Anyone who’s regularly ventured down to the old Gator Bowl knows that renovations have helped it keep pace with college venues, at least outside the SEC, in terms of amenities and condition. It’s a lot nicer joint than it was 20 years ago. And many have forgotten that immediately following Larry Munson’s 1980 “Run Lindsey! Run!” call the Legendary Voice quipped “they really are gonna have to renovate this place now!” Eventually they did, and it’s served its purpose.
But TIAA is first and foremost an NFL venue, and there’s no doubt that it isn’t up to par with the pigskin palaces cropping up elsewhere in that league. For the long term health of Duval County’s relationship with the Jags this move absolutely makes sense. As the hosts fairly point out, mayor Curry previously speculated that the renovation might be completed so as to avoid moving games. That has always seemed like a bit of a pipe dream, especially given the logistics of doing a full rebuild.
Curry did note that the city’s goal is for Jags’ games to be played in the Jacksonville area during renovations. But that goal is likely to run into some hard logistical realities. The University of North Florida has a 12,000 seat stadium which might work in a pinch for the Jaguars, but is wholly unsuitable for the swarm of humanity that is the Georgia/Florida game.
Coach Smart has long maintained that he would prefer the game to be played in Athens every other year. While Kirby is a traditionalist on many issues surrounding the program, on this one he is a ruthless realist.
If Kirby is breathing, Kirby is ‘crootin. NCAA regulations now allow teams to provide tickets to recruits for neutral site games but because they are off-campus staff members can’t have any contact with the recruits they invite. It’s a bit of an antiquated policy, but then the NCAA is a bit of an antiquated organization. It’s not like Georgia is struggling to bring talent to Athens, but it perennially sticks in the top ‘Dawg’s craw that he gets one less on-campus recruiting weekend every other year when he decamps down to the capital of South Georgia to feast on Gator.
If games were played on campus the weekend would allow Smart to have recruits visit Georgia’s state-of-the-art recruiting palace, a labyrinth of opulence tailor made to convince recruits to sign on the red and black dotted line. It’s also likely that the game would immediately become one of both schools’ biggest home recruiting weekends.
The real question becomes what would happen once both schools got the chance to host the Cocktail Party and then Jacksonville officials sought to lure them back. As Curry conceded the plan is for the remodeled stadium to be open for business in 2027. That’s no guarantee, as anyone who’s ever dealt with a commercial construction project can attest. Delays happen.
And once Kirby Smart and whoever is coaching the Gators in three years get back on campus it will take an even sweeter package to lure their respective athletic departments back. Mayor Curry leaves office on July 1st, so putting together the package to bring the game back to town will be a task for his successor (possibly even his successor’s successor depending on the timeline). It’s unclear what the city’s financial position will be when that day comes, though there will likely remain strong political support for bringing the game back to Duval County.
As a Bulldog fan who grew up south of the gnat line this game means more to me than any other annual contest on the Athenians’ schedule. And the location in Jacksonville, with all those ‘Dawg people who have those condos on Jekyll and St. Simons, is a part of that. In my mind playing this game anywhere else would be like siting the movie Casablanca in Newark. But the reality of NFL economics has intervened. I personally hope the game is back where it belongs as soon as possible. There’ve been a lot of bricks pulled out of the traditional wall of college football over the past few years. Some of them were crumbling and needed to be replaced. But the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party will in my mind always belong in Jacksonville. Until later….