Rise of a feud

An aerial of the Gator Bowl taken after 1969. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

The growth of Florida-Georgia and the Gator Bowl game led the City of Jacksonville to expand the stadium again in 1957 to 62 thousand seats. The fanfare around Florida-Georgia increased along with the ever-growing attendance, and the game gained a reputation for alcohol-fueled revelry. In the 1950s it was dubbed the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” by Florida Times-Union sports editor Bill Kastelz. Kastelz’s inspiration was an incident he witnessed in which a sloshed reveler stumbled up to an on-duty cop and offered him a drink. The name stuck and was used even in official sources for decades.

On the field, Georgia essentially monopolized the rivalry into the 1950s, winning 23 of the first 29 games (or 24 of 30, if the 1904 game is included). The Gators, who didn’t record a win until 1928, started evening the score in 1952, winning 10 of the next 12 games. The tides turned again in 1964, when Vince Dooley became Georgia’s new head coach. From then through the 1970s and 80s, Georgia dominated the series. Though the Gators often fielded terrific teams, time and again Georgia served as gatekeepers frustrating their championship drives. This was the fate of the championship-caliber 1966 Florida team led by quarterback Steve Spurrier, which came into Florida-Georgia undefeated but went home with a 27-10 loss.

Photograph of Florida quarterback Steve Spurrier behind center against Georgia in 1966. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Gator Bowl underwent additional expansion in 1974 and 1984, reaching a capacity of over 80 thousand. Festivities continued to grow as well. Built in 1987, the Jacksonville Landing became the epicenter of celebrations before, during and after the game, while tailgating in the parking lots and “RV City” near the stadium became more and more epic. Today, the festivities extend for days around the stadium and Downtown Jacksonville, with some fans camping out for over a week before the game.

Alcohol-related incidents in the 1980s nearly brought an end to the tradition. In 1984 Florida fans, euphoric and liquored up after a 27-0 victory that ended a 6-game Georgia winning streak, stormed the field and tore down the goalposts. In 1985, after Georgia upset the #1-ranked Gators 24-3, Bulldogs fans reenacted the feat and toppled the goalposts again in a frenzy that led to 65 arrests. With the current contract to play in Jacksonville coming to an end, both universities threatened not to renew if the havoc continued the next season. Subsequently, the City of Jacksonville cracked down on drinking in the stadium and had police patrol the field, stands and bathrooms to prevent a repeat. In an amusing effort to discourage fans from storming the goalposts again, the city offered them as trophies to the winner. Not caring to lug them back to their campuses, neither school ever claimed the prize. These events also brought an end to official use of the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” moniker by both the schools and the city.

New stadium, new era

Fans making noise in the stands of TIAA Bank Field. Image courtesy of WJCT.

The 1990s brought a number of changes to Florida-Georgia. The arrival of head coach Steve Spurrier to Florida in 1990 ushered in twenty years of Gator dominance in the game under Spurrier and his successors Ron Zook and Urban Meyer, bringing an abrupt end to over two decades of Bulldog ascendance. Additionally, while the game had often had strong championship implications for the teams for years, the split of the Southeastern Conference into Eastern and Western Divisions in 1992 elevated its significance to another level entirely. With both Florida and Georgia in the East Division, and often highly ranked, the game has frequently determined which will win the division title and proceed to the SEC Championship.

But by far the biggest change of this period was the stadium. When Jacksonville won its bid for an NFL expansion franchise and became home of the Jaguars, it moved to replace the Gator Bowl with a modern NFL-caliber stadium. Almost the entire stadium - everything but ramp infrastructure and the western upper deck added in the 1980s - was demolished and replaced with the new, big league Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, now named TIAA Bank Field. For two years, Florida-Georgia returned to the schools’ home stadiums before coming back to Jacksonville bigger than ever.

RV City in 2019, filling up days before the game. Image courtesy of WJCT.

Though long characterized by streaks, since 2010 the the game has been roughly evenly split. Now nearing 100 total games, Florida-Georgia remains a major tradition for Jacksonville, both universities, and fans across the region and the country. While there have been threats over the years to move the game - usually from partisans of whichever team is on the losing end of a streak - the schools have consistently renewed their contracts to play in the River City, most recently in 2019. There are good reasons for this. For one thing, due to tens of millions of dollars the game pumps into the local economy each year, the city can afford a lucrative payout to each team - $3.3 million a year as of 2018 - that far exceeds what the teams could earn in their home stadiums. But it’s worth more than money. For millions of fans across two states and beyond, and for tens of thousands of Jaxsons impacted directly and indirectly, Florida-Georgia isn’t just a game, or even a rivalry. It’s a tradition.


Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at wdelaney@moderncities.com.