Birth of a rivalry

Postcard from the disputed 1904 game between Georgia and the University of Florida in Lake City, previously Florida Agricultural College. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

The annual football game between the University of Florida Gators and the University of Georgia Bulldogs, usually known simply as Florida-Georgia (or Georgia-Florida, depending on your location and allegiance), is one of the great rivalries in college sports. One of the few remaining neutral site games in college football, it brings tens of thousands of fans of both teams to Jacksonville every year for a heated contest. The rivalry is so bitter that the two teams don’t even agree on when it began.

Georgia counts a 1904 game in Macon, Georgia against a school that was indeed named the University of Florida. However, Florida holds that this school, located in Lake City and previously known as Florida Agricultural College, was not the true University of Florida, but one of its predecessors. In 1905, the Florida Legislature merged the Lake City school and three others into the modern university in Gainesville, and that united school didn’t field a football team until 1906. Florida officials muddy the waters by claiming a founding date of 1853, the year another of the three predecessor schools, East Florida Seminary, opened its doors. The fact that Georgia won that game 52-0 likely contributes to the dispute. Georgia tennis coach and sports historian Dan Magill summed up Georgia’s position succinctly: “That’s where Florida was back then. We can’t help it if they got run out of Lake City.”

Connie Mack and the Philadelphia Athletics in spring training at Barrs Field in Jacksonville in 1916. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

The first game both schools agree upon took place in Jacksonville in 1915 at Barrs Field, now J.P. Small Memorial Stadium, a baseball field in Durkeeville that was home to the minor league Jacksonville Tarpons and of spring training for various major league teams. Georgia carried the day with a score of 37-0. At this time, the Gators’ home field was small, so they typically played big games in larger cities, with regular games in Jacksonville. The Gators and Bulldogs met again in a variety of cities, including Georgia’s home field in Athens (1916, 1920, 1926, and 1932), Tampa (1919), Jacksonville (1927 and 1929), Savannah (1928 and 1930), and Gainesville (1931). Starting in 1928, the schools, by then members of the Southern Conference, made Florida-Georgia an annual affair.

Finding a home in Jacksonville

The Florida-Georgia game at Florida Field on October 31, 1931. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

In 1927, Jacksonville opened a new football field, the 7600-seat Fairfield Stadium, the precursor to the Gator Bowl. Built through an agreement between the City of Jacksonville and the Duval County School Board, it primarily served as the home field for the city’s three new white high schools, Jackson, Lee and Landon. When it opened, Governor John W. Martin called it “the best place in Florida to see a football game.” The stadium soon emerged as one of the premier football facilities in the Southeast.

The University of Florida saw the potential of Fairfield Stadium, and began scheduling three to four games a year there, including Florida-Georgia games in 1927 and 1929. While the Gators got their own, 21 thousand-seat stadium in 1930, both they and the Bulldogs had come to appreciate the benefits of neutral games in bigger cities with potentially higher ticket prices and easier access by roads and railways. Jacksonville, in particular, offered convenient railroad access to both Gainesville and Athens. In 1933, Jacksonville became the permanent home of the Florida-Georgia game.

Packed stands at the newly expanded Fairfield Stadium in 1948. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

In 1948-49, Fairfield Stadium was expanded to 36,000 seats and renamed the Gator Bowl, after a new annual post-season game first hosted in 1946. Overnight, Florida-Georgia became an even bigger draw. To date, there have only been three years since 1933 that the game wasn’t played in Jacksonville: 1943, when World War II called away so many young men that Florida didn’t field a team, and 1994 and 1995, when the construction of what’s now TIAA Bank Field temporarily sent the game to the teams’ home stadiums.

Next page: Rise of a feud