You won’t find many fans of a home-and-home series here. Not many, as in hardly any.
The “First Coast,” as they call this area of northeast Florida, had a decidedly red tint to it Friday. It turns that color about this time every fall.
That’s because it’s covered up with Georgia fans. Yes, there are Florida fans, too. Just not as many of them.
For the Gators fans, this is the place they play a football game Saturday. For Bulldogs fans, this is a beach vacation, a retreat.
At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, it will be all about the contest, which eventually will produce an important outcome. The winner between No. 6 Florida and No. 8 Georgia likely will represent the Eastern Division in the SEC Championship game.
But until kickoff, and not long after the final horn, it will be strictly about having a good time.
“This is my favorite trip,” said Shellie Sullivan of Athens, who attended “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” for 26 consecutive years. “It’s like a vacation. It’s very much has a bowl vibe. I love how it’s split half-and-half.”
That streak is pretty impressive until compared with her husband. Greg Sullivan has made it to the game for 35 consecutive years.
What, no weddings, no illnesses, not conflicts?
“There’s been some bumps and bruises now,” Greg Sullivan said with a laugh. “We had a friend we had to carry to the hospital one time. Dancing too much, threw his back out. Had a big fight down at the stadium another time. We’ve had all kinds of things happen.”
Said his wife: “We’ve been sick before. Just had to push through.”
Keeping the game here has been a matter of increasing debate in recent years. It comes up for discussion fairly regularly since the teams’ contract with the city of Jacksonville in four-year increments. But the discourse has been more robust of late.
You can thank Kirby Smart for that. The Bulldogs’ fourth-year coach contends the game is not good for recruiting. Because it is played off campus, neither team is allowed to host prospects by NCAA rule. It’s a hindrance that Oklahoma-Texas and Army-Navy also must negotiate.
Never mind that Smart’s recruiting classes have had national rankings of 3, 1 and 2 the past three years, that’s ignoring some other inherent benefits playing the game here.
One is that the SEC’s TV agreement with CBS stipulates that the game always gets its prime 3:30 p.m. slot every year. So national exposure is assured.
Another advantage is the financial reward. Over the years, Jacksonville has continually increased its commitment to make sure that the game remains more profitable for the schools to play here rather than at their on-campus stadiums every other year. The city redoubled those efforts last week when it extended the agreement another four years. This time it substantially increased the annual guarantee, which will means UGA and Florida will bank $9 million every two years, as opposed to what would be about $3.8 million in a typical home-and-home arrangement.
Finally, there is the massive local impact here. The Bulldogs’ presence is always significant in Athens and Atlanta, but never is it as intensely felt as it is when the annual red-and-black pilgrimage comes south. Hotels and condominiums along the coast, otherwise nominally occupied this time of year, are glutted this weekend.
One such residence on Amelia Island has been occupied by Bob McLeod and his party of 24. That’s right, two dozen.
They were hard to miss Thursday night walking into Slider’s Seaside Grill, a popular hangout on Fernandina Beach, about 30 minutes northeast of Jacksonville. They entered in matching red T-shirts. Scripted in black on the front was “I’m with Bob,” inside a football. Underneath was the addendum … “and Bob’s a #DGD,” for “damn good dog.”
Bob had a shirt, too. His said only, “I’m Bob.”
Turns out that Bob has been coming to this game more than pretty much anybody. Since 1976, he said, without missing one.
A peanut farmer from Pineview, near Cordele, McLeod said he started out going with about 10 friends, but through several incarnations the group has grown over the years. They rent a house on Amelia Island, then on game day they all cram into McLeod’s RV and ride together to the game.
Twenty-three made the jaunt last year, so this year’s gameday haul with be record.
Bob, as one might suspect, would prefer they keep the game here forever.
“This is the epitome of football season for me is coming down here for Georgia-Florida,” McLeod said. “There’s nothing else like coming down here with family and friends and having a weekend in together. I love it being here.”
So does Evan Harbot of Milton. He came to this year’s game with the same two buddies he does every year, Scott Owen of Alpharetta and David “Guns” Gunnels of Canton. But this year they have a newbie.
“I like it here,” Harbot said. “I liked the idea that was floated about doing it two years in Jacksonville and then home-and-home. I think mixing in a little home-and-home I wouldn’t mind. But coming down here is a cool experience. It’s like a little mini-vacation in the fall. I probably tilt toward keeping it in Jacksonville. I know I wouldn’t travel to ‘the swamp.’”
Harbot also was staying on Amelia Island, though he’s done Ponte Vedra, St. Simons Island and the city of Jacksonville as well.
The city is trying to make itself more attractive to revelers as well. The Landing on the St. Johns River, long the party headquarters for this event, has been razed after falling into disrepair. In its place is a new development of restaurants of bars in an area on Adams Street and A. Randolph Boulevard right next to TIAA Bank Field and the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville.
It doesn’t seem to have caught on quite yet. Late Friday afternoon, in the hours before the baseball teams from Florida and Georgia were to play an exhibition game on Bragan Field, it was virtually desolate.
The baseball game was another wrinkle that’s been thrown in to keep atmosphere lively around this game. Oddly enough, the Sullivans weren’t planning to attend, even though they’re season-ticket holders and go to every Georgia baseball game in Athens.
They don’t need it.
“It doesn’t matter; this is my favorite game,” Shellie Sullivan said. “We’ve been to every SEC stadium except Texas A&M, only because we haven’t played them yet. We love coming here.”
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC