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October 28, 2014

We Love the WLOCP

You know this game has always been called the World’s Greatest Cocktail Party, do you know what is gonna happen here tonight, and up in St. Simons and Jekyll Island, and all those places where all those Dawg people have got these condominiums for four days? Man, is there going to be some property destroyed tonight!
—Larry Munson 

How do we Bulldogs describe the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, or the annual Georgia-Florida football game in Jacksonville and its surrounding days of partying? The easiest way to describe it is for you to simply go experience it for yourself. It’s something every football enthusiast should go do at least once in their lives, and if you do indeed have the experience, it likely won’t be your last trip to Jacksonville in late October-early November.

Perhaps the best way to describe Georgia-Florida weekend where the “weekend” is as long as four or five days for a good portion of Bulldogs followers is by the time Saturday finally arrives, many of us have nearly forgotten that there is actually a football game to be played.

Thus, the Bulldogs and Gators battling it out on the gridiron is only a small part of the Cocktail Party, which actually is a series of parties. The partying lasts for days and stretches for roughly 125 miles from St. Simon’s Island in Georgia to the north to Florida’s St. Augustine to the south, while leaving the fans of the losing team exclaiming an outcry that can be traced back in the rivalry for nearly 40 years: “We might have lost the game, but we’ll win the party!”

Outsiders to the Georgia-Florida rivalry often wonder why the game is played at an off-campus site and why particularly in Jacksonville, especially considering the “neutral” city is approximately 250 miles further from Athens than Gainesville. In the beginning, it’s evident that no one could determine the permanent site of the game, as four different cities hosted the series’ first four meetings. In the rivalry’s first 13 games over 30 seasons, from 1904 to 1933, not once was it held at the same site in consecutive years.

Played in 1904, the game’s first site was Central City Park in the city of Macon, Georgia. Like the game of football, the location of Georgia-Florida would soon change drastically and repeatedly, yet it’s interesting to note that the foundation of the Cocktail Party was already being built. Leading up to the initial meeting of the schools, Macon’s Telegraph stated, “The social side of the game will be a feature. Football has ever been the favorite of the ladies and doubtless will continue to be.”

In 1933 Jacksonville’s Fairfield Stadium hosted the Georgia-Florida game, and like the three previous meetings in the city, the contest was a complete sellout. It was decided then that because of the large crowd and since the two teams and their fans could easily reach Jacksonville by train, the following year’s game would be held at Fairfield Stadium, as well. 

In the early era of the sport, several rivalries, particularly in the South, usually met at a neutral site since the teams’ on-campus stadiums could not accommodate a large crowd. In fact, for a quarter-century, Georgia would face rival Auburn annually in neutral Columbus, Georgia only a week or two after playing Florida in Jacksonville. However, by the late 1950s, Columbus’ Memorial Stadium could no longer hold the number of spectators the Georgia-Auburn game was attracting, and the yearly meeting was moved to the home stadiums of the two schools.

Since 1933, except for a two-year period during the mid-1990s, when the Gator Bowl was being renovated, Georgia-Florida has remained in neutral Jacksonville. Currently, it is one of only two annual games in college football played at the same neutral site every year. The other is the Oklahoma-Texas rivalry—the “Red River Shootout,” or “Red River Rivalry” if you prefer to be politically correct—which takes place during the State Fair of Texas.

So, how do the last two remaining neutral-sited rivalries in college football compare to one another? For most Georgia fans, we haven’t the slightest idea. The weekend of Oklahoma-Texas, we’re usually in Athens or a place like Knoxville, watching our Bulldogs play. It’s hard to comprehend a football game at a State Fair, which prides itself on serving unusually deep-fried items. For most of us, a good party and a cocktail seem much more enticing than a huge Ferris wheel and a deep-fried Twinkie.

While the partying increased, so did the HATE.
Even before the start of World War II, the Georgia-Florida meeting in Jacksonville had already become an annual tradition. Just as anticipated as the game itself, if not more so, was the social aspect of the weekend, especially considering the performances by most of the Gators’ teams back then. Economically, the weekend was acknowledged as the biggest of the year for the city of Jacksonville, where the Bulldogs and Gators played a game on Saturday after the “spectators play one all night long,” according to sports writer Jack Troy in 1939.

“[The fans are] still up by the dawn’s early light,” said Troy. “There is no thought of sleep…if there is time, they go gaily to municipal stadium and see if they had figured things out.”

In the late 1950s, the annual event first came to be known by its distinguished title—the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Bill Kastelz, the editor of the Florida Times-Unioncreated the moniker but would use it just once in a column. Regardless, the nickname was soon picked up by other writers and the title stuck.

“All the other sports writers in the press box asked me why I wrote that, and I said because it was true,” said Kastelz in 2000. “There was drinking all over the place in those days. People would use their binocular cases to put a flask in there and drink very openly, and there was no crackdown.”

Prior to the 1960s, Florida Gators football was mostly about the parties rather than the team’s performances. The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party was brought to the attention of a national audience by writer John Underwood of Sports Illustrated, indicating that even “all the fun of the [Georgia-Florida] weekends could not make Florida fans happy with their lot.” 

Over the next decade or so, while Gators football started to slowly improve, the Cocktail Party was steadily growing even more in popularity.

The Spirit and "spirits" of 1976
By the 1970s, Georgia-Florida was viewed nationally as more of a spectacle lasting for days rather than a single football game. While the host city of Jacksonville had begun to devote months of planning for the weekend, some surrounding areas would prep for nearly an entire year for the pre- and post-game partying.

The rivalry was “the 100 proof bowl. The 2:00 pm happy hour,” said writer Ron Hudspeth just prior to the 1972 meeting. “The game with the extra touch of spirit and spirits. Hic.”

However, during this time, the week-long spectacle was evolving into something the city and its Gator Bowl had not originally planned for: the Cocktail Party was now fully overflowing into the stadium itself, while the crowd—split down the middle of the stadium according to rooting interest—had never been so raucous and inebriated, perhaps a little too much so. More and more Bulldogs and Gators fans were stuffing liquor bottles into every little nook and cranny of clothing prior to entering the Gator Bowl, and often in plain view of law enforcement without hesitation.

After Georgia’s memorable comeback victory over Florida in 1976, elated Bulldogs fans spilled into the stadium’s end zones and tore down both goal posts in what was thought to be the first time the Jacksonville stadium’s posts had ever been dismantled. A high school football game immediately followed Georgia’s win and the teams were forced to use a single makeshift structure as a goal post. The celebratory act by Bulldogs fans would eventually cost the Gator Bowl $2,695 for a set of new goal posts.

During the game in 1978, reports of gate-crashing by frustrated fans unable to get tickets surfaced. Groups of as many as 50 individuals rushed past ticket-takers or climbed fences to enter the stadium and join the party in the stands. When Georgia defeated Florida by a mere two points, some UGA students attempted exactly what they had done the last time the Bulldogs had defeated the Gators and tear down the goal posts. This time, however, they were met by a ring of police, preventing any fans into the end zone. For any student who happened to reach the field, he or she was soon tackled or beaten back away from the Gator Bowl’s newly installed goal posts.

All that's missing from this shot of the Gators'
celebration of '84 is for those jeans to be jorts.
For six straight years from 1978 to 1983, Georgia defeated Florida and for each of the six occasions, Bulldogs fans attempted to rush onto the Gator Bowl turf, but to no avail. For some of those who tried to reach the field, they were met by Jacksonville’s finest, who would often make arrests and on occasion physically throw students over a dividing fence.

In 1984 Florida defeated Georgia soundly by a score of 27–0 for what seemed like the Gators’ first victory in the series in an eternity. Florida fans stormed the field, unearthed a newly sodded playing surface, tore down and dismantled both goal posts, carried them around, and eventually left the Gator Bowl with the goal posts in tow. Like previous years, police had been posted around the field to prevent fans from entering. However, during the mêlée, officers merely watched as the destruction took place and did not make a single arrest. Police restraint was exercised, according to a spokesman for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s office, “because the surge of fans was too great.”

Jacksonville’s mayor at the time and an apparent Florida fan, Jake Godbold, inexplicably stated that the city “would be tickled to death to pay for [any damages to the field]. If [the Gators] beat ’em like that next year, they can tear it down then, too.”

Much to the mayor’s presumed dismay, there would be no victory for the Gators in 1985, but instead a 24–3 Georgia upset win over a top-ranked Florida team. As the Gators had done the year before, Bulldogs fans attempted to rush the field following the victory by climbing over a fence; however, this time, the jubilant crowd was held back by police. Nonetheless, spectators would eventually open a gate and soon there was a red and black throng covering the field.

Jacksonville police did not exercise restraint that particular year as law enforcement took to the Georgia crowd wielding nightsticks. Numerous arrests were made while 15 fans were treated on the field alone for injuries suffered during the police-engaged chaos.

Entering the 1986 match-up, a “war on alcohol” was more or less declared in and around the stadium and security was greatly increased. This included the addition of police dogs, mounted police on horses, undercover law enforcement, reinforced fences, and, if necessary, even helicopters and marine patrol boats could be used. Apparently, lessons had been learned from previous years and drastic steps were taken by both teams and the city of Jacksonville to keep the Cocktail Party out of the confines of the Gator Bowl.

The notion of moving the Georgia-Florida game out of Jacksonville periodically or entirely, and converting the rivalry to an on-campus series or one which includes an additional neutral site, like Atlanta, is nothing new. The idea was suggested as far back as the 1970s when the city of Jacksonville and the stadium’s handling of the game was first widely criticized. Specifically, price gouging by hotels, poor supervision of parking by police officers, and gate-crashing at the Gator Bowl, which had reportedly increased attendance by as many as 3,000 spectators above capacity, were all cited as primary reasons why the game possibly needed a new home.

The idea of moving the game was again suggested off and on throughout the 1990s and 2000s. However, instead of the host city’s management of the game being challenged as before, the actual “neutrality” of Jacksonville was questioned by Georgia supporters. As indicated, “The Bold New City of the South,” as Jacksonville is called, is a heck of a lot further south toward Gainesville than Athens.

Admittedly, for the Bulldogs backers who want to take the game out of Jacksonville, the primary reason for this sentiment—and if we’re being totally honest—is simply because of Georgia’s struggles in the series the last couple of decades. However, that’s not the city of Jacksonville’s fault or its stadium, rather players and coaching should be held accountable. Few Bulldogs wanted to take the game out of town when we defeated the Gators 13 of 16 times from 1974 to 1989.

Most Georgia fans want to keep this game right where it is. Besides the rivalry’s tradition and party-like atmosphere, both universities currently make more revenue from the game at its current location on a yearly basis than if the site rotated between the schools’ respective home stadiums. In addition, the week of the game is extremely lucrative for the city of Jacksonville, which stands to lose millions of dollars each year of not hosting the rivalry. As mentioned, the weekend is the biggest of the year for the city and has been since the 1930s.

Former Jacksonville mayor Hans Tanzler might have put it best when the possibility of moving the game out of his city was introduced to him in 1978: “Talking about moving, it doesn’t make any sense. It ain’t going to be moved. No. 1, it’s too valuable.”

The mayor would be correct in his assessment, at least for the next nearly 40 years. In 2009 UGA’s athletic board unanimously agreed to a multi-year contract, keeping the game in Jacksonville through 2016.

I concur.
Soon after the city cracked down on excessive drinking at the game during the mid-1980s, Jacksonville dropped its use of the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” title. In 2006 UGA President Michael Adams led a campaign to do away the phrase altogether. CBS Sports, who televises the game annually, and two other networks were approached and asked to drop the phrase due to concerns regarding alcohol abuse by attendees. Reportedly, preferred titles were the “Georgia-Florida Football Classic” or the “Florida-Georgia Football Classic,” depending on which school was considered the home team.

During the president’s campaign, his spokesman stated to the Associated Press: “We don’t like phrase. We don’t use the phrase. We would prefer that nobody use the phrase.”

The fact that Adams, or anyone for that matter, doesn’t use the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” is absolutely fine, but to suggest that nobody should use the title may be going too far. Many Bulldogs familiar with the rivalry have used the phrase since they can remember, and will continue to do so.

In reality, when CBS Sports was initially contacted about the issue, the network indicated that it rarely used the phrase to begin with, if at all. “[The phrase is] not part of the focus of CBS coverage,” said Leslie Anne Wade, vice president of communications for CBS Sports. “CBS coverage is about the rivalry and the competitive match-up of these two schools.”

The fact of the matter is that Georgia-Florida could be labeled the “World’s Largest Outdoor Ring-Around-the-Rosie Party,” and drinking—some of it binge, most of it controlled—would undoubtedly still occur outside the stadium. For most Georgia fans, the campaign to drop a phrase that had been around since most anyone could remember was believed to be yet another example of people in power attacking everything but the actual problem itself.

In closing, you can have your “Georgia-Florida Football Classic,” or whatever ho-hum label you choose. For Georgia and Florida fans alike, most undoubtedly prefer to use the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.”

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