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UF-UGA feels out of place in Gainesville

It'll be as rare as Queen Elizabeth II in blue jeans. As strange as seeing a tooth-gapless David Letterman or a clean-shaven Andre Agassi.

Gators-Dawgs in Gainesville.

Under the lights.

Since 1933, when Franklin and Eleanor were White House rookies, Georgia-Florida college football has been a Jacksonville tradition loaded with athletic dramatics, Deep Dixie personality, interstate swaggering/bickering and ballpark booze.

I do mean loaded.

I'm glad that displacement is for two years only. Glad that after Saturday night's Dawgs-Gators affair at Florida Field, plus their 1995 date "Between the Hedges" at Sanford Stadium in Athens, the big Jacksonville deal is going to resume. Back to a reconstructed-for-the-NFL, more-palatial Gator Bowl, with the same old 1933-93 Florida-Georgia spirit, but hopefully not the same old spirits.

Other than the annual Texas-Oklahoma game in Dallas, there is nothing like UF-UGA in Jacksonville, with 40,000 bellowing Gator zealots sharing the big football house on the St. Johns with 40,000 "How 'Bout Them Dawgs!" screamers representing Georgia.

First time I saw a real football game, it was Georgia-Florida. I was 7. We lived two blocks from the Gator Bowl. My fellow second-graders advised, "There'll be a lot of people around here Saturday; they'll pay 50 cents each to park cars in your driveway." I got rich. Maybe $3. By halftime, we snuck into the stadium to watch Gators-Dawgs. It's been a part of my life ever since.

Sadly, the Gator Bowl got too old, too rusty, too ugly and too inadequate to efficiently cope with Florida-Georgia. Sadly, too much alcohol flowed, emotions too often went out of control and there were too many fights in and around the grand old stadium. Happily, there's an NFL franchise coming to my old hometown, the Jacksonville Jaguars, so the Gator Bowl is being rebuilt in handsome, comfortable, luxurious, accommodating, $130-million ways.

Roadways are being improved. Parking is being added. Law agencies swear it'll be a more sober Gator Bowl, something for which we teetotalers pray. Traditions are grand. Six decades of Gators-Dawgs past in Jax is warming to recount. But one claim should be gone for good _ the old Georgia-Florida reputation as the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party."

I'll drink to that.

"It's going to be really different," Bulldogs coach Ray Goff said about his upcoming one-time-only visit to Gainesville. "We've always looked up into those Jacksonville stands and seen alternating school colors, with 20,000 folks from Georgia in one corner, then 20,000 from Florida, then 20,000 more Dawgs and finally 20,000 more Gators. This year, we'll have just 10,000 voices there to pull for us, with 75,000 for them. I hope we can hear. More than that, I hope we can win."

Payback comes next year in Athens with 10,000 Gators up against 75,000 growling Dawgs. After that, the old rivals return to the unique normalcy of playing in Jacksonville every November. I mean, if anybody ever saw Georgia-Florida as normal.

Florida Field was opened in 1930, when Red Barber was a UF student play-by-play radio announcer. The following season, Dawgs-Gators was staged in Gainesville. A one-and-only deal, until now.

Saturday's occurrence is a necessary detour, awaiting a new and better and soberer Gator Bowl. But why did they have to sell out to TV, playing Florida-Georgia at night for the first time?

Is anything sacred?

Probably not.

In 1933, America was ravaged by the Great Depression. College football tickets were a low-priority purchase, ranking somewhere below food, clothing and shelter. But when the Bulldogs and Gators fought in Jacksonville, all seats were sold. It wasn't a bad train ride from Athens or Gainesville, so they stuck around for 60 years.

Periodically, there were rumors of defection, going to a home-and-home format. Mostly the flak came from Georgia people who saw Jacksonville as producing too much of a Gator edge. But the payday was so intoxicating, neither school could afford a change. UGA would fight for added leverage at the end of each Jacksonville contract, then wind up re-signing rather than resigning.

As it should be.

As it will be again.

As it should always be.

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