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Exploring 60 years of ‘Florida is ducking Florida State’ gripes

As the UF-FSU series takes a year off for the first time since its 1958 launch, we took a historical look at how it started (after a failed bill and a push from the governor).

Soon after the SEC announced its updated schedule that put the Florida-Florida Series on hold, a familiar line began to surface from Seminoles pockets of social media — one that dates back more than 60 years, to the last time the Gators and ‘Noles failed to play.

UF is ducking FSU.

“Playing and defeating the FSU team right now wouldn’t be very much harder than taking candy from a baby,” Wilbur Kinley wrote in the Tampa Daily Times in April 1955. “Then why in all get out would the Gators be ducking such a game? Far be it from us to furnish that answer. We don’t have it.”

Related: Florida-FSU series shelved as SEC football adopts conference-only, 10-game schedule

It’s unfair and incorrect to say the Gators are hiding from the ‘Noles this time. UF athletic director Scott Stricklin said he “made sure everyone understood” how important the rivalry is to the state, but the SEC’s powerbrokers preferred a league-only schedule to salvage as much as they can from a coronavirus-plagued season.

Even if UF-FSU had been preserved, there’s no guarantee it would have kicked off in Tallahassee. It’s possible, if not highly likely, that outbreaks will force cancellations or postponements once their seasons begin in September.

But the reality of a November without UF-FSU echoes back to the posturing and political maneuvering that eventually launched one of the fiercest rivalries in all of college sports.

The Seminoles were a young program in the 1950s when they started bringing up the possibility playing the Gators as a way to grow. UF wasn’t interested in helping FSU raise its profile or boost its in-state recruiting. In December 1954, Gators athletic director Bob Woodruff told his FSU counterpart, Howard Danford, he wouldn’t schedule the ‘Noles in football “at any time.”

Related: ACC football announces 2020 schedule update, opponents for FSU, Miami

Things began to change a month later. One state senator, Harry Stratton, said he planned to file legislation to force the teams to play because a game between the two could become the state’s greatest sporting event.

His Senate colleague, James E. Connor, agreed and submitted his bill first.

The Tampa Morning Tribune chronicled the legislative push to start a Florida-Florida State football series. [ TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

“I had hoped they would get together without a legislative act,” Connor told the Associated Press in April 1955, “but since it appears they will not I decided to proceed.”

Less than two weeks later, the bill was voted down 19-15.

“I hate to take issue,” Sen. R.B. Gautier said then, “but I think this legislature has things more important to do than to make two state universities play football games.”

Related: Why the pandemic led FAMU’s Calvin Ashley to end his college career and focus on the NFL draft

The legislature, maybe, but not the governor’s office.

Gov. LeRoy Collins helped keep the possibility of a game alive. FSU says “his influence” helped make the series kick off. Other accounts have described his role as prodding or leading back-room talks.

Regardless of his specific role, the months of discussion exploded that November when the state’s Board of Control ordered the Gators and Seminoles to “quit quibbling over details” and start figuring out how to play. If the school presidents couldn’t decide on the location and how to split the money, chairman Fred Kent said, “the board would do the jobs for them,” the Tampa Morning Tribune wrote.

In November 1955, the state's Board of Control ordered the Gators and Seminoles to start playing each other in football. [ TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

Two weeks later, the news was official. The teams would start playing in 1958, or earlier, if they could get out of preexisting matchups (they could not).

And the Gators and ‘Noles have met every year since — until this fall.

Stricklin called the development “disappointing.” FSU didn’t comment on the cancellation Thursday, and athletic director David Coburn declined to comment Friday, too.

Related: Gainesville, Tallahassee businesses agree: ‘God help us all if we don’t have football'

A spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis did not return a request for comment on whether his office will try to intervene or lobby for the game to take place, somehow, perhaps during bowl season.

The teams’ four-year series contract runs through the 2022 season.