Georgia head coach Kirby Smart has celebrated five wins over Florida as head coach of the Bulldogs. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
ccompton@ajc.com

Jacksonville mayor on Georgia-Florida: ‘We’re going to fight to keep this game here’

ATHENS — Jacksonville mayor Lenny Curry said he understands Kirby Smart gets paid to win football games.

But Curry gets paid to help the city of Jacksonville make money, and that means doing whatever it takes to keep Georgia playing Florida 340 miles away from Athens in Jacksonville.

“Coaches have a job to do and that is to win football games, and at that level, it’s all about recruiting, so I get it,” Curry told 1010XL on Friday.

“And I understand where the coach (Kirby Smart) wants to head.”

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But, Curry pointed out, since being sworn into office in 2015, he has successfully negotiated with Georgia, working things out with former Bulldogs AD and current Gator Bowl president Greg McGarity.

McGarity enjoyed a successful 44-year run working in administration at Georgia and Florida, where he built a great appreciation for the game, which is currently contracted through the 2023 season.

Smart, who hails from South Georgia and played in the rivalry game in Jacksonville, has won four of six games against the Gators as head coach.

Georgia, however, has yet to derail the Alabama dynasty, with the Tide winning the SEC title game 41-24 before the Bulldogs rebounded with a 33-18 CFP title game win.

Smart, now believed to be the highest-paid coach with a 10-year, $112.5-million contract, shared on the SEC Network last week that not getting to host recruits in games against the program’s biggest rival puts the Georgia football program at a disadvantage.

“It would be like me saying in June there are four weekends you can have prospects on campus, but at Georgia, you can only have three,” Smart said.

“That’s what it’s like, (like) I’m self-sanctioning myself an opportunity to have the best prospects in the country, fly into Atlanta and drive over every other year to see Georgia play Florida.”

Curry said he understands Smart’s plight, but his priority is taking care of the Jacksonville community, which in 2018 was estimated to bring in some $35 million in economic impact from the game.

“Kirby Smart values recruiting, which he should, he’s going to fight for what he believes is the best interest in recruiting football players for his football team,” Curry said.

“We think there’s a balance there, and both schools have great recruiting opportunities right here in Jacksonville, and we’re going to fight to keep that football game here, working the relationships with the athletic directors, and every single donor and booster at both universities.”

Curry was asked if it would merely come down to offering the Georgia administration more money.

“You could weigh all the factors that go into this,” Curry said, “money is probably one of the highest weighted factors in it all.”

All that said, Curry hinted that Jacksonville might have to give up one game to Athens as TIAA Bank Field is due for major renovations.

Matt Hayes, an award-winning journalist who hosts shows on 1010XL, asked Curry if it was possible one of the Georgia-Florida games could be played in Athens while TIAA Stadium is being redone — no dates have been set yet — before Jacksonville made a successful bid to bring it back.

“I think you make a good point like I’m in a poker game right now, I don’t want to show my hand on this interview, as much as I’d like to break news,” Curry said.

“But I think you make a great point there, I think that all options ought to be up for discussion,” Curry said.

“I didn’t make the point, you did, but it sounds interesting.”

The current deal essentially nets Florida and Georgia an additional $3.5 million, per the AJC.

New Georgia athletic director Josh Brooks said at the SEC spring meetings that UGA had not looked closely at exercising the two-year extension on the game, because there was still plenty of time left to do that.

That would seem to indicate Jacksonville will need to renegotiate a new extension, or this season’s game could be the last designated home game Georgia plays in Jacksonville.

Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin has indicated the Gators will keep their designated home game with Georgia in Jacksonville.

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