A mid-June day at the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall — home to Georgia’s athletic department — doesn’t look much different than any other office space. Employees are rushing to close the books on the fiscal year which concludes at the month’s end, and discussions are ongoing regarding a capital campaign to provide much-needed space for growth. It’s only when looking through the windows of the man who leads the organization, athletic director Greg McGarity, one realizes the business at hand is big-time college sports.
Yet from McGarity’s office, the size and scope of UGA’s various programs is unmistakable. There’s the mammoth indoor football practice facility — which looks more like a space station landed on earth than an athletic building. There’s the small patch of grass next to it — no bigger than a children’s playground, and currently used by kickers during practice that could soon serve as land for a new football facility. To the left of that stands UGA’s track and field complex — home to both a men’s and women’s national championship in 2018. In the distance is Stegeman Coliseum and inside it are basketball and gymnastics programs that could be said to be on the road to improvement.
All around McGarity things are happening, and there are no shortages of opinions offered to him from fans about what should happen next and how quickly it should occur.
McGarity recently spoke to DawgNation about some of those issues.
Kirby Smart wants last call for “Cocktail Party”
One in particular is the fate of the annual Georgia-Florida rivalry game, long known (now unofficially) as the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, and played in Jacksonville, Fla. each year but two since 1933. According to McGarity, the feelings are evenly split as to whether tradition should be preserved or if the series should be moved on campus.
“I think any decision of that nature is going to be 50-50, or 60-40 one way or another,” McGarity said. “There’s been feedback from a lot of people on why the game should move, why the game should stay in Jacksonville…I know [UGA coach Kirby Smart’s] been very vocal about the importance in recruiting, and that’s certainly an important element of it, but there are a lot of other elements that go into the decision.”
Indeed Smart probably complicated the negotiations to keep the game in Jacksonville (the current contract runs through 2021) when he spoke out on the subject during the SEC’s spring meetings in Destin, Fla.
“You are always looking to see what you can do to make your program better,” Smart said. “Nothing is off the table, but nothing has been decided… Yeah, absolutely it costs you a recruiting weekend… It certainly helps to have more home games.”
Do those remarks mean Smart wants to stop playing in Jacksonville?
“I think so. I think that’s pretty much where Kirby stands,” McGarity said. “He is just a recruiting guru. Anytime something is done to take away from that effort I think he feels like it affects our program, but there’s so many other things going in that game, with that weekend, you’ve got to look at every aspect of it… there are a lot of things to consider. But we’ll all get together and at the end of the day whatever decision we make, it’ll be our decision.”
Those discussions about possibly changing the venue for the rivalry will apparently also include the rival.
In addition to ongoing discussion with Smart, UGA president Jere Morehead and other UGA staffers, McGarity will also “huddle with our peers at the University of Florida.”
“I’m sure Georgia and Florida will be on the same page,” McGarity said. “We usually are on a lot of issues.”
What if Florida wished to keep the neutral site arrangement, and UGA decided that was no longer best?
“I don’t think that’ll happen because we both think alike in this game,” McGarity said. “But who knows if it’s their home game, who knows where they could take it. If it’s our home game, I know we’d like it here [in Athens]. There’s been some talk of Atlanta, but I’m not sure that has much legs. If you’re not going to play it in Jacksonville, then the games need to be on campus.”
UGA too cooperative with Auburn?
While the status of UGA-Florida is possibly undecided, another yearly rivalry game for the Bulldogs is definitely changing.
Auburn sought relief from a schedule that had the Tigers playing on the road against its two biggest rivals — UGA and Alabama — every other November. The SEC agreed to make the change, and UGA seemingly willingly complied.
UGA and Auburn will now play much earlier in the season starting in 2020, and UGA’s annual date with Tennessee will be moved to November.
UGA’s cooperation in the matter drew some criticism — partly because the game had a long history of being played near the season’s end and partly because UGA is going along with a change to a rivalry it has dominated as of late — winning 11 of the last 14 meetings.
One of the critics was UGA’s legendary former coach and athletic director Vince Dooley.
“It benefits Auburn,” Dooley said when the decision was announced. “You could imagine some of the Georgia people are not happy with it.”
Did UGA gain anything from the switch?
“I think once the schedules are announced a lot of questions will be answered, McGarity said. “I’ll just say be careful what you wish for in some situations because we know what the schedules look like, we’ve seen it… Every future schedule we have is vetted by Kirby and [director of football operations] Josh Lee. They chop it up. If we have problems with that, we get back to the SEC office and are able to give our opinion. So far we have not had any issues in that area. I know there’s some concern about tradition… But if that game is at a different time for us, and it works and Kirby is comfortable with it, then we’re okay with it.”
One of the confusing aspects of the switch for some fans is that UGA is swapping Auburn for Tennessee. The Bulldogs currently visit Tennessee in the same years it travels to Auburn and in the same years it travels to its in-state rival, Georgia Tech.
This means — assuming a larger schedule alteration isn’t forthcoming — UGA will still play two late November road games every other year, and still not get any consideration for visiting Auburn in consecutive seasons in 2012-13 when the SEC expanded to 14 teams.
Smart spoke last spring about his desire to have Auburn “return the favor we paid to them,” but McGarity says that kind of payback isn’t likely.
“There would be three other schools that would say, ‘Well, we need the same thing,’” McGarity said. “It was part of expansion. It was not easy on a lot of people because a lot of things had to change – traditional dates had to change… I’m sure if there are schools added in the future there are going to be the same type issues there because it’s very difficult to make schedules, and it’s very difficult to get 14 schools everything they want, but I’ll say this on our priorities, the conference listens to us and we’ve had a good run there.”
UGA taking it slow with alcohol sales
Another change being ushered in by the SEC is to the conference’s stadium alcohol policy. Sales are now allowed in so-called common areas for the upcoming athletic year, but UGA has decided not to broadly expand its beer and wine offerings after hearing from its fans.
“I’d say it’s at least two to one on those that like [UGA’s policy] as it is,” McGarity said. “I do feel like it’s very vocal on those that are against it in the general seating areas.”
That sentiment seems to be fine by McGarity who says alcohol sales might not generate as much revenue as some think and will further complicate already crowded concession areas inside Sanford Stadium.
“We have challenges in our concessions stands enough,” McGarity said. “We’ve gone to our grab-and-go concept. We’ve done away with things that takes someone to prepare for… We know people want to get through the lines in a hurry, but I don’t think I’ll be able stack up a row of eight-ounce beers [in a grab-and-go concept]. Nobody likes a warm beer.”
However, UGA is expanding its offerings for its largest donors. Magill Society members with tickets in the club level who’ve given at least $100,000 dollars can qualify for a special lounge that includes alcoholic beverages, but offers no view of the game.
The high-dollar cutoff for inclusion got some media attention, but McGarity says the perk doesn’t mean the program exclusively favors big-money donors over rank-and-file fans. In fact, he says plenty of considerations are being given to all UGA fans in the stadium.
“We need to make sure concessions are functioning at the highest rate possible, and adding as many restrooms as we can, making sure they’re clean, and things along those lines,” McGarity said. “We also want to keep our prices stable. Right now we’re at $75 for our premium games and $55 for others, but our season tickets have not increased this year, and hopefully we don’t have to increase in the future. That’s always probably the most controversial thing you can do is raise ticket prices. But we’ve not had to do that because we’ve been very successful fundraising.”
New facility on the way?
Some of those Magill Society members lucky enough to sip adult beverages inside Sanford Stadium this fall will almost certainly be invited to participate in the funding for the new football facility that some of the Bulldogs’ rivals already have.
The timeline for construction isn’t clear, but McGarity says there’s already a lot of energy surrounding the project.
“Even though there’s no shovels in the ground – there’s a tremendous amount of work almost every day on getting everything set the way the football staff would like it,” McGarity said. “This will have Kirby’s fingerprints all over it, but I know he’s excited about it. He wants it done tomorrow. There are a lot of dynamics involved, but once it’s completed it’ll be the best in the country.”
However, it isn’t certain whether McGarity will be around to oversee its completion. McGarity signed a one-year contract extension in February, and said the decision to forgo a multi-year agreement was his own.
“I think it was something I was very comfortable with,” McGarity said. “It’s the same deal the president has. I’ve always felt like it should be a year-to-year deal here. Our goal is that we’ll sit down and evaluate it maybe in January or February and just see how things are going. But it gives everybody total flexibility – instead of signing a long-term deal, and all of a sudden if you decide it’s time to move on. It’s the best way to handle it.”
For what it’s worth, Morehead has voiced his support for McGarity remaining as athletic director.
“I’m hoping we won’t be looking for a replacement for some period of time in the future,” Morehead said when McGarity’s extension was announced. “That’s something we’ll take up each and every year.”
What’s next for UGA?
To hear McGarity talk it seems unlikely he’ll wait to evaluate himself, or his role as leader of UGA athletics. It appears that introspection is ongoing.
“I [recently] got with [UGA sports information director Claude Felton], and I said, ‘how many times did we finish second or runner-up in the country?’ … We found out since 2011 we’ve finished runner-up 16 times,” McGarity said. “If half of those come true, or a third of them come true, then we’d stack a lot more NCAA championships. You can look at it both ways: It could’ve been a little bit better, could’ve been a lot better with a few more national championships, but I would say we did okay. There’s tremendous room for growth here.”
UGA fans don’t need to be reminded of the close calls — especially in football. Those near misses live to haunt a fan base starved for the ultimate success. Yet McGarity remains undaunted, and optimistic the best for UGA is yet to come.
“I’m to the point where I want to have 21 sports that are all challenging for national championships,” McGarity said. “It hasn’t happened yet, but there’s always a chance that will happen.”
To watch the full video interview with McGarity, click the link below.