JACKSONVILLE — A couple weeks ago, as Tim Keadle was getting ready for his annual trek south, a friend asked: “Are you going down to the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party?”
Keadle, who has a semi-official role at UGA as a past president of the alumni association, issued a mild correction.
“Well I’m going to the Georgia-Florida game,” he said.
It’s been almost a decade since administrators at both schools, reacting to worries about alcohol abuse, officially distanced themselves from the five-word nickname that had been associated with the game for half a century. The move annoyed many fans, even offended others. It was too politically correct. An over-reaction.
But since then there’s been a sort of quiet acquiescence on all sides, to the point it’s hardly an issue. CBS, which broadcasts the game every year, shies away the cocktail nickname, and neither school uses it in an official capacity. And, at least on an anecdotal basis, it has had the desired effect of toning down what had been wrong about the scene in Jacksonville.
“I think it ignited the discussion, which was the most thing, let’s start dialogue on things that we could do to improve that environment,” Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity said. “I just think the whole image turned a corner at that point in time because everyone was talking about it. I’m not aware of any major problems at the Landing or in the surrounding areas that have been to the level that they were when this effort was organized.”
But unofficially the name still sticks. Stub Hub and E-Bay both sell tickets online under the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party label. Fans of both teams, players and even some school officials, who slip up every now and then.
“Oh a lot of people,” said Georgia long snapper and Jacksonville native Nate Theus, when asked how many people still use the cocktail party name. “There’s a ton. Everyone in Jacksonville does. You see it on Facebook and everything like that.”
How does he refer to the game?
“I refer to it as Georgia-Florida,” Theus said, smiling.
Keadle thinks most fans were “indifferent” to the change. They understand that it did get out of hand. Keadle’s wife stopped the family from going to the area around the stadium about 15 years ago because it had “gotten too wild.”
“You can understand an institution of higher learning wanting to paint themselves in a different light,” Keadle said. “But I know a lot of fans still call it that.”
The nickname was coined in the 1950s by the sports editor of the Florida Times-Union, Bill Kastelz, when he said he witnessed a drunk fan offer an alcoholic drink to a policeman outside the Gator Bowl.
The city of Jacksonville embraced the moniker for decades, then officially dropped it in 1988. It was propelled by a series of incidents both on and off the field; in 1984 fans tore down the goal posts and 65 people were arrested.
Then in 2006 both schools and the SEC actively sought to drop the nickname. It followed the deaths of Florida students attending the game in both 2004 and 2005. Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley wrote a letter to SEC commissioner Mike Slive, asking him to get involved with the TV networks to de-emphasize the name, saying the nickname sent “an inconsistent message” with the efforts to “curb alcohol abuse.”
McGarity was Foley’s assistant at the time. In his roles at Georgia, Florida and then Georgia again, McGarity has been going to the game every year since 1977 – with the exception of the birth of his son in 1988. So McGarity said he’s seen a great “swing” in the environment, in a good sense.
The police presence was heightened, bans on underage drinking were enforced, and safety zones were created. De-emphasizing the cocktail nickname was only a small part. But the feeling was that if they’re trying to curb the excesses of drinking, embracing a nickname for the game that involved alcohol would undercut the message.
“I don’t think you can ever erase it, because it was associated with the game for so many years. For decades,” McGarity said. “Everybody kind of embraced it until it crossed the line. And I think once the behavior crossed the line then that’s what brought the attention that, while people will still refer to it, let’s not try to use it every time this game is mentioned.”