Funny, but they used to love Jacksonville

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HOOVER, ALABAMA — It’s only taken 17 years, but the Georgia Bulldogs have gone from staunch traditionalists, determined safekeepers of the pageantry and traditions of college football, to modernists. Back when they were winning the Florida-Georgia game all the time, the Bulldogs loved Jacksonville and wouldn’t hear of interrupting the time-honored traditions of the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” That was then, this is now.

Since they’ve lost 15 of the last 17 games to the Gators in Jacksonville, perspectives have changed. Those tradition-defending Bulldogs, who greeted any talk of moving the game out of Jacksonville back in the 1980s, now think the Florida-Georgia traditions are antiquated. Times have changed, they tell you, offering up every reason in the world without admitting that the reason Jacksonville isn’t good enough anymore is because Florida now owns the series.

The change the venue whispers are getting louder and bolder. The contract with Jacksonville expires in 2010 and you can expect serious discussion from the Georgia folks about changing the venue.

When asked about moving the Florida-Georgia game Friday morning at SEC Media Days, Georgia Coach Mark Richt wouldn’t advocate a change, but he certainly made it clear that he wouldn’t mind a change in format.

“I think there’s a lot of possible scenarios,” he said. “I’m not even sure when the contract ends, but when it does end, I’m sure there will be some conversation as to what to do with it.

“I think the rivalry would be outstanding whether you kept playing in Jacksonville or moved it around. I think it would be exciting for our fans to go to Gainesville. I think it would be exciting for the Florida fans to come to Athens.”

Considering what happened the two years in the 1990s when the Florida-Georgia game took a hiatus from Jacksonville when the Gator Bowl was torn down and replaced by AllTell Stadium, maybe home and home isn’t exactly the greatest idea in the world. Those two years are the only times in the series history when the Gators hung 50 on the Bulldogs.

In Gainesville in 1994, the Gators won 52-14, a game which featured James Bates running an interception back for a touchdown. In 1995 in Athens, the Gators won 52-17, a game that featured John Capel scoring on a reverse late in the game when Steve Spurrier wanted to be the first coach ever to score 50 on Georgia in Sanford Stadium.

One of the scenarios that has been proposed would be to continue the format in which the stadium is divided equally, but to play it in alternating years between Jacksonville and Atlanta. Richt indicated Friday that alternating sites might be favorable to him.

“If you’re going to do any kind of a rotation like that, I think we’d be more apt to rotate to each school, rotate to Jacksonville, then I would be in favor of rotating to the neutral site of Altanta in the [Georgia] Dome,” Richt said. “I think that would be a pretty good neutral site, too.”

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The new defensive coordinator at Ole Miss is John Thompson, who served as the defensive coordinator for Ron Zook back in 2002. Thompson spent last year as the athletic director at his alma mater, Central Arkansas.

The relationship Thompson has with Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron was the lure to get him back into coaching. Thompson was the defensive coordinator when Orgeron played college football at Northwestern State in Louisiana. Orgeron also served as a graduate assistant for Thompson at Northwestern.

“He’s been a great friend, someone I have tremendous respect for personally and as a coach,” Orgeron said in the hallway after his time in front of the media. “I wanted him in our program. I wanted what he can bring to our program. He’s someone I trust, someone I know that can get the job done.”

Orgeron said that many of the defensive philosophies that he has today were formed while playing under Thompson and then serving as his grad assistant at Northwestern State.

“He gave me a good foundation,” said Orgeron. “He’s a bit of a gambler and a risk-taker, but I like that. He does things you can’t prepare for.”

* * *

Orgeron raised some eyebrows in the room when he said that quarterback Brent Schaeffer’s lifestyle choices have hurt him as a quarterback.

“He has some talent,” said Orgeron. “He has a very strong arm that you want but he’s a very inconsistent player. He has an inconsistent lifestyle that leads to that.”

When pressed about the inconsistent lifestyle, Orgeron elaborated, “Just, you know, attending class, meeting, being the leader. Nothing that is any law-breaking activity or anything.”

There has been talk that Schaeffer is in some sort of academic trouble but Orgeron said that he expects his quarterback to be academically eligible in the fall.

* * *

LSU coach Les Miles indicated he is in favor of an early signing period, something that every other coach at SEC Media Days has opposed. Miles indicated he would like a December signing period to go with the traditional first Wednesday in February format that is now in place.

Orgeron, on the other hand, likes the system the way it is.

“I really like the process the way it is,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of things that go on between December and February when we can get to go into the homes. I like to compete all the way to the end.”

Orgeron said that one of the reasons he’s opposed to an early period is that December is a time that should be spent preparing to go to a bowl game instead of signing kids.

“If you’re a team, you’re going to the bowl, you’re preparing for the national championship, you’re preparing in December and have to sign someone in December, I think that’s a distraction for your team and it’s not fair,” he said.

* * *

Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer admitted that the 4-8 record in 2005 was a wakeup call for his program. It was the first losing season that he’s endured as a coach and it broke a string of 20-plus years that the Vols had gone to a bowl game. Fulmer cited a number of problems including off-the-field difficulties that contributed to the meltdown.

“‘05 was a shocking football season to me as a football coach, to us as a program,” said Fulmer, who has a 137-41 record in 15 previous seasons at the helm in Tennessee.

Tennessee bounced back with a 9-4 record in 2006, a major improvement. Still, it has been nine years since the Vols won the SEC championship. The last time the Vols won the SEC was also the year they won the national title and that was 1998.

During a second straight soul-searching offseason, Fulmer admitted that he took some time to talk to an old friend. He walked down the hall at the Tennessee athletic complex and spend some time in the office of Pat Summit, the winningest basketball coach (men or women) in history. Summit went nine years without winning a national title before winning her seventh NCAA championship back in the spring.

Summit told Fulmer that the difference this past season than the non-title years was All-American Candace Parker.

“You have to have a Candace Parker type player in your program to do something like that [win a national championship],” Fulmer said. Parker was a great player who was also a tremendous leader known for her strong character.

“We’ve had those kind of people in our program before,” said Fulmer, reeling off the names of Tee Martin, Peyton Manning and Al Wilson among others. “You have to coach them well but you can’t let the kind of things that happen back in 2005 creep into your program.”

Fulmer said he is excited about the upcoming season, particularly after a very productive spring.

“We had a very demanding by design spring practice,” said Fulmer.

* * *

LSU won the national championship in 2003 with Nick Saban coaching the Tigers. Now that he’s at Alabama, Saban has made comments that Les Miles is still coaching with the players he recruited to LSU. Miles, in return, has made some stinging comments about Saban. The Alabama media seized the opportunity to discuss the strained relationship Friday.

Asked if Alabama is LSU’s newest and biggest rival because of Saban’s presence, Miles answered, “I can tell you that’s one game on our schedule, no more than one.”

Pressed further, Miles was told that LSU fans want to skip the schedule and go directly to the Alabama game. Miles bristled a little bit as he answered, “They have to understand that it’s just one game and it’s an important game certainly, but it’s just one, counts as one. We’ll get there. We’ll be prepared. Look forward to that when we get there.”

A little later, Miles was asked if he regretted saying “F-ing Alabama” at a press concerence. Again Miles bristled a little bit as he answered.

“I can tell you that at the end of a recruiting season where there was a lot of heresay and innuendo, there was some heated exchanges,” he said. “I can tell you that I did have emotion and I certainly regret any choice of words that you describe that I made. No, I am not in any way derogatory toward Alabama. I look forward to competing with them and their coach.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.