UF-UGA: War for the ‘Okefenokee Oar’

Getting approval for an object to be the “official” trophy of a rivalry game is like going upstream without a paddle.

Fortunately, the Florida-Georgia game has a paddle, a 10-footer called the Okefenokee Oar, but the process still has been a journey.

“It’s a really big paddle, so that’s helping out,” joked Keith Merkel, who handles media relations for the University of Florida-University of Georgia Rivalry Committee.

Merkel sent out a press release to news organizations about two weeks ago in an effort to generate publicity. There also has been a social media push to get it recognized. The hashtag “#WarForTheOar” has gained traction on Twitter and there is even an official Okefenokee Oar page on Facebook.

In the SEC, other rivalries have official trophies such as The Golden Boot (Arkansas-LSU), the Golden Egg (Ole Miss-Mississippi State) and the ODK-Foy Sportsmanship Trophy (Alabama-Auburn). Click here for a link to a list of rivalry trophies.

“We just want to get everyone on board and behind this,” Merkel said. “We’re just trying to promote this and get it into the public’s eye to get everyone more enthusiastic about it and help get it going.”

The fist task is gaining the approval of the athletic associations at both schools to have the Okefenokee Oar recognized as the official trophy for the Gators’ football rivalry against the Bulldogs, which will kickoff at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday at Jacksonville’s EverBank Field.

“We’ve got confirmation last week from the (University Atheletic Association at Florida) that next season we will be able to bring it out on the field to get it recognized it at halftime,” Merkel said. “We’re still trying to figure out how we will be able to present it to the winning team, so that after the game the winner actually takes home the prize.”

That’s been an issue in past seasons. After last year’s 24-20 win by Georgia, it was presented in a makeshift ceremony outside of the stadium.

“That’s been our struggle,” said UF student body president TJ Villamil. “Last season we presented it in an area that was not that highly visible outside of the stadium.

“I think we’re gaining enough attention from not only the administrations, but the athletic association at both schools. Georgia has really bought into it, and I think Florida is following suit.”

Mystery surrounds how the Okefenokee Oar came about. It was anonymously donated to the University of Florida in 2009. It was carved out of a 1,000-year-old cypress tree that grew in the Okefenokee Swamp, which straddles the Florida-Georgia state line. Each side is engraved with logos from each school.

The final scores from the past four Florida-Georgia game have been engraved on the oar, and Merkel said there is enough room for the next 150 years worth of scores to go on there as well.

Since the 1950s, the rivalry was known as the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party,” until alcohol-fueled incidents caused the name to be removed in 2006.

“There was a bit of a lull there for a couple of years where people would call it either the Florida-Georgia game or the Georgia-Florida game, so the student governments at both Georgia and Florida came together and were like, ‘Hey, this is one of the best rivalries in college football, we need a trophy,’” Villamil said.

Georgia’s administration built a case to house the oar in its student union after the Bulldogs’ win last season. Florida’s administration did the same, with the housing department constructing a case that now sits empty on the first floor of the Reitz Union.

“It’s really started to grow in popularity over the past two years … it’s been exciting to watch,” Merkel said.

Rarely does a day pass where Villamil is not sent a picture of the oar with smack talk from Georgia students saying how the Gators are not going to win the oar back this season.

It’s all in good fun and a major part of what makes a rivalry a rivalry.

“It’s a symbol for what a great rivalry and tradition the game is, and it’s a way to promote the rivalry in a positive way without using alcohol or beer or things like that,” Villamil said. “From that aspect, it’s a way to promote the rivalry and in good, clean fun.”

Rivalry committees on both sides hope to meet in the spring to get the Okefenokee Oar completely official, so it can be properly presented to the winning team next season.

“We would love to have players running off of the field with it after the game,” Villamil said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

Mike Capshaw brings a wealth of experience to the Gator Country team. He’s been overseeing all editorial aspects of GatorCountry.com and Gator Country magazine by managing our team of staffers, interns and freelancers. He is now moving into a bigger role as a reporter by covering the football and basketball beats as well as providing coverage of all sports on campus. Mike’s 15 years in the business has included more than six years of covering SEC sports and recruiting at a daily newspaper in Arkansas. He has also helped launch a newspaper, magazines, websites and even a sports talk radio show. Because Mike puts family ahead of his career, he left the place where he was established when his wife received an opportunity to further her career at UF. He took a leap of faith that he could find a job in the Gainesville area and worked for a year at a newspaper group before joining the Gator Country family in November, 2011. Mike has won Florida Press Association awards for Best Sports Game Story and Best Sports Feature Story in the past two years as well as a company-wide award at his former newspaper group that includes some 60 publications, for Excellence in Sports Reporting. You can follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeCapshawGC.