The Florida Gators will not open their 2017 home slate on Sept. 9. With Hurricane Irma bearing down on the state, Florida initially moved the game to noon, then announced Thursday evening that it would be canceled without a rescheduled date. It is, all things considered, the best decision the school could make. Florida State, Miami, UCF, and USF also canceled weekend games.
Irma could be the first hurricane anywhere close to this magnitude to hit the state head-on since 2005 and the second in three weeks to change the college football calendar, after Hurricane Harvey in Texas.
Games are not canceled, postponed, or moved in a vacuum, though. Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin detailed to SB Nation the decision-makers and stakeholders who needed to be considered.
The big decision: Keep the game in Gainesville at the original time? Move it earlier in the day? Move it to another site? Or nix it entirely?
Friday night in Gainesville wouldn’t work because the school wanted to free up as many hotels as possible. The team even gave up the hotel it usually stays in for home games.
Florida never got far enough down the road to make calls to cities like Jacksonville or Atlanta about playing there. Jacksonville wasn’t studied for too long because it is also in the path of the storm.
But there is one call Florida did make, in the name of due diligence.
“I actually called Jay Jacobs at Auburn, the AD at Auburn — they’re at Clemson this weekend — just to say, ‘Would your stadium be available?’ and he was open to it,” Stricklin said. “He was, ‘Absolutely, let me know how we could help,’ and we told him just to sit tight and don’t contact anybody. And in our internal talks, we decided that didn’t make any sense. We were just poking around at all the options, to make sure you flesh everything out.”
Auburn’s only about a five-hour drive from Gainesville.
There’s precedent for a move like that. LSU had its home opener moved from Houston to New Orleans in about six days’ time due to Harvey. FIU and Georgia Southern moved their Week 2 games to Birmingham, Ala.
In the wake of flooding in South Carolina, LSU hosted the Gamecocks in Baton Rouge in 2015. The game was supposed to be in Columbia.
And yes, the Tigers hosted the Gators last year, despite a war of words that reverberates throughout the conference. Stricklin had been announced as Florida’s incoming AD at the time, but he wasn’t on the job amid negotiations between Florida, LSU, the SEC, and both teams’ non-conference opponents. But as an outside observer at the time (on his way out at Mississippi State), he could notice the differences.
“There are some similarities, as far as a lot of the people on campus went through that last year, so they were familiar with the questions we had to ask,” Stricklin said. “I think it’s a really significant difference, being a non-conference game vs. an SEC game. SEC game, the league office is gonna be much more involved because obviously they have two members with a stake in the game.”
When the league was involved with the situation last fall, it became an absolute mess. At the time, SB Nation reported a failure in management at the conference level allowed Florida and LSU to bicker publicly.
This time, the SEC was integral in dealing with ESPN.
When the game was moved to noon on Saturday, the SEC Network had six games, filling every Saturday time slot on its two channels. (The network has an alternate channel on most cable systems, specifically for live events.)
“No. 1, being a non-conference game probably is not as heightened a concern for our TV partners as it normally would be, if it were an SEC game,” Stricklin said in a press conference after the decision was made. “Basically, the conference office handled all those conversations on our behalf.”
Florida explored asking the conference if either Kentucky or Ole Miss could flip time slots, but both schools were unable to accommodate on short notice, per Stricklin. Due to that, the game wasn’t going to be broadcast on TV, instead streaming on WatchESPN.
According to the school, it would have been the first Gators game not broadcast on either cable or pay-per-view since 1996. Florida wouldn’t have been sacrificing any revenue without the game on TV, per Stricklin.
The whole process of canceling the game started five days before toe met leather in The Swamp.
That’s when Stricklin and his staff began in earnest to plan for contingencies, should the storm hit. They’d been keeping an eye on what was forming in the Atlantic, but Labor Day meetings confirmed this storm was a threat to run right up the spine of the state.
“We had meetings [Tuesday] with the city manager and some other people with the city,” Stricklin said. “People from the local fire department, the local fire chief were involved in that. There are like 17 government agencies working that are involved in gamedays here. Now we didn’t have all 17 at the table specifically on this, but we had a lot of them.”
There are university people inside and outside the athletic department who need to know what’s going on. Coach Jim McElwain, the entire football apparatus, people like the president of the university, campus police, the university operations staff, and the ticket office need to know.
Folks at the SEC, running all the way up the chain to commissioner Greg Sankey, must be at least privy to the discussions.
By Wednesday, Florida had moved its game from 7:30 pm to noon, doing so just hours after Florida State made the same decision. Stricklin said there were conversations with both FSU AD Stan Wilcox and UCF AD Danny White — two of the three other schools in the state scheduled to host games that weekend — about upcoming moves.
“I think we all were acting independently, but it was good to kinda know what others were doing and planning to announce,” Stricklin said. “You wanna know what people in the same situation are thinking so you’re not missing something.”
There is also the matter of Florida’s opponent, Northern Colorado.
The Bears are slated to make $625,000 from the guarantee in the contract for the game with Florida, a record for UNC. Original travel plans had Northern Colorado flying into Tampa commercially and bussing up. By Wednesday, the Gators had secured charter travel for UNC to come into Gainesville Friday and leave Saturday. That alleviated both costs and travel headaches for the Bears, and UNC would have missed the effects of the storm in North Central Florida by nearly a whole day.
There are clauses in game contracts that can be invoked if weather impacts games. They’re referred to as “Force Majeure” or “Act of God clauses.”
Here’s one from Florida’s 2015 game with ECU.
Game cancelation is something Florida’s familiar with. In fact, Northern Colorado being the affected opponent here is the direct result of another time Mother Nature seriously impacted a Gator game.
In 2014, on an evening that started without a hint of bad weather in the sky, lightning forced a cancelation against Idaho. After a deluge that left the field flooded, the teams ran one play before both were again pulled off the field.
The game was declared a no contest and rescheduled for 2017. But then Idaho got a better payday from Mizzou, leaving the Gators with a hole in their 2017 schedule until Sept. 2016. That’s when they replaced the Vandals with Northern Colorado, only to have weather again cancel proceedings.
Florida has loss-of-revenue insurance that kicks in to alleviate some of the costs, but UF did pay out the full amount of the guarantee to Idaho. The Gators will likely do the same with Northern Colorado but are currently working through details.
In the end, canceling the game accomplished the primary goal.
That was: playing the game if at all possible, but preserving the safety of everyone involved.
Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. A relatively meaningless non-conference game that would have further clogged up roads as people tried to evacuate didn’t need to be played, and so it was scrapped.