by Max Marbut
A lot of things have changed since the inaugural Gator Bowl was played on New Year’s Day in 1946. The event has grown beyond anything the founders could have imagined and the stadium has changed several times over the years. College football has changed and Jacksonville has certainly changed.
No one knows more about how everything surrounding the game has evolved than George Olsen, who was known as “Mr. Gator Bowl” from 1950 to 1986.
When Olsen first assumed a leadership role in May 1950, the game was just five years old and in trouble. After World War II ended, the number of bowl games exploded due to the nation’s new fascination with sports. But many of the games disappeared after a few years.
The day Olsen started, the Gator Bowl was reeling from the previous January’s Maryland-Missouri game. Organizers and fans had hoped for an exciting game pitting the high-scoring Missouri offense against the Maryland defense, which was ranked No. 2 in the nation. It turned out to be the most one-sided game in the short history of the Gator Bowl, with Maryland winning 20-7.
Even worse, the stands were barely half full, which didn’t make it easy to come up with the $45,000 payout promised to each team. Olsen realized that it was going to take a true grass-roots effort to get things on track and create a game that would put people in the stands.
In 1950, Jacksonville was nothing like it is today. The city was just beginning to grow and the suburbs and shopping malls were still a few years away.
“Everything was downtown in those days,” said Olsen, who carried the stadium chart with him and marked off seats as they were sold. “I used to sell tickets door-to-door at all the department stores and specialty shops up and down Adams Street and Forsyth Street.”
Olsen said one of the early campaigns that really got a lot of the community involved in the Gator Bowl effort was selling memberships in the association.
“I remember when a membership was $15 and that included two tickets to the game. These days, you can’t get a hot dog and a drink (at the game) for that much money,” he said.
Olsen added that television — plus some key team selections — also changed the Gator Bowl for the better.
“One that really helped us a great deal was the game played in 1956, when we got Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh and moved the game to Saturday for television,” he said. “Tech was hot — one of the best teams in the country — and having Pittsburgh got us the national attention we had never had before.”
The 1956 game put the Gator Bowl on the college football map and made it easier to cultivate relationships in order to attract the top teams, Olsen said. “Pretty soon, we could pick up the phone and they knew who we were,” he said.
Another turning-point came in 1976, when Notre Dame and Penn State played each other for the first time in decades. Olsen said it was one of the few times organizers didn’t include a southern team in the mix. The Irish defeated the Nittany Lions, 27-9.
“Notre Dame won the national championship the following season. The Gator Bowl was a good start for them,” said Olsen.
Olsen has also witnessed college football’s transition into a big business, especially in terms of the amount of money schools spend for publicity.
“I can’t believe how it has changed. I’m still a member of the Football Writers Association, so I’m on the mailing list. I got a book from Notre Dame this week about their participation in the Fiesta Bowl and postage alone was almost four dollars,” he said.
Olsen said he believes it’s the people involved who have made the Gator Bowl what it is today and what it will be for years to come.
“We’ve had a lot of great people in the organization over the years. The good leaders we had in the early days led to lots of good volunteers.
“(Gator Bowl Association President) Rick Catlett and his staff have done a great job. I think the way it’s organized and the people coming up as future leaders will really cement the product and ensure its future growth. The things they need to continue to grow and prosper are in place,” said Olsen.