The TaxSlayer Bowl is truly more than a football game. December 27 through January 2 provides a week full of parties, activities and attractions for fans of all ages. All of the excitement comes to a head on January 2 at EverBank Field as one of America’s most exciting bowl games gets underway.
How exciting? The game has showcased many of college football’s biggest names including Heisman Trophy winners George Rogers, Pat Sullivan, Earl Campbell, and John David Crow. Outstanding players such as Dan Marino, Thurman Thomas, Archie Manning, Larry Csonka, and Peyton Manning are also part of the TaxSlayer Bowl Bowl Mystique. The Bowl has also featured many of America’s best coaches including Bobby Bowden, Steve Spurrier, and Vince Dooley.
The story goes that Maurice Cherry looked out his Main Street office window the week after Christmas 1944 and found Jacksonville exceedingly dull and lifeless. His observation was neither unique nor new. What grew out of it was. The Gator Bowl and 70 years of Jacksonville tradition. Since the winter carnivals at the turn of the century, Jacksonville business and civic leaders had sought ways to liven up the dead business and social season after the Christmas holidays. Ever football had been tried. Touring professional teams featuring Red Grange and Ernie Nevers had been New Year’s box-office duds in the 1920s. Mayor John Alsop tried to begin a Jacksonville bowl game in the 1930s. However, the end of World War II offered an opportunity to try again.
Sports-hungry America was coming home from war. Bowl games sprouted overnight like mushrooms on the lawn. Cherry and a handful of fellow businessmen decided to try the football attraction again. Opportunity beckoned and so did its handmaiden, uncertainty. Local sportscaster Al Jennings broached the idea of a Jacksonville bowl game to the Downtown Lions Club in late October 1945. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas the Lions tried to put together a deal, and a bowl.
The Lion’s drive sputtered and stalled; neither civic fever nor sporting zeal for the event were overwhelming. It was on post-war endeavor among many. Other preoccupations – housing, fuel, transportation – confronted the community. Broad local support did not appear forthcoming. There was less a bandwagon than a tin whistle.
“It was simply a case of too many chiefs and not enough Indians,” Cherry said years later. “There were too many people trying to raise the money and run the show and not enough people actually paying for the game.”
Charles Hilty Sr. began leading the bowl campaign through the Lions Club. When it became apparent the Lions’ effort would come up short, Hilty, Cherry, Raymond McCarthy Sr. and W.C. Ivey put up $10,000 of their own money to bankroll the game. All they needed were two teams to play and 8,000 people in Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, the state-of-the-art 1925 brace of concrete bleachers. Wally Butts was asked to bring his Georgia Bulldogs to play Tulsa but the pair met in Houston’s Oil Bowl instead.
Hilty approached his friend Peadhead Walker, the coach at Wake Forest. South Carolina’s athletic director Rex Enright was finishing up his wartime enlistment at Jacksonville Naval Air Station. on Dec, 7, 1945, Wake Forest and South Carolina agreed to play in Jacksonville on New Year’s Day. They would take home all the money put up by the founders. Mostly they wanted to settle a 13-13 tie they played on Thanksgiving.
Jacksonville sportswriters were calling the classic the “Gator Bowl” when the matchup was announced. The origin is apocryphal. One story is that a Chicago sportscaster first dubbed it the Alligator Bowl. Most hold that Walter McRae Sr. and Steve Freel sold the association on the name both being fans of the Florida Gators. The Gator Bowl association adopted the named and elected officers just four days before the game.
Only 7,362 were at the game. The backers took a bath. They regrouped and agreed to try again. Not until the fourth game, when Clemson met Missouri, did the game begin to see light. By then, the founders were elders. The broadening of the community support had begun. The Gator Bowl tradition was on its way.