Jacksonville, it’s been a while.
South Carolina hasn’t played in the Gator Bowl since 1987. Back then, Greg McGarity was working as an administrative assistant in the Georgia athletic department. He wouldn’t begin his decade-long tenure as athletic director at UGA for another 23 years.
Now? McGarity, president of the Gator Bowl, was the man charged with helping pull together this month’s matchup between No. 19 South Carolina and No. 21 Notre Dame.
“There were a lot of a lot of factors involved,” he told The State. “But South Carolina and Notre Dame wanted to play each other and wanted to be in Jacksonville.”
South Carolina’s landing in the Gator Bowl was prognosticated for weeks. There were rumblings the Citrus Bowl might take a swing at the Gamecocks. The ReliaQuest Bowl — known previously as the Outback Bowl — was another familiar spot with plenty of recent USC-related history.
Still, McGarity and his staff pushed for South Carolina.
Proximity was part of the equation. As was adding a team that hadn’t played in the game in decades. USC’s surge to close the season with wins over No. 5 Tennessee and No. 8 Clemson didn’t hurt the equation, either.
Couple those reasons with back-to-back years of lighter attendance than normal due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Gamecocks were an easy choice.
“It’s like in 2019 when Indiana and Tennessee played,” McGarity said. “Jeremy Pruitt was in his first career bowl game (as a head coach). Indiana hadn’t been to a bowl game in a long time. Had crowds over 60,000. Both those teams were on the rise.
“Every bowl director would like a team that wins its last game, or is hot at the end, because that fan base is excited to watch the season end, hopefully, on a on a positive note.”
The history of Notre Dame vs. South Carolina isn’t exactly long. The teams have only met four times — 1976, 1979, 1983 and 1984. The modern-day variations of the programs, though, have obvious parallels.
South Carolina’s Shane Beamer and Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman have both been on their respective jobs for under two seasons. Each is considered an up-and-comer in the profession, albeit Freeman is almost 10 years Beamer’s junior.
Beamer joked on Sunday about his own personal history with the game. His father, legendary Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer, also coached his second bowl game as the head coach of the Hokies at the Gator Bowl. Shane, himself, even played in the game as a member of his father’s 1997 squad, losing to North Carolina 42-3.
“Yeah, let’s not talk about that one,” he quipped during a Zoom video call with reporters shortly after the matchup was announced. “We got the heck beat out of us by North Carolina.”
Added McGarity: “You’ve got Lou Holtz, who’s coached at both schools. You’ve got Steve Spurrier, who coached at South Carolina. You’ve got Frank Beamer, who coached in a number of Gator Bowl games. You’ve got a lot of a lot of historical pieces to the puzzle here that really play into the game as well.”
While ticket sales are still in their early stages, McGarity noted the Gamecocks faithful have given the game some added juice. That’s a welcome change from recent years.
The 2020 variation of the game was canceled entirely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2021 contest, too, had its issues. Initially slated to feature Wake Forest and Texas A&M, the Aggies had to pull out of the game less than two weeks prior to the contest due to rampant COVID-19 issues within the program. Texas A&M was replaced by a 5-7 Rutgers team that had little time to get all of its ticket allotment sold.
“This is a total 180 of that scenario,” McGarity said. “Wake Forest showed tremendous interest, but their fan base is very small. And Texas A&M struggled selling their tickets because of the distance. So flashback this time a year ago, it was nothing compared to what it’s been like since really 4 o’clock (Sunday).”
South Carolina won’t arrive in Jacksonville for roughly another two weeks. Still, the hype from the Gamecocks’ late-season upsets and the Fighting Irish’s 5-1 close to the year makes this the first meeting of two ranked teams in the Gator Bowl since the 2005 campaign.
McGarity, then, was working in administration at Florida. Come Dec. 30, he’ll have a front-row seat to the matchup he, South Carolina and Notre Dame so desired.
Gator Bowl details
- Who: No. 19 South Carolina (8-4) vs. No. 21 Notre Dame (8-4)
- Where: TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
- When: Friday, Dec. 30 at 3:30 p.m.
- TV: ESPN
- Line: Notre Dame by 4.5