Last week Hurricane Matthew threw a wrench into the SEC’s schedule, leading to the cancellation of the LSU at Florida football game and lingering discord on both sides.
That discord was finally broken a few minutes ago when Florida coach Jim McElwain made the decision to agree to play at LSU on November 19th, preserving the LSU home game the Tigers were so loathe to give up.
This is the story, as best Outkick can piece it together, of what actually happened that led to one of the most high profile game cancellations in college football history and ultimately the Florida Gator agreement to travel to LSU to make up for a canceled game.
Our story begins with a weather forecast and a hurricane path that was extremely difficult to predict.
LSU officials were watching Hurricane Matthew anxiously as it made its way in the direction of the state of Florida. LSU administrators, who had previously been forced to move a home game to Arizona after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and had also moved an SEC home game against Tennessee from Saturday night to Monday night that same season as a result of Hurricane Rita, wanted to be proactive and ensure that their game against Florida was played the weekend it was scheduled.
So beginning on Monday they were in constant contact with Florida officials seeking the latest updates on the forecast and endeavoring to know Florida’s own hurricane contingency plans. This constant contact set off alarm bells in Gainesville — what was LSU’s aim here? While Tiger officials could rightfully point to their past experience dealing with hurricanes and argue that they were just trying to be proactive about an uncertain weather condition, Gator officials began to wonder, in the hypercompetitive SEC, was this an attempt by LSU to steal a home game from Florida?
Communication, cooperation, and questioning of motives and decisions would continue for the rest of the week.
LSU, wanting to ensure that the game was played, also contacted the SEC office, ultimately presenting a bevy of options to play the game the weekend it was scheduled. With a new coach in Ed Orgeron, the Tigers were eager to go on the road and build momentum for the well-liked Orgeron’s chances to retain the job. If Coach O. could keep the Tigers playing as well as they had against Missouri in his first game as interim coach, it was possible the LSU football team, highly ranked before disappointing and close losses to Wisconsin and Auburn, could get back on track. Even knowing they would be without their best player, running back Leonard Fournette, the Tigers wanted to play this game as it was scheduled.
But there were rapidly mounting complications aplenty.
When LSU’s hotel rooms were gobbled up by storm evacuees, the Tigers embarked on a series of logistical plans to ensure they could still travel for the game. Ultimately LSU told the SEC they were prepared to fly into either Tallahassee or Tampa, since Gainesville’s airport was closed on Friday, on the day of the Florida game and bus to Gainesville from either of those airports, which would be open because they were outside the storm’s reach. After the game LSU would fly back out, ensuring that the team took up no hotel rooms in the state of Florida.
Not only were the Tigers willing to play on the scheduled Saturday, they also told the SEC office they would also be willing to play on Sunday and Monday in Gainesville.
As LSU officials scrambled to make travel plans for the football team’s air travel, the same planning was also being done for the LSU football equipment, which travels via a semi-truck. The Tigers reserved hotel rooms in South Alabama to allow their travel crew to avoid any peril from the storm. Student managers packed the big rig and were told to be ready to leave on extremely short notice to ensure that the football pads and equipment arrived on time.
What’s more, LSU was so eager to play the game that they also presented the SEC office with an additional option, they could host the game in Baton Rouge, as they’d done last year with South Carolina after severe flooding in Columbia, and play the game on Saturday, Sunday or Monday in Louisiana. LSU officials were so diligent in their preparation that they had hotel rooms reserved for Florida in either Baton Rouge or New Orleans. As a final option designed to ensure as much equality as possible, LSU let it be known that they would play the game with no fans present.
LSU’s message to the SEC league office was clear — we want to play the game this weekend and we’ll do whatever we need to do to make that happen. The SEC league office conveyed this same message to the Florida Gators.
LSU’s rapid response preparation was derived from the mess that had followed hurricanes Katrina and Rita back in 2005. While Florida officials seemed to be making no contingency plans, LSU officials privately seethed. They’d left the state of Louisiana to play a football game in Arizona immediately after Hurricane Katrina, the most devastating hurricane to hit the country in generations, struck much closer to their campus than this hurricane was going to hit Gainesville. New Orleans was still under water when players boarded planes to fly to Arizona and play a football game halfway across the country. Once big business was involved, and make no mistake SEC football was big business, LSU’s position was simple — you had to play the game.
Indeed, from LSU’s perspective Florida was behaving curiously, why were the Gators not moving with more agency, why were there no back-up plans? What would happen if the worst thing occurred, and Gainesville was suddenly in the hurricane’s path? Did the Gators want to actually play the game or were they using the weather as a cover to get healthy?
As the hurricane moved closer to Florida, SEC officials and representatives from LSU and Florida, including athletic directors Joe Alleva and Jeremy Foley, discussed the latest scheduling options on Wednesday night. Florida officials were confident, based on the latest weather models, that Gainesville would not be severely impacted by the hurricane. All parties hung up planning on playing on Saturday, with just one modification, the game, scheduled for noon eastern, would be moved to four eastern to allow a bit more time for the storm to pass. The SEC office had to clear that issue with CBS because the league television partner had an exclusive window for big games during that time, but this wasn’t expected to be a major issue.
Three hours after that call the forecast changed.
Gainesville was now squarely in the hurricane’s path.
At LSU they privately stewed, what in the world were the Gators doing? Why had LSU officials presented so many different options to play the game and why had Florida only presented one so far, that the game take place on Saturday?
Inside Gainesville Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley sat in on the meetings for hurricane preparedness. As he heard reports about the need for Gainesville’s fire, rescue and police forces to be mobilized for the storm, he became increasingly worried about Gainesville’s ability to handle the game if the storm, now scheduled for early Friday morning, hit with the severity that forecasters were projecting.
On Thursday morning, two days before the game was scheduled to be played, Foley turned to his top subordinates and asked if anyone disagreed with him that the game should be canceled? There were no dissenters.
On Thursday at 2:30 et another phone call was held, this one was limited, subordinates were off the call, and only a few people were on the line, among them SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, LSU athletic director Joe Alleva and Florida Gator athletic director Jeremy Foley. The decision was made to cancel the game and the announcement was set for a couple of hours later.
Just before the release was sent out, LSU requested a last minute edit.
During that time news broke on Twitter via LSU beat reporters.
Gator officials fumed.
LSU had leaked the news that the game was canceled to local reporters five minutes before the release went public.
This confirmed the worst fears of Gator officials, that LSU was now leaking information to local media designed to make them look bad while the Gators stayed silent. Florida maintained they wanted to play the game, but that the storm forecast made it impossible. Now everyone would blame them for the cancellation.
Meanwhile, LSU was apoplectic, why was the game being canceled on Thursday afternoon when LSU had said they would play the game on Saturday, Sunday, or Monday in Gainesville? Why was there a rush to make the decision now when the storm wouldn’t hit until Friday? Why not LSU officials wondered, wait and see how bad the storm was on Friday before eliminating all possibility of playing the game for the entire weekend?
As soon as the game cancellation went public Foley turned to subordinates and said the best thing that could happen was if it were sunny in Gainesville on Saturday. He meant that was the best case scenario because he wanted the storm to pass without damaging the community, but others in the Gator administration knew what would happen then, Florida would be castigated for not playing the game.
The Gators were in a tough spot, if the storm hit and the damage was bad, the decision to cancel the game would be justified, but damage would be severe. But if the storm’s impact wasn’t very severe then they would be blamed for not playing.
Pressure grew when another SEC announcement arrived — Georgia and South Carolina had agreed to move their game to Sunday afternoon. Why, many wondered, could South Carolina play on Sunday and Florida couldn’t? It was a story many at LSU were asking.
On Friday the storm hit and damage was minimal in Gainesville; storm winds never were more brisk than 45 miles an hour and just over an inch of rain fell.
On Saturday it was sunny and 85 degrees in Gainesville. LSU officials were beside themselves, the weather was perfect! And they’d been willing to play on Saturday, Sunday or Monday! How was it this game wasn’t happening?
Florida had hoped for the best while LSU was planning for the worst.
By Saturday afternoon, with pictures of a beautiful Gainesville reverberating across social media, the cancellation of LSU and Florida had turned into such a crisis that SEC commissioner Greg Sankey made the extraordinary decision to appear for a live interview during the Tennessee-Texas A&M game airing on CBS.
He said it was his hope that the game would be rescheduled, but now there was mutual discord between Florida and LSU. Recriminations ricocheted through the media, who was to blame for the game not happening and, most importantly, would it be rescheduled?
On Monday LSU athletic director Joe Alleva went on local radio and insisted that LSU would not give up a home game to play Florida. The home game was too important to a flood ravaged Baton Rouge, still reeling from the crisis of a police shooting in the summer that had led to the murder of multiple Baton Rouge police officers just before the season started. Baton Rouge businesses needed this game.
Why, LSU officials wondered, should they now have to give up a home game after they had bent over backwards to try and make sure the LSU-Florida game was played on the weekend it was scheduled?
This was further complicated because after the game was canceled LSU made two additional suggestions on when to play the game — move the Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville to October 22nd, when both Georgia and Florida had bye weeks, instead of the presently scheduled October 29th and play LSU-Florida on 10/29. Or, LSU suggested, move the SEC title game back a week and play on December 3rd.
Both options were shot down by the league.
Florida presented only one option — play on November 19th in Gainesville.
Other SEC schools complained. The game, they all said, must be played. It was unfair and inequitable for the rest of the conference teams to play eight games and for LSU and Florida to only play seven.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who had been working on this issue and this issue alone for a week straight, worked tirelessly to craft a compromise with two bruised sides. The SEC, long known for its fierce competition, but collegial relationships, was having a very public dispute. It was all very Big 12 of the SEC and Sankey was not happy.
Finally, on Thursday, five days after the game would have initially been played, came a major breakthrough: Florida head coach Jim McElwain was the SEC’s savior, agreeing to travel to Baton Rouge to play at LSU this season in exchange for the Gators getting the home game back in 2017.
LSU would keep their home game, but the SEC would get their make-up game.
It was the kind of outreach for the betterment of the conference over individual benefit that Sankey, constantly at the negotiating table for a week, had been hoping for since the beginning. The SEC, facing the first major crisis of his leadership, had reached a conclusion that preserved the legitimacy of the league championship, ensured all games were played, and kept both teams eligible for a conference championship.
It wasn’t pretty, but in the end the SEC got it right.
The storm had passed and while the Florida Gators weren’t the most prepared for the hurricane, they were the most instrumental in ensuring that the game was still played.