Gator Bowl pioneer
George Olsen dies at 82
On Dec. 27, 1986, four days before he retired, more than 80,000 people watched Clemson and Stanford play, the 10th consecutive year that attendance exceeded 70,000. That game was on CBS, the 32nd consecutive year on national network TV.
The man credited by many with making the Gator Bowl a holiday tradition on the First Coast and a respected bowl game nationwide died Wednesday morning at 82 after a battle of nearly two years against cancer. Olsen worked for the Gator Bowl for 37 years, the last 34 as executive director. He remained executive director emeritus until his death.
He elevated the game to national prominence with a tireless work ethic and a congenial personality that built coast-to-coast contacts. Olsen initiated the practice of bowl representatives scouting teams during the regular season and chaired the first alliance of college football bowl directors.
"He was a wonderful man, and we're going to miss him a lot," Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett said. "When I took the job, I knew about TV contracts and sponsorships and selling tickets. George taught me the human side of the business and that it all comes down to personal relationships."
"The Gator Bowl was held in high esteem in college football, and George Olsen was quite responsible for that," said Doug Dickey, who played and coached in the Gator Bowl with the University of Florida.
Olsen's wife of 59 years, Dottie, said Jacksonville and its sports identity were a lifelong passion for the former minor-league baseball player and Long Island, N.Y., native.
"I can't tell you how much he loved Jacksonville and the wonderful people we've come to know here and all over the country," she said. "We are so thankful to have had all these years being associated with the Gator Bowl."
Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who met Olsen for the first time when Bowden was an FSU assistant in the 1964 Gator Bowl, said, "it saddens me to know he's passed ... I thought he was one of the most enjoyable men to be around that I've ever met."
Despite a small staff, which included his wife, working in a small office in the old American Heritage Life Building, Olsen managed to land good matchups almost every year, with 13 of the top-20 attended Gator Bowl games taking place under his watch.
Olsen also got CBS as a broadcast partner in 1954 for the Auburn-Baylor game, the first time a college bowl game had been aired coast-to-coast.
Some of the most successful teams and legendary coaches met in the Gator Bowl with Olsen orchestrating the match-ups: Alabama and Bear Bryant, Penn State and Joe Paterno, Clemson and Frank Howard and Danny Ford, Auburn and Shug Jordan, Georgia Tech and Bobby Dodd, Florida and Ray Graves and Dickey, Georgia and Wally Butts, Florida State and Bowden and Notre Dame and Dan Devine.
Heisman Trophy winners George Rogers, Earl Campbell, John David Crow and Pat Sullivan played in the Gator Bowl during that time.
So did other future NFL stars, such as Fred Biletnikoff, Lawrence Taylor, Anthony Carter, Thurman Thomas, Dave Robinson, Dan Marino, Larry Csonka, Floyd Little and John L. Williams.
Olsen was at his best during an era when the bowl system was referred to as "backroom dealing."
Friends and associates said Olsen worked those "backroom" deals with charm, dignity and honesty.
"People may not realize it now, but George Olsen was one of the three or four most influential people in the college football bowl system," said former Times-Union sports editor and current radio personality David Lamm. "He was a wheeler-dealer, but that's the way the system worked back then."
After the teams arrived in town to begin practicing for the game, Olsen's wife said he was a whirlwind of activity, making sure the players and coaches enjoyed their accommodations and had activities after practice.
"He was a fan of all of the schools who played in the game," she said. "He was always concerned that they were having a good time."
For example, Olsen personally delivered cold beer to the coaching staffs at their hotels, timing his arrival for the end of their practices.
Olsen was born Oct. 11, 1926, in Floral Park, N.Y. He graduated from New York University, where he played baseball on the same team with Ralph Branca and Eddie Yost. Olsen played two years in the Boston Red Sox system.
He was hired by a sports public relations firm managed by Ray McCarthy, the brother of Olsen's baseball coach at NYU, and the firm was hired by the Gator Bowl.
The Gator Bowl committee at the time realized it needed a full-time marketing and promotions director and hired Olsen. He began work two days after marrying his wife in New York.
In addition to his wife, Olsen is survived by a son, George; a daughter, Georgia O'Daniel; and grandchildren Jeff and Kevin Olsen.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Palms Presbyterian Church at 3410 Third St. South in Jacksonville Beach. The family requested that donations be made in lieu of flowers to Palms Presbyterian or Community Hospice.