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Rival fans paint town red
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2000
NEW ORLEANS -- Florida State alumni Mark and Brenda Sutton paid $15 each to watch the Sugar Bowl. But they didn't go into the Louisiana Superdome.
The Clearwater couple went next door to the Ernest Morial Convention Center, where an estimated 10,000 people paid to watch college football's national championship game on big-screen TV.
"It doesn't bother us that we're not next door," said Brenda Sutton. "We tried to get tickets, but it didn't seem like anyone was selling for less than $200. Oh well, any reason to go to New Orleans."
They were just happy to be in on a wild couple of days in the Big Easy. Seminoles and Hokies jammed Bourbon Street, spent wads of cash at Harrah's Casino and razzed each other at restaurants and bars all over town.
Unlike last spring's Final Four in St. Petersburg, where the revelry was limited to a couple of blocks around Tropicana Field, the Sugar Bowl takes over downtown New Orleans.
Fans had their fortunes told by psychic "experts" like Lucy, whose French Quarter shop threw in a cassette tape of her personal predictions for $35. They lined up for jambalaya and shrimp, turning restaurants into a sea of red, a team color the schools share. And the locals did their part to set the mood: A three-person street group at Jackson Square even launched into the Hokey Pokey in a bid for tips from Tech fans.
But for all the thousands of partiers, this was a relatively sedate and mannered crowd, said shopkeepers and police. Except for the occasional fight on Bourbon Street, the two schools' fans were civil to each other.
"It's been packed and crazy, but not ridiculous," said Gaeleck Eylander, a bartender at Bubba Gump's Shrimp Co. in the French Quarter. "This was nothing like when Florida played Florida State here (three years ago). That got nasty."
That doesn't mean the two schools necessarily like each other. Virginia Tech fans tended to regard the Seminoles as smug, overbearing types who have done all this national title stuff before, while FSU fans saw the Hokies as overconfident upstarts who didn't prove themselves because of their soft schedule.
When Tech graduate John Riley arrived at the New Orleans airport, he immediately got into a war of words with a Seminole fan. "You'll know where I'm from when we get through with you," she said.
Quick on the comeback, Riley reminded the FSU fan of wide receiver Peter Warrick's incident in which he got a special deal on merchandise at a Tallahassee store.
"So where did you get that hat, Dillard's?" he asked.
While Seminole fans showed up in force Sunday and Monday, many Hokie fans have been here since Friday. The Tech faithful saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime game for a school that few would think of as a national powerhouse.
The game's national-championship status added to the fans' intensity. Former NFL stars such as Joe Theismann and Kellen Winslow are here. TV news crews were all around the Superdome on Tuesday night as fans mugged for the cameras. And corporate sponsors spent thousands of dollars, setting up hospitality tents and other perks for guests; title sponsor Nokia even had a band playing on a stage near the arena entrance.
All the excitement -- and the matchup of two undefeated teams -- helped drive demand for tickets. Still, many fans from both schools showed up without tickets, hoping to buy some around the arena.
Several weeks ago, tickets were going for as much as $1,200 from brokers and Internet sites. Face value was $85 to $125. But on Tuesday the price was dropping by the hour. At lunchtime Tuesday they were going for $400 to $500; by 5 p.m., it had dropped to $200.
But as fans piled into the stadium, it was hard to find anyone who was selling tickets.
"We've gotten three of the four tickets we need, and we paid close to face value," said Brian Huffman, a Tech alumnus from Knoxville, Tenn., who was hanging out on a street corner across from the Superdome at 2 p.m. His secret? Look for fans who are selling, and avoid the ticket brokers.
"You can tell the brokers right away," he said. "They're the ones with the really nice leather jackets and the cellular phones in their ear."
Down the street, Florida State alumnus Jon Fuchs was having less luck. He came in from Fort Lauderdale, planning to pick up a ticket Tuesday. He was willing to be patient, hoping the price would come down, but he didn't want to have to settle for a ticket to the convention center telecast.
"I will do whatever I have to do to get in," he said with a laugh. "Maybe I'll put on some overalls and say I work at the Superdome."
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