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Fine game; you had to be there

By DARRELL FRY

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 19, 2000


ORLANDO -- They filled up every available inch of the Florida Citrus Bowl, rolling in from Daytona, Tallahassee and points north and south. Some watched from the ramps connecting the upper decks, content to stand the entire game.

They were 70,719 strong, the second straight year the Florida Classic has topped the 70,000 mark and a record for the game.

That's no small feat, especially for a game between Division I-AA teams. The last Super Bowl (72,625) didn't draw much more.

On top of that, there was intrigue and meaning, a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference crown and an automatic NCAA playoff berth swinging on the outcome, not to mention all-important bragging rights.

Clearly, in four years in Orlando after a long and sometimes tumultuous existence in Tampa, this annual rivalry between Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman College has reached an all-time high. Only once before moving here had this game drawn more than 50,000. And never before had it been a given this game would sell out.

If you had asked Classic officials to orchestrate their own game day scenario, they probably wouldn't have come up with much else. "You can't help but be pleased," MEAC commissioner Charles Harris said during the second quarter.

Everything was there Saturday at the Florida Citrus Bowl. Everything except what matters the most.

The peacock.

The Classic has made astonishing advancements in recent years, but if it's ever going to be something beyond a statewide event, it's going to need NBC or ABC or CBS. Heck, FAMU and B-CC probably would settle for ESPN2.

Anything but pay-per-view.

Let's be realistic about this. This is Rivalry Weekend. Florida versus Florida State. Michigan versus Ohio State. Auburn versus Alabama.

Just how many people do you think actually paid to watch FAMU and B-CC when they could have watched any of those other games for free?

This is just a hunch, but my guess is, not many.

Classic officials can wolf all they want about how rapidly this game has risen since moving to Orlando and how bright the future is. But this game always will play second fiddle to the Bayou Classic in New Orleans until it gets a network TV deal like the Classic, which is on NBC next weekend.

"I think it is clear that, to make the kind of national statement that we'd probably like to make for this game, having television outside of the Florida market is one of the things we're going to have to look at," Harris said. "The fact of the matter is, this is an incredibly important and significant game in the state of Florida. On the national landscape, frankly it's still a Division I-AA game."

If you're wondering, the chances of the Florida Classic landing a network TV deal aren't good. Put it this way: Al Gore has a better chance of getting invited to the Bush house for dinner.

It's a scheduling thing. With so many big rivalry games on the same day, the Classic isn't getting much love from the networks. Not even the cable ones.

It would help if the game were moved to its original Thanksgiving Day weekend date when there aren't so many perfect-for-TV games. But, of course, that would conflict with the opening round of the I-AA playoffs, which is why the game was moved to its current date in the first place.

At the moment, there's little FAMU or B-CC can do except keep cramming fans into the Florida Citrus Bowl, hyping the game to anyone outside Florida who will listen and staging more tightly contested, high-scoring games such as Saturday's 31-28 FAMU win.

FAMU receiver Jacquay Nunnally's juggling, hit-absorbing 31-yard catch alone was worth putting on TV. So was B-CC free safety Rashean Mathis' 100-yard touchdown return of a missed field goal.

It shouldn't have had to cost you $29.95 to see it.

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