Joe Taylor had always heard about this grand game called the Florida Classic.
For 16 seasons, he coached at Hampton, intrigued by the buzz, pageantry and excitement, the great sounds and moves of the bands, the vibrant atmosphere over the course of the weekend.
Now Taylor finally gets to coach in the Classic.
"I didn't realize it prior to coming in even though from a distance when you talk about 75,000 people … ," said Taylor, who took over Florida A&M in December. "I knew about it. But since I've been here, I've seen it's a real rivalry. There's no question about it."
Today's game between FAMU and Bethune-Cookman at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando promises to be a grand spectacle. But unlike recent editions, there's more at stake than bragging rights.
It features a pair of teams that have shed the struggles of 2007 and battled to position themselves for Divsion I-AA at-large playoff berths.
"Florida A&M has a great opportunity to get into the playoffs if they secure the victory," Bethune-Cookman coach Alvin Wyatt said. "And I think we have a great opportunity to get in there."
Taylor, perhaps, had a tougher task. He took over for Rubin Carter, who was fired following a season of turmoil that included quarterback Albert Chester quitting in midseason and ended with a 3-8 record.
Taylor quickly traveled around the state to let Rattlers fans know things would change for the better. He just didn't realize how quickly his words would come true.
"It was building from inside out," Taylor said. "In January, we had no clue how good this team would be.
"At the end of the spring, we began to see some things that led us to believe if we improved discipline and work ethic, we had a chance."
The Rattlers (8-3, 4-3 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) won three of their first four games, falling 35-28 in double overtime to Delaware State on Sept. 4. All three of their losses have come by seven points or fewer.
A lot of credit has gone to quarterback Curtis Pulley, who has caught on in the second half of the season. He has thrown for 1,257 yards, 15 touchdowns and four interceptions and rushed for 714 yards and five touchdowns.
"This guy has gotten more and more comfortable with the environment, with the offensive scheme," Taylor said. "Of course, he's very talented; not just with the throwing standpoint, but he's a great athlete."
The Wildcats (8-2, 5-2), coming off a 5-6 season, answer with Wyatt's famous triple-option attack known as the "Wyattbone," which gives them a rushing attack ranked 12th in I-AA (214.8 yards per game).
But perhaps the more intriguing matchup will be the Rattlers' offense against the Wildcats' defense. They lead the conference in points scored and points allowed, respectively.
"They don't give up the big plays (on defense)," Taylor said. "And with that triple option, they are always one play away from the end zone. If you don't understand your responsibilities … that's when you look up and the quarterback is in the end zone from 54 yards out.
"Whoever wins this game should get some serious consideration (for the playoffs)."
Izzy Gould can be reached at izzy [email protected] or (727) 580-5315.