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Big games, big traditions // FLORIDA CLASSIC

Like just about everyone tailgating at Tampa Stadium before Saturday's Florida Classic football game, Fred Alderman had a lot to say about tradition.

Sitting in a folding chair next to his rented Winnebago, Alderman smiled toward some of the 55 family members who joined him at the game. He spoke warmly about the annual gathering, as much a family reunion as a sports event for many fans.

But when the Orlando math professor talked of Tampa, the game's home for 15 of the last 17 years, the warmth was gone.

"The way we have been treated here for the last few years is extraordinary," said Alderman, 54. "We are human beings, and we deserve to be treated like human beings."

Questions about the future of the annual clash between rivals Florida A&M University and Bethune-Cookman College, and whether it will return to Tampa, have nearly overshadowed this year's game. If the two historically black colleges decide to take the Classic elsewhere next year, fans like Alderman will be the reason.

In the years he has attended the Classic, Alderman says, he's been required to pay cash deposits for hotel rooms, only to be told those rooms had been given away once he arrived. When Tampa Bay Center, the mall across from Tampa Stadium, closed an hour early last year, effectively preventing fans from shopping after the game, Alderman decided he had had enough.

Alderman, a 1965 FAMU graduate, told his family if the game stays in Tampa, "this is our last year." He only brought his family this year because he bought tickets far in advance.

"I think it's just asinine that merchants think they have to close down because of black people," he said, dismissing mall officials' claim that it was a business decision made for crowd-control purposes. After criticism in 1994, the mall maintained its regular hours Saturday, closing at 9 p.m.

After the game, cars packed with fans strained from the stadium to the mall, where business appeared to go smoothly.

Darryl Chandler, manager of Everglade Sports, said the 8:45 p.m. calm was typical of the day.

"I've been here all day, and I've seen no fights, just the typical amount of noise associated with any group of college-age youth," said Chandler, 29.

Gregory Martin, a B-CC graduate from Miami, said he was satisfied with his visit to the mall.

"It's been pretty fair . . .," said Martin, 25. "I think people exaggerate a lot all the things that could have happened."

But it is last year's mall controversy that stays in Sheila Cooper's mind. Echoing Alderman and most other longstanding Classic-goers interviewed Saturday, she says the game should move.

Cooper, a FAMU fan from Orlando, said her city could do a better job at making Classic fans feel welcome, without losing any of the significance fans associate with the game.

"The only difference is that Orlando would get the profits. They could take it to Alabama, and it would still be the Classic," said Cooper, 31, who said she has been rooting for the Rattlers at games against B-CC since she was 6.

Cooper's father, Leroy King of Kissimmee, meets his daughter, granddaughter and friends in the same spot each year, under an oak tree a few parking lot rows back from the main entrance to the stadium.

King, 58, said he would be sad to see the game move, but guessed he would just move with it.

"As long as it's still in the state of Florida, and I think it will be, I'll still go," King said.

Javacia Williams, a FAMU nursing student, echoed the sentiment that it's the game, not the city, that matters.

"Wherever (the Classic) moves, I guess we'll just start a new tradition there," said Williams, 21.

To persuade Classic fans that Tampa wants them, the Florida Classic Association and others have spent the year mending fences and working with local merchants. Among changes this year: a rebate program from hoteliers, donating money to the association for each room rented by fans.

But FAMU President Frederick Humphries still says he needs a tangible sign of atonement from the mall _ in the form of a $100,000 donation to the schools _ to feel comfortable about staying. More discussions are planned.

That might be enough to bring Alderman back to continue his longtime tradition, but probably not.

"I feel strongly that the game should remain in Tampa," Alderman said, "but only if the city fathers and merchants make some kind of restitution . . . then, maybe."