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Florida Classic lands in Orlando

The Florida Classic will make its new home in Orlando _ for this year at least _ but the two schools that play in the annual football game won't get the financial guarantees they had sought.

Money, however, wasn't the only factor in deciding to move the game, which had been played in Tampa for 17 of the past 19 years, officials from Florida A&M University and Bethune-Cookman College said Wednesday. Racially tinged incidents in Tampa played a part in moving the game and its $11.8-million annual impact, they said.

"A lot was written in the media about the $400,000 guarantee we were seeking, and we were disappointed that we didn't get that guarantee," said Ken Riley, FAMU athletic director. "But the money was not the main issue (with Tampa). Not to fault the entire city, but there were things that happened within the (Tampa) community that bothered both schools. We felt it was best for a change of scenery."

Earlier this month, the schools rejected bids from Tampa and Jacksonville to play host to the game between the two historically black colleges.

Tampa offered to run the game as it had in years past, with the schools reaping all profits from gate receipts, an average of $297,000 over the past four years. Jacksonville officials offered a $250,000 guarantee, plus the chance to make more through sponsorships. The schools were seeking a total guarantee of $400,000.

There will be no guarantees in Orlando for the one-year deal the schools announced in the Citrus Bowl Wednesday. This year's game will be played at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 22 in the Citrus Bowl.

The Florida Citrus Sports Association, the group that stages the Citrus Bowl and other sports events in Orlando, will manage the game and assist with marketing. After paying a management fee to Florida Citrus Sports, the schools will keep the profits from the game.

"It's really great to be standing here," Riley said. "We want this to be our home. I've already had positive response from the alumni and I'm sure (B-CC athletic director) Lynn (Thompson) has, too."

At a news conference, officials made it clear the treatment fans received in Tampa had an impact.

In 1990, Classic fans were upset over what they perceived as unfair reservation and payment requirements at some Tampa hotels.

In 1994, fans were further angered when Tampa Bay Center, the mall across the street from Houlihan's Stadium, closed early, preventing fans from visiting the mall after the game.

"There was a perception of Tampa that grew as a result of those incidents," Thompson said.

Optimism is higher for Orlando. City Commissioner Nap Ford and Orange County Commissioner Bob Freeman, both in attendance, expressed hope the game would be played at the Citrus Bowl for many years to come.

"Tampa's loss is Orlando's gain," Freeman said. "I think our community is going to accept the game and their fans in a way they have never been accepted before. We have an understanding of the importance of the game and its economic impact."

Riley and Thompson solicited support from the city and county not only for the game but for ancillary events. One of Tampa's strong points was the involvement of the Florida Classic Association, which was backed in part by the Tampa/Hillsborough Convention and Visitors Association.

It sponsored such events as the President's Luncheon and the Jazz Nitecap, turning the game into a weekend of events. The schools expect similar support from Orlando.

"It's vital," Thompson said. "If we don't have teamwork involving all those areas, the classic will die. Everyone benefits, so everyone needs to get involved."

FAMU has played four games over the past five years in Orlando and has enjoyed the reception it received in the city. In 1995, the FAMU-Tennessee State game in Orlando also included a scholarship dinner, Disney golf tournament, Pleasure Island concert with Jeffrey Osborne and a day-long concert featuring Coolio, Brian McKnight, Brownstone, Shai and Kool & the Gang at the baseball field adjacent to the Citrus Bowl.

The athletic directors would not rule out the possibility of the game returning to Tampa, saying their relationship with city officials remains cordial.

"It's like I had been dating a girl for 17 years and then we broke up," Thompson said. "The door is still open."