Orlando is about to get crunk. With 70,000-plus black folks expected to descend on Orlando this weekend for the Walt Disney World Florida Classic football game between the Bethune-Cookman College Wildcats and Florida A&M University's Rattlers, terminology like "off the chain" and "crunk" might get thrown around to describe the goings-on.
It's Classic weekend, a time when football, revelry and black college traditions merge. The Classic is not just a sporting event, it's an experience, with step shows, luaus, battle-of-the-band competitions and car shows. This weekend is one of the liveliest of the year.
According to Florida Citrus Sports, the Classic generates more ticket sales than any other football game in Orlando. Last year's Champs Sports Bowl drew 31,470 spectators, the highest turnout in the game's 15-year history. The Capital One Bowl, featuring the No. 1 ranked teams in the Big Ten and SEC not picked for a BCS bowl game, drew 57,221 fans.
Last year's Classic, by comparison, drew 70,112 fans. Even the Orlando Magic — with a maximum seating capacity of 17,000 at the TD Waterhouse Centre — doesn't come close.
"Economically, this is the biggest game that we put on each year," says Matt Repchak, communications manager at Florida Citrus Sports. "The Classic is almost a convention. People come from all over the place to be a part of the experience, and the ticket sales reflect that."
The Classic isn't a home game for either team, but it's a turf war nonetheless. "This is the biggest game of my career," says FAMU senior wide receiver Roosevelt Kiser. "It's my last game against Bethune-Cookman. I mean, I've dreamed about this all my life. I know a few guys on their team and you always want to talk about how you beat them, not how they beat you."
Kiser is from Fort Lauderdale, and he knows he'll never hear the end of it if he loses three out of four matches with BCC. During his tenure, the Wildcats have beaten his Rattlers twice already.
"The intrastate rivalries are always the huge games and the ones that stand out the most," says FAMU football head coach Rubin Carter. "The two schools are so close to each other that they normally recruit the same players. Often entire families are divided, with one person having gone to FAMU and one that went to Bethune-Cookman, and that makes the whole weekend even more competitive."
A "classic" is when two colleges or universities with long-established rivalries square off, not just on the gridiron, but in marching-band competitions as well. Often the games are the least important part of the event.
|Here's a taste of what's going on for the Florida Classic. For more listings, go to www.floridaclassics.org or www.frontlineevents.com|
Friday, Nov. 17
Fan Day at Walt Disney World Resort Hosted by Doug Banks and featuring the BCC and FAMU marching bands plus performances from Danity Kane; 1 p.m.-5 p.m. at MGM Studios, 1675 N. Buena Vista Drive, Lake Buena Vista; $64.22 Florida residents, $71.36 nonresidents; (407) 423-2476, ext. 165
AARP Alumni Gala at the Shingle Creek Resort For the school dignitaries, presidents, VIPs and alumni, with performance by the Gap Band; 7 p.m. at Shingle Creek Resort, 9939 Universal Blvd.; $125; (407) 423-2476, ext. 125
State Farm Battle of the Bands Features 10 high school bands and the BCC and FAMU marching bands; 7 p.m. at TD Waterhouse Centre, 600 W. Amelia St.; $15-$25; (407) 423-2476, ext. 164
VIP Happy Hour An upscale meet-and-greet; 4 p.m.-9:30 p.m. at Club Whispers, 4732 S. Kirkman Road; $20; (407) 290-9896
Exclusive Alumni Jam DJ Saxwell provides the music; hosted by Marvin Dixon and Joe Bullard; 10 p.m.-3 a.m. at Club Whispers, 4732 S. Kirkman Road; $20; (407) 290-9896 106 & ROX DJ Nasty spinning the hits; hosted by Big Tigger and BET’s Rocsi and Terrance; 9 p.m.-3 a.m. at Roxy, 740 Bennett Road; $75; (407) 290-9896
Saturday, Nov. 18
Front-Line Promotions Pre-Game Tailgate Party Where the action is; 1 p.m. at Citrus Bowl Gate D, 1610 W. Church St.; free; (407) 290-9896
Walt Disney World Florida Classic The big game; 3:30p.m.; Citrus Bowl, 1610 W. Church St.; $35; (407) 423-2476
Classic Edition of The Velvet Rope Featuring DJs Biz Markie, J. Deezy and WALGEE; 9 p.m.-3 a.m.; Club Whispers, 4732 S. Kirkman Road; $20; (407) 290-9896
Classic Luau Rick Ross, Trick Daddy, DJ Khaled and DJ Demp; 9 p.m.-3 a.m.; Roxy, 740 Bennett Road; $75; (407) 290-9896 Slick Rick A live performance with BET’s DJ Q45, with R&B sensation KC opening the show; 9 p.m.-3 a.m.; House of Blues, 1490 E. Lake Buena Vista Drive; $40; (407) 934-2583
8th Annual Car Show and Concert Featuring Trick Daddy, DJ UNK, Lil Boosie and Yola the Great; 2 p.m.; Central Florida Fairgrounds, 4603 W. Colonial Drive; $25; (407) 290-9896
"I think all fans can agree that the halftime performance at the Florida Classic is probably the best college football halftime in the world," says longtime BCC marching band director Donovan Wells. "I just don't see two colleges with bands of our caliber anywhere else on the globe."
In 1997, the Florida Classic moved to Orlando from Tampa and quickly became the highest-attended classic of them all, surpassing the Bayou Classic, between Southern University and Grambling State, and the Turkey Day Classic, between Alabama State and Tuskegee University. Though the Bayou Classic enjoys prime television coverage on NBC each year, the Florida Classic has outsold it for the past three years. Our classic also set the current NCAA Division 1-AA attendance record in 2003, when 73,358 fans showed up to watch the game. (Last year's Bayou Classic sold 53,214 tickets.)
"This is the granddaddy of 'em all," says FAMU student Darrell Dawson of Tallahassee. "No disrespect to the Bayou Classic, but the Florida Classic has been outselling that game for years."
It's also an economic engine. According to an economic impact statement generated in 2002 by G.J. Williams & Associates, the Classic generated direct sales of $13.7 million in 2001.
"We do a lot of business over the `Florida` Classic weekend," says Earlean Taylor, owner of popular soul-food restaurant Johnson's Diner. "I'm already taking orders for tailgate parties. We have alumni that come in for breakfast before the game and dinner afterwards. Our business goes up 50 percent just in that weekend."
The rivalry between BCC and FAMU dates to 1925, the year the schools first met on the football field. Although the grudge match dates back 81 years, the Classic itself only began in 1978. Scheduling conflicts and venue disputes canceled the matchup in 1983 and 1984. Nonetheless, some of the most famous games between BCC and FAMU took place well before the first Classic.
It's a lopsided rivalry, with FAMU dominating the series with 44 wins to Bethune's 14. At one point the Rattlers racked up 19 straight wins, including a string of blowouts from '59 to '61 with scores of 68-6, 97-0 and 76-0 consecutively. BCC has made the game more competitive over the last few years and has won three out of the last five games, including a stellar 58-52 overtime victory in 2004. Of BCC's 14 victories, 11 have come since 1973.
"There was barely a black college team in the country that could beat FAMU back in those days — it just didn't happen," says former BCC athletic director and defensive coordinator Lloyd "Tank" Johnson. "Back when they were FAMC `Florida A&M College`, they were the team to beat."
FAMU was cranking out collegiate stars like Willie Galimore, Joe Ramsey and Henry Lawrence during the golden era of black college football, the 1950s, the period the team was coached by the legendary Alonzo Smith "Jake" Gaither. Under Gaither's tutelage, 42 FAMU players went on to the NFL, and he coached the South's first interracial football game in 1969, which saw FAMU beat the University of Tampa 34-28.
Ironically, it was segregation that brought about the glory years for both schools' football programs. Prior to desegregation, it wasn't possible for black athletes to play at nonblack universities, and as a result Florida schools like BCC and FAMU had their pick of the available talent.
"Back then, we could have whipped the pants off of a `University of` Florida or a Miami," says Johnson, who recently turned 72. "We were the only two black schools in Florida that played football, so we had all the best athletes."
Johnson's longtime friend and counterpart, Hansel E. "Tootie" Tookes, former athletic director of FAMU, agrees.
"I look at Florida State right now and the whole defensive team is black," says Tookes, who turned 86 this year. "Florida got most of 'em black, and Miami too. Back in the day we would have had all those players."
Tookes and Johnson still take jabs at each other, especially regarding some of those blowout games in the early 1960s.
"We scored almost a hundred points on them one year," says Tookes, laughing. "We took a lot of criticism for that game, but what can you tell a running back, to just lay down? We had real football players back then, and they ran like racehorses."
Johnson and Tookes are the fathers of the Classic, a fact that is often left out of the history books. Both men say that by the 1970s, the game had grown so popular that neither school could handle the throng of fans showing up to watch.
"I remember in 1972, we played the game for the last time in Welch Memorial Stadium in Daytona," says Johnson. "It was so many people crammed in that stadium. It was estimated we had 15,000 people in a stadium that only seated 5,500. And every time the ball went down the field, people were physically on the field just to see what happened."
They played at Florida State University's Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee during the mid-'70s to accommodate the game, but that venue — which seated 40,500 at the time — also proved to be too small. One year they even played at the Daytona International Speedway, but as Johnson recalls, the seating was terrible. They needed a permanent venue.
"I remember standing on the field with Tank in 1974 after they beat us, and him saying that we still had to move the game some place even bigger," Tookes recalls. "You know, it's been amazing watching this thing grow from 20,000, 30,000, and all the way up. Nowadays you've got 70,000 people inside the stadium, and another 25,000 outside that show up just for support. That's something else."
Both men wanted to move the game to Orlando, but it landed in Tampa from 1978 to 1996. Orlando wasn't interested. "You know, Orlando in '75 was far different than the Orlando now," says Johnson, referring to racial attitudes. "We were disappointed, but we had to move to Tampa to get the thing started."
Ultimately, Tampa would also prove to be unwelcoming. Despite the economic benefits, stores and malls would close early on Classic weekend, which brought the city a heap of bad press.
"I'll tell you why they `Tampa` lost it," Tookes says frankly. "The merchants over there didn't want our kids walking around their stores. Hotels were hard on us; I mean, they really showed us that we were not welcome there. I bet they regret it now. They lost millions of dollars when they ran us out of Tampa, but Tank and I found a home sweet home in Orlando."
Johnson, who suffers from a neuromuscular disorder, says that for the first time in over 50 years he hasn't attended a single BCC football game this season. But he plans to be at the Florida Classic.
"It's very hard for me not to tear up every time I walk into that stadium," he says.
Tookes' health is none too good either; he's got prostate cancer, an aneurysm and blood clots.
"I'm just here," he says. "I can think for myself and I can eat, but other than that I been through the mill, son."
Both men hope Orlando recognizes their contribution someday. "The city of Orlando should do something permanent for Tank and Tootie," Tookes says. "We brought millions of dollars to that neighborhood down there. And every time I go to that game now, I have a tough time just getting my car in the stadium. People forget things, man. We should at least have some seats named after us or something."
At most college football games, halftime is for beer runs and bathroom breaks. At the Classic, halftime is the reason to go.
"I'm just going for the halftime show," says FAMU student Amber Johnson, who will be making her first trip to Orlando this year. "I don't really care about the game, I just want to see the bands."
Both schools get 30 minutes to strut their stuff, performing 12-15 songs during halftime. Hip-hop songs often get thrown into the mix.
Spend some time listening to the Marching 100, FAMU's band, and you're just as likely to hear contemporary hits like Rihanna's "Unfaithful" and Rick Ross' "For Da Low" as you are to hear hip-hop coming out of a tuba.
"Halftime is where we let it all hang out," says student band president Chandler Wilson of FAMU. "Bethune has a good band, and we have a good band, so folks are going to get a real good show this year."
Don't be surprised by an exodus of fans after the marching bands leave the field. It's not uncommon for the crowds to dwindle considerably after the halftime showcase.
"Our shows are extremely popular, and unfortunately, some students just come to see the halftime show, then they leave," says FAMU marching band director Dr. Julian White. "We want them to stay, but some just leave anyways."
The halftime show is so popular that ancillary events are scheduled so both marching bands can perform around Orlando throughout the weekend `see sidebar`.
Then there's a huge part of Classic weekend that has nothing at all to do with football and marching bands: just having a good time in the City Beautiful. You've got car shows, hair shows, comedy shows, club nights and hip-hop concerts to help bring some much-needed color to downtown Orlando. Black business owners, like Willie Fisher of Front-Line Promotions, an urban marketing and events company based in Orlando, says he's proud to see so many black folks coming together to help drive the economy forward.
"It's very exciting to see that we can come together and participate in the largest urban sporting event in the country," says Fisher, whose company also owns Club Whispers. "This event is exactly what Orlando needs. Everyone gets together, has fun, and there are no problems."
The "unsanctioned" events are some of the best things on the schedule. Car shows, step shows and all-night parties in Eatonville are a part of the tradition, although chances are, they'll never end up on the city's website. Some of these clandestine activities are exactly what make the Classic a classic.
"This is the one weekend that Orlando is officially off the chain," says 25-year-old FAMU student John Smith. "Everybody comes out to show off their whips, new clothes, and the young ladies be out there looking good. I been going since it was in Tampa, and it's way better now that they have the game in Orlando."[email protected]