COMMENTARY

Florida Classic matters -- now more than ever

This is their last vestige of hope.

This game -- this one magnificent game -- is what keeps Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman relevant in a state where Division I programs are springing up and overtaking them at an alarming rate.

They call it the Florida Classic. They ought to call it The Florida Lifeline.

"Without this game, we'd be dead," former Bethune-Cookman athletic director and football coach Cy McClairen said Saturday after his school's 34-7 blowout of FAMU at the Citrus Bowl.

This game is important for millions of reasons -- and millions of dollars. Without this game and the combined $3 million it puts into the coffers of both schools, the cash-strapped athletic departments of FAMU and Bethune would shrivel up and blow away.

Here's all you need to know about the magnitude of this game: On Saturday, these two teams played in front of 65,367 fans at the Citrus Bowl. Last week, Bethune played in front of 751 fans at Howard and FAMU played in front of 3,782 fans at Hampton. This is like playing at Yankee Stadium a week after playing at the North Orlando Kiwanis Little League Park.

"This game makes us feel like we're Florida-Florida State," B-CU linebacker Josh Balloon said with a smile splashed across his face.

There was a time before integration when they were. Those were the days when FAMU, the state's most renowned historically black university, got its pick of the state's best African-American football players. As a result, legendary coach Jake Gaither won seven national titles with future NFL stars such as Bob Hayes and Willie Galimore.

After integration, Florida, Florida State, Miami and big-time programs throughout the country started recruiting the state's best black players. But even then, there were still some good players left over. Now, though, the talent pool has shrunk even more with the emergence of four more Division I-A programs in the state.

"UCF, USF, FAU, FIU, these schools are getting the players we used to get," Bethune Coach Alvin Wyatt says. "We're way down at the bottom of the barrel fighting for athletes."

Maybe this explains the recent struggles of both programs. Once-dominant Florida A&M (3-8) hasn't won more than seven games in any of its last seven seasons. Bethune (5-6) has had two straight losing seasons and four consecutive seasons with at least four losses.

The Florida Classic is even more vital now because it is the one chance for the two programs to showcase themselves to the shrinking pool of recruits who might want to attend a historically black university. If given a choice between FAU or FAMU, the atmosphere and aura surrounding the Classic might sway recruits and their families.

This isn't a football game so much as it is a football festival. This isn't just the most attended game in all of black-college football; it's a jubilee of black culture and cuisine. Food merchants sold fried catfish Saturday. Tailgaters ate barbecued goat. Roadside vendors hawked replica jerseys of old Negro League baseball players and peddled posters showing 1970s black activist Angela Davis.

There were nearly 70,000 fans at the Citrus Bowl on Saturday. Not because a national or conference championship was on the line. No, they came because of the history and the heritage and the pride and the passion of this game.

It's no wonder both schools use this game in conjunction with their biggest recruiting weekend of the year. The message is clear: If you come to Bethune or FAMU, you, too, can be a part of this special game.

In a day and age when the BCS-ification of the sport has steadily eaten away at the significance of black-college football, there is still this one heirloom of hope.

And, so, doesn't it seem appropriate that Disney World is the title sponsor of the Florida Classic?

To black-college football programs in this state, the Disney motto couldn't be truer.

Orlando is the one place on Earth where dreams really do come true.

Mike Bianchi can be reached at mbianchi@orlandosentinel.com.

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