The final piece of the puzzle fell into place yesterday when it was announced that the Fiesta Bowl had joined three other New Year's Day college football games in a coalition with the ACC, Big East and Notre Dame.
Some details -- the length of the contract and the selection process -- have not been completed. But the parties involved said that everything would be done to ensure that the No. 1 and No. 2 teams play for the national championship.
The Fiesta Bowl, the site of national championship games in 1987 and 1989, and the focus of national controversy last season, was chosen over four other games trying to join the Orange, Sugar and Cotton bowls in a plan that will be applied to games played Jan. 1, 1993.
"Obviously we're pleased and honored and truly excited to be involved and to go forward with this," Fiesta Bowl president Chuck Johnson said. "This is a big day for us."
According to the conference directors and bowl presidents involved in the process, the Fiesta Bowl, which is held at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., edged out the Florida Citrus Bowl after bids were submitted Tuesday in Atlanta. Other candidates not chosen were the Gator, Holiday and Blockbuster bowls.
Yesterday's decision means that the ACC's four-year association with the Florida Citrus Bowl will end after next season's game. Executives for the Orlando, Fla., game, site of national co-champion Georgia Tech's 45-21 victory over Nebraska last season, were gracious in defeat.
Asked if the decision came down to money, Citrus Bowl president Bob Moore said: "I don't believe it did. One of the things I heard was geographical location. They wanted a game out West. Whatever the reasons, we're obviously disappointed. Certainly the Fiesta Bowl is deserving."
Said Gator Bowl executive director John Bell: "We knew we had a couple of great bowls in front of us. We knew we had to run a lot faster to catch up. We're very appreciative to have been given a chance to make our presentation. I congratulate them for making a very fine choice."
Though the Florida Citrus Bowl was reportedly within hours of reaching an agreement for title sponsorship with the Chrysler Corp., the Fiesta Bowl had already received a $7 million guarantee from city, county and state officials to cover any potential losses. Those involved in yesterday's decision said that several factors came into play.
"Dollars were a base aspect to this, but they were far from being the only thing in our minds," said Sugar Bowl executive director Mickey Holmes.
The Fiesta Bowl's ability to attract national championship games in the past, as well as to generate the necessary payout per team, helped it overcome the problems that surfaced last season. After voters in Arizona rejected a proposal to have the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday honored with a state holiday, the Fiesta Bowl had trouble attracting schools and had to settle for No. 18 Louisville and No. 25 Alabama.
ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan said: "We discussed the Martin Luther King situation a great deal, ever since the beginning of this. We've been assured that it will be back on the ballot before these games are ever played. The city of Tempe, the county and the bowl game itself already honor the holiday."
What likely put the Fiesta Bowl over the top was a deal that was worked out Monday with NBC, which televises the game. According to the game's executive director John Junker, the Fiesta Bowl has received an extension on its contract from NBC through 1995, as well as the flexibility to move the kickoff away from its regular 4 p.m. spot in case of a ratings conflict with the Rose Bowl.
"It does impact directly on us, because seven out of every 10 years, they [the coalition] would likely have a national championship game," said Rose Bowl executive director Jack French. "With it being the Fiesta Bowl, it would have a dramatic impact on us."
The impact would not necessarily be on ticket sales, but on television ratings, and thus on advertising revenue. French said that the television ratings for the 1989 Rose Bowl dropped sharply when the Fiesta Bowl was host to the national championship game between Notre Dame and West Virginia.
French said that he and other bowl executives were caught by surprise when the announcement of a possible group deal was made in April. He said that, in a time when the bowls are trying to bring a little more order to the chaotic system that has existed the past few years, this type of situation does not breed trust.
"It's difficult for me to speak about it," he said. "I have some feeling that are more personal than corporate. As a group of bowls, we have a loose organization that is attempting to work together.
"Then a small group goes off on its own and does something like this. I wonder if they needed a little more time to discuss this. I don't think it's in the best interest of college football. It does not seem conducive to bowl organizations working together."
Asked if the coalition considered the possibility of other bowls or conferences filing suit for antitrust violations, Holmes said: "It's been considered. We've had good advice. If someone's going to take exception, they'll take exception, regardless of what their basis might be."
Those involved in the coalition believe that choosing teams after the regular season is over, rather than a week or two before the end of the season, will establish some order to the process.
"This is good for intercollegiate athletics and for college football," said Cotton Bowl executive director Jim Brock. "This is an historic alliance. This alliance certainly has a chance to be a real bonanza."
How the bowl selection would work
Champions from the ACC and Big East would be seeded, along with Notre Dame, with champions from the Southwest Conference, Southeastern Conference and Big Eight, according to the final regular-season polls. Two at-large teams would be selected from the ACC, Big East and (if necessary) Notre Dame.
Among the scenarios that have been decided:
* If the No. 1 team was from the SWC and the No. 2 team was from the Big East, ACC, Notre Dame coalition, the Cotton Bowl would be host of the game.
* If the No. 1 team was from SEC and the No. 2 team from the coalition, the Sugar Bowl would be host.
* If the No. 1 team was from the Big Eight and the No. 2 team from the coalition, the Orange Bowl would be host.
* If the No. 1 and 2 teams were from the coalition, the Fiesta Bowl would be host.
There are other scenarios that have yet to be worked out. For instance, if the No. 1 team was from the SEC and the No. 2 team was from the SWC, it's not clear where -- or whether -- they would play.