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Whitley Writes: The Jackets May Change But The Game Stays The Same

A diehard breakfast club meets on Mondays at the Citrus Bowl. Other bowls probably look at the Dex Imaging Skyline Club and wonder, “What’s the point?”

Why are 80 people eating breakfast burritos and talking about the Purdue Boilermakers?

To truly understand, you need an orange polyester blazer hanging way back in your closet.

Tangerine Bowl representatives wore them on scouting trips. Scouts resembled salesmen, and it wasn’t coincidental. They were pitching Orlando to audiences that had plenty of options where to spend their holidays. A lot has changed since the polyester era.

“Today our scouts are more goodwill ambassadors,” Tony Martin said.

He’s been scouting since 1981, before the Tangerine Bowl became the Capital One and secured mega-million dollar deals with the SEC and Big Ten. Like a lot of members, Martin moved to Orlando and joined wanted to get involved in the community.

The Tangerine Bowl was a perfect outlet, and Martin later served as president and chairman of FCSports. He was around when bowl pick ’em weekend was a high-stakes mystery theater. Like in 1982, when the Tangerine Bowl landed Doug Flutie and Boston College to go against Bo Jackson and Auburn.

How did they get Bo vs. Flutie? By cajoling, schmoozing and getting to know the right people at the schools.

With conference tie-ins, now there’s no glaring need to lay such groundwork. Yet FCSports scouts were at 18 games last weekend, including Northern Illinois at Purdue. Even the most optimistic Boilermaker fan had to ask, “What are you guys doing here?”

They’re following the wisdom of former directors Charlie McClendon and Chuck Rohe: That lowly graduate assistant you shake hands with at Purdue may one day be the head coach at Ohio State. And those fans you tailgate will remember which bowl reps they had a good time with.

“Our mission is to bring people to Orlando and generate revenue for the Central Florida marketplace,” Martin said.

Like any mission, it takes dedication. Members pay their own expenses, though there are perks. Like getting in a few hundred photographs as you sit next to Nick Saban’s statue in Tuscaloosa. You also get access to the field and press box. And something about wearing a bowl blazer always impresses fans.

“You get to be a BMOC,” Martin said.

Or BWOC. Martin’s daughter, Andrea, grew up spending a lot of Christmas holidays hanging around visiting bowl teams. Now she’s an architect in New Orleans and goes on annual scouting trip with her father. Sadly, the orange polyester jackets were retired a few years ago.

“Today we have sophisticated black blazers,” Martin said.

They certainly hide barbecue stains better. The scouts usually fly home on Sunday and are at the Skyline Club by 8 a.m. Monday. They report on attendance, enthusiasm, media contacts and which school officials they encountered. They also give general impressions of the trip.

“I didn’t realize how small Clemson is,” one said.

Another surveyed fans on where they want to go bowling.

“Anywhere but Birmingham!” they said.

A common thread ran through last Monday’s reports. Orlando’s scouts were lonely.

Unlike most bowls, it’s FCSports policy to hit as many games as possible early in the season. As odd as it was to attend a Purdue game in September, it would really look strange doing it in a month or so.

That’s when most bowls start sending scouts out. They probably look at FCSports’ early scouting as a relic of days gone by. But after speaking to the media following Georgia’s win over LSU, Mark Richt made a point of thanking FCSports for coming to the game.

Martin remembers a young coach at Michigan State being impressed with the Captial One Bowl’s operation. Now Nick Saban can be counted on to always say nice things about bowl trips to Orlando.

“Young coaches at the lower echelon may never get to the point where they come to the Capital One Bowl,” Martin said. “But over time they become head coaches. They never forget that we took the time when they were a fledgling coach or an assistant.”

“You hope it makes a difference,” said current FCSports chairman Bobby Kuykendall.

The bottom line: What can it hurt?

Orange polyester jackets may no longer be fashionable, but building relationships never goes out of style.

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