Feb 03, 2014

Whitley Writes: The Citrus Bowl Is Dead, Long Live The Citrus Bowl

Wherever he was at 10:29 a.m. on January 29th, Mick Jagger probably felt a mysterious tug of nostalgia. That’s when the countdown started and couple of hundred people at the Citrus Bowl looked toward the north.


Talk about an exploding scoreboard. This one really did have its legs blown out. As it crashed to the ground, fireworks went off and “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC blared over the loud speakers.

That band never actually played the Citrus Bowl, though it seemed just about everybody else did. Imagine the all-star collection of venue alums. Eddie Van Halen on guitar, Billy Joel on piano, Peyton Manning on bass, Ric Flair on drums.

The memories all bubbled up and ran together as the scoreboard tumbled. The demolition ceremony was the final event held at the “old” Citrus Bowl. In case you haven’t heard, a new one’s coming up. The upper deck will remain the same, but everything else will be brand spanking new.

“Wow,” said Florida Citrus Sports President Tony Massey. “It’s really happening.”

He wasn’t the only one who sometimes wondered if the day would ever arrive. The project faced a recession and a lot of naysayers. Overcoming them took a lot of work from people like Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs.

They were presented with plaques featuring silver sledgehammers. The politicians had a lot of help. The names are too many to mention here, but they all deserved at least a silver screwdriver for their efforts.

What many got on Jan. 29th was a hardhat or an FCSports poncho. Both were useful on the cold, drizzly day.

“I think Mother Nature is shedding a tear over the loss of our historic Citrus Bowl,” said FCSports CEO Steve Hogan.

He was joking. Let’s face it, it’s not as if the Eiffel Tower is getting demolished. Well, it would be if the Eiffel Tower was falling apart and being replaced by one capable of hosting the college football championship game.

Visions of what the new stadium could bring dominated the day. As everyone looked ahead, I couldn’t help wondering what it was like at the same spot 67 years ago. Did Orlando Mayor Vernon Estes plunge a ceremonial shovel into the dirt and talk about what Orlando Stadium might bring?

The city needed a place to play, and the FDR’s Works Progress Administration was ready to build it. A plot of land was chosen between Lake Lorna Doone and Lake Beardall. The official address was 1610 W. Church Street.

The bleachers and bathrooms cost $115,000. Some of those pipes were still being used at this year’s Capital One Bowl. That’s said a lot about 1930s plumbing technology, but it also showed why the old bowl was crying out for a major makeover.

This one will cost approximately $200 million. Yeah, that’s a lot of hard-earned taxpayer money. But look what that initial $115,000 investment paved the way for.

The first 10 years are a little sketchy, though it’s safe to say high-school kids now in their 90s tore up and down the grass field. Then a group of businessman came up with an idea for a bowl game. They called it the Tangerine Bowl, and Catawba beat Maryville 31-6 in the first one on Jan. 1, 1947.

Nobody dreamed that would evolve into what we saw Jan. 1, 2014, when South Carolina beat Wisconsin 34-24 before 56,629 fans and a national TV audience. In between, Orlando saw players like Manning, Jack Lambert, Doug Flutie, Russell Wilson and Bo Jackson.

In 1966, Willie Lanier led Morgan State to a win over West Chester. It was the first time a historically black college played in an NCAA-sanctioned postseason bowl.

The venue’s official name changed from Orlando Stadium to the Tangerine Bowl to the Citrus Bowl back to Orlando Stadium and now Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium. There were a few expansions, all of which took a lot of cooperation among local leaders to get done.

But the people knew they weren’t really in the stadium business. They were in the memory business.

Remember the Continental Football League? How about the United Football League, the American Football Association, the Southern Football League, the World Football League, the United States Football League, the World League of American Football, the United Football League and the X Football League (X stood for nothing in XFL)?

All called the stadium home. So did the Lingerie Football League, which brings us back to Jagger.

“The front rows in Orlando were filled with these 12- or 13-year-old girls, some of whom were making the most unseemly suggestions,” he told the New York Times in 1981.

The Rolling Stones had just played the Tangerine Bowl. Van Halen warmed up the crowd, marking the only time those bands performed on the same bill. For $15.60 fans got to see David Lee Roth do leg whips in his spandex tights and Sir Mick prance around in orange football pants, an orange tank top and an unbuttoned orange shirt.

It’s safe to say Billy Graham did not wear the outfit during his two crusades stops at the stadium in 1961 and 1983. Also packing ‘em in over the years were Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, George Strait, the Eagles, the Seminoles, the Buckeyes, the Nittany Lions, the Fighting Irish, the Thunder, the Marching 100, the World Cup and Grave Digger.

The biggest crowd showed up in 2008 for Wrestlemania XXIV. Floyd Mayweather Jr. didn’t box, but he did beat up Big Show. It was also supposedly the farewell match for the 59-year-old Flair.

The 16-time world champion showed up in a sparkling blue-and-silver robe that Jagger would have loved. Flair lost to Shawn Michaels, but like most pro wrestlers he never really retired.

Lloyd Carr did after Michigan’s win in the 2008 Capital One Bowl. Barry Alvarez did after Wisconsin’s W in 2006. Joe Paterno also won his final major bowl in Orlando. Steve Spurrier learned to love the place as South Carolina’s coach.

For every famous coach like Bobby Bowden, scores of high-school coaches roamed the sidelines. For every Dan Marino, there were thousands of high schoolers from Jones, Boone, Edgewater and beyond who won or lost state titles on the stadium turf.

If all those memories were turned to water, the bowl’s pipes would burst. In 10 months when the new Citrus Bowl opens, that won’t be a worry.

“There isn’t an event in the world we can’t host in Orlando,” Dyer told the crowd.

I couldn’t help thinking ahead to January, 2081. A crowd will gather to celebrate the $5 billion renovation of the old Citrus Bowl built in 2013.

“The original toilets still flush,” Mayor Shaquille O’Neal III will joke.

He’ll recount a few events the stadium played host to. Like the 2020 national championship game, where UCF beat Oklahoma. Apopka beating Miami Northwestern for its fourth straight state title in 2029.

The 2038 World Cup final, where Greenland upset Brazil. The Rolling Stones farewell tour stop in 2029. The Tim Tebow Crusades. Ric Flair beating The Rock in Wrestlemania XXLVI.

Then the crowd will start counting down, and the old holographic scoreboard will be blown to bits.

“Wow,” FCSports President Prince Jackson will say. “It’s really happening.”

There’s no telling what the next 67 years will hold at 1610 W. Church Street. Thanks to a lot of people over the past 67 years, we’re about to find out.


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