ORLANDO, Fla. -- Another Saturday has come and gone and, for The Little Bowl That Could, the vision of a national title game flickers and flares ever brighter against the winds of doubt. The lads of the Florida Citrus Bowl gather in anxious conclave again this morning in their weekly report from reps who attended the weekend's key games.
What they will hear is that Orlando's ambitious New Year's feature is creeping ever closer to the fantasy of every bright blazer in the bowl business. Though plenty of hurdles and anxious bounces remain ahead, the path is clearing for a possible Virginia-Notre Dame match for all the collegiate marbles.
The latest developments to inch the Citrus Bowl closer:
* Citrus-friendly Notre Dame defeated Pitt, 31-22, to remain in national title contention.
* Atlantic Coast Conference brass privately have agreed that a special Citrus payday of about $3 million per team would be sufficient to keep Virginia from invoking its national championship exclusion and opting for the richer Orange Bowl.
* Notre Dame brass privately have assured they would welcome a dance with a No. 1 Virginia for that $3 million, shunning larger payoffs in the Orange or Sugar.
* A recent rush of corporate interest in title-sponsoring THE GAME has inspired Citrus Bowl guru Chuck Rohe to leave his staff and executive board confident the additional money will be there if Virginia remains unbeaten.
Virginia, currently No. 1 and 7-0, plays once-tied Georgia Tech this week at home and then faces resurgent North Carolina on Nov. 10 before the Citrus Bowl's moment of truth on Nov. 13. On that day, if Virginia is still No. 1 in the UPI coaches' poll, the Citrus Bowl would have to expand its listed $1.35 million-per-team payoff to keep the ACC champions in Orlando on Jan. 1.
Obviously, many pieces of the puzzle remain. But several things are working in the Citrus Bowl's favor, not the least of which is the sense of can-do determination fostered within the organization by Rohe. Some local sportswriter once tagged the bowl's hard-charging executive director as "Rhino Rohe," a tag reflecting both his sometimes abrasive interaction with laid-back members and his uncommon drive to reach for the improbable. It's that latter trait that has helped keep the national-title fire burning.
Rohe's wheeling and dealing have gained him the respect of college administrators on the highest plane, and the ones involved in this scenario appear confident he can pull this off. Conversely, Citrus Bowl brass feel good about the integrity of the key players on the other side of the table, namely ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan, Virginia athletic director Jim Copeland and, if the Irish turn out to be the challengers, Notre Dame athletic director Dick Rosenthal.
If Virginia keeps winning, Rohe will need a $3.2 million supplement from somewhere. A one-time title-game sponsor would provide most of that in Rohe's scheme, with ABC-TV and perhaps even local tourist and political entities completing the pot.
Though ABC still remains cool to moving the game to prime time on Jan. 2 -- as NBC did for the Miami-Penn State title match in the Fiesta Bowl a few years ago -- ABC Sports president Dennis Swanson finally has entered the fray. He encouraged Rohe to make every effort to hold the national title game in Orlando and provided two strong leads for title sponsors.
The potential presence of Notre Dame in the mix excites sponsors. Not to mention John Bava.
Bava, Notre Dame, Class of '74, is a Citrus Bowl selection committeeman who has helped cement a strong relationship with Rosenthal.
"How do you think I would feel to have Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl? And to have them here for the title would be a dream come true," Bava gushed. "Dick is a friend of the Citrus Bowl, and he made it clear they would have a key interest in a Virginia match in our bowl. But nobody is going to cut an early deal with Notre Dame. They'll play wherever they want to on Pick 'em Day. But we're feeling better and better that it may be here."
Bava represents a note of irony to all this. A CPA with a large national firm, he has a boss, Sherrill Hudson, who lives in Miami and has a similar avocation. Hudson is a member of the Orange Bowl selection committee.
Oops. There goes the Christmas bonus.