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Nick Saban reflects on Orlando’s growth as football town, bowl destination

By Ainslie Lee, Florida Citrus Sports

ORLANDO, Fla. — The City of Orlando as we know it today is much different than what it was in 1972.

Back then, Disney World had been open just shy of four months and a ticket to “The Happiest Place on Earth” would set you back a pocketful of quarters at $3.75. During the early ‘70s the population of Orlando hovered around 500,000 people – today, 2.13 million people call the Greater Orlando area home. UCF football didn’t exist, and wouldn’t start for another seven years.

Nearly 50 years ago, there was no Vrbo Citrus Bowl — at least not in its current form. There was, however, the Tangerine Bowl, the original iteration of Orlando’s New Year’s Day classic. And for a West Virginia native and Alabama resident, Nick Saban knows an awful lot about his Florida citrus.

“I guess I have a unique perspective on this because I played in the 1972 Tangerine Bowl here,” Saban chuckled on Tuesday when asked at this year’s head coaches press conference about how the sport of football has grown in Orlando since the original Tangerine Bowl was played in 1947.

To his right, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh smiled and asked, “Is that right?”

That’s right.

Juggling scholarship offers from Navy, Miami (Ohio) and Kent State, Saban chose what he called “the worst program of the bunch” in Kent State – a team that went 1-9 a year before his arrival.

Saban, a 5-foot-6 defensive back, was joined on defense by linebacker Jack Lambert – the same Jack Lambert who helped the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowls.

With a 27-9 win over Toledo that fall, Saban and Lambert helped the Golden Flashes capture their first and only Mid-American Conference title.

The reward? A Christmastime visit to Orlando to take on the University of Tampa, led by eventual No. 1 NFL Draft pick John Matuszak — who later played Sloth in the movie “The Goonies” — future Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Freddie Solomon, and Paul Orndorff, who later became a WWE superstar best remembered as “Mr. Wonderful.”

My how things have changed.

All these years later, Saban is back for his third Vrbo Citrus Bowl appearance as a head coach — he coached LSU in the 2005 game and the Tide in the 2011 edition — and unlike 1972, a nation of fans will be watching him and his team this time around.

And while Alabama may lament missing out of the College Football Playoff, Saban seems pretty satisfied to be returning to Central Florida to play the Wolverines.

“We were excited about having the opportunity to come here and play because we were here in, I think, 2010 and had a great experience,” Saban said. “And I’ve actually experienced and seen growth ever since then in terms of what this game does.”

To some degree, that growth has come in the stands — when Saban played in Orlando in 1972, the reported game attendance was 20,062; at the 2011 game, 61,519 people watched Alabama thump Michigan State 49-7 — but he’s also witnessed development in the shadow of Camping World Stadium, where Lift Orlando has worked to transform the underserved neighborhoods that call the area home.

“Based on what this game has become, relative to where it was then, I think this community has done a great job of supporting the game,” Saban gushed. “And obviously the organization of this bowl game has grown to be something special, and I think one of the great venues in college football, to have an opportunity to be a part of.

“I think Orlando itself has grown with the bowl game,” Saban added, “and the Citrus Bowl folks have certainly taken advantage of that.”

But now, it’s time for Saban and the Tide to take advantage of what’s ahead of them – an opportunity to leave Orlando with a trophy stocked with local citrus – oranges, grapefruit and tangelos, to be specific.

Despite an astonishing 156-23 career record, Saban returns to Orlando with a 1-2 record in the game as a player and coach, with his only win coming in that 2011 game. And changing that won’t come easy.

“It’s a great opportunity for our team to play an iconic traditional program like the University of Michigan,” Saban said Tuesday. “You know, Coach Harbaugh and his staff have done an outstanding job with their team and had a great season and [it’s] certainly going to be a challenge for our team to be able to compete against them.”

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