Russell Athletic Bowl gets makeover

ORLANDO, Fla. -- What used to be the lower half of the Florida Citrus Bowl, lies in a heap of twisted steel beams, busted up concrete pillars and mangled metal.

Then there is the dust, thick enough and gritty enough to leave a film over the cars scattered around the parking lot.

This mess, seven years in the making, represents progress. But more than that, it represents hope. The home to the Russell Athletic Bowl, a game that will feature the ACC against the Big 12 for the next six years, has been rotting away for years and years. Its decay drew warnings to any out-of-town visitor coming in to watch Miami, Florida State or Virginia Tech in the recent past.

And yet, its shabbiness did not deter crowds from coming thanks to high-quality matchups and a city famous for its amusement parks and sunny wintertime weather. Four times in the past six years, the Russell Athletic Bowl had 50,000-plus fans in attendance.

Those numbers should only get better in the College Football Playoff era. Not only is the stadium getting a $210 million reconstruction, the Russell Athletic Bowl now gets first choice in the ACC pecking order after teams are selected in the CFP and the Discover Orange Bowl. The opponent has been upgraded, too, as the Big 12 has replaced the American Athletic Conference.

So, the Russell Athletic Bowl should conceivably feature a Top 25 matchup more often than not, great for the game and great for the ACC. There is potentially even better news. When a Big Ten team plays the ACC in the Orange Bowl, the ACC would take the Big Ten's spot against the SEC in the Capital One Bowl, also played in the stadium. The Capital One Bowl would get the selection before the Russell Athletic Bowl, but even still, the ACC could have two teams playing in Orlando instead of just one.

Construction should be nearly wrapped up when the Russell Athletic Bowl kicks off in late December. Fans will find a completely remade lower bowl, featuring more legroom in the stands, expanded main concourses, a 10,000-square foot party deck, 1,000 suite seats, multiple LED digital video boards, and better options in the concession stands.

Teams will find new locker rooms featuring new lockers, restrooms, showers, training rooms and a physician's exam room.

The outside of the stadium will be completely redone, too, with an open-air exterior at one end of the stadium and palm trees all the way around. Orlando residents who have supported the Citrus Bowl reconstruction since it was first approved in 2007 by the Orlando City Council and Orange County Board of Commissioners have waited a long time for the finances to become available to begin the project.

But nobody has championed the effort more than Florida Citrus Sports CEO Steve Hogan, who described the moment when demolition began last week as "surreal" "bittersweet" and filled with just a little bit of melancholy. As a resident of this city for nearly eight years, I grasped his meaning only when I drove the short distance from my home to the stadium and saw rubble piled all around a field I stood on just 40 days ago to watch Miami play Louisville.

I could not stop staring at the bulldozers, the wrecking ball or the ruins. The stadium absolutely needed to be torn down. But now that it was, I wanted to close my eyes and wish it all back. Funny what nostalgia does. Reality does quite a bit more. Hogan could not contain his excitement about the future, now that he can begin to fulfill the vision he has had for this stadium since he became CEO in 2006.

A new Citrus Bowl means the potential to host neutral site games on opening weekend the way Atlanta and Arlington, Texas do. That could happen as early as 2015 or 2016. A new Citrus Bowl means the potential to host a national championship game, too, with plans in place to bid on the contest when the next round of proposals are submitted for 2018 and beyond. A new Citrus Bowl means the potential to bring in more events, to make Orlando not only a destination city, but a destination city with an attractive, 65,000-seat venue, too.

It has been decades since Orlando could make that claim.