Sunkist Growers Inc. officials say a damaging freeze has squeezed them out of the Fiesta Bowl, but organizers of the Jan. 1 college football game say it will go on.

"Without question we will be playing on NBC on Jan. 1, 1992, with or without a title sponsor," bowl president Chuck Johnson said Monday.Johnson said bowl officials were in no hurry to find a replacement and that several companies had inquired about backing the game since Sunkist became its sponsor six years ago.

"We plan to take the next six months and review an array of options," he said. "Even if we went forward with a game that paid less money, you'd do that rather than sign up a sponsor who didn't have a quality product."

Sunkist had backed Fiesta Bowl events since the first game in 1971 and became sponsor of the game in 1985. The non-profit cooperative will continue to sponsor the Fiesta Bowl Parade, said Sunkist spokesman Curt Anderson of Van Nuys, Calif.

The Fiesta Bowl paid 1991 participants Louisville and Alabama $2.6 million each, including $100,000 each for minority scholarships.

Louisville won the game 38-6 but finished No. 14 in The Associated Press poll.

Other recent Fiesta Bowl winners have ranked far higher, but Fiesta Bowl planners were glad just to sign two ranked teams after the national backlash against Arizona voters' rejection of a paid state holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.

As a result of the Nov. 6 vote, the NFL owners will decide next month whether to move the 1993 Super Bowl.

Anderson said a late-December freeze in California's San Joaquin Valley, which produces 90 percent of Sunkist's crop, forced the co-op to reduce everything from staff size to its advertising budget.

"Basically, it was the freeze devastation, the loss of revenue we're expecting, and really cutting back - that was the thing that tipped the tide," he said.

Johnson agreed.

"With the order of magnitude with what they're dealing with, I can assure you that the last thing it (Sunkist) is thinking about is the holiday schedule in Arizona," Johnson said. "If we had 31 MLK holidays, they would still be in the same financial position. They're talking about growers going out of business, laying off people, reducing their marketing budget to absolute zero. They're facing some real challenges."

Johnson said it was too early to tell whether the holiday issue would complicate efforts to find a replacement sponsor.

"We'll have to deal with it accordingly," Johnson said. "I suspect that as we go forward, we'll find out."

The bowl staged a national championship contest on Jan. 2, 1987, with Penn State claiming the crown with a 14-10 upset of Miami, and Notre Dame finished No. 1 by defeating West Virginia 34-21 on Jan. 2, 1989.

The Fiesta Bowl and NBC reached a six-year agreement later in 1989 which was expected to allow the bowl to offer each team $4.8 million by 1995. Johnson said Sunkist's pullout took away a "six-figure" source of revenue, but added that the television contract was more important financially.

Another sponsor could increase the money available to lure high-ranked teams, hold it at projected levels or reduce it, Johnson said.

"Two out of three of those would be OK," he added.

Sunkist exceeded $1 billion in gross revenues for the first time during its 1990 fiscal year, which ended Oct. 31.

Anderson said he had no preliminary estimate on 1991 sales but said the magnitude of the frost damage could be assessed by comparing this year's estimate of 50 million fresh-fruit cartons with the 83 million marketed last year.

"While we wish it were possible to continue our title association with the Fiesta Bowl, circumstances clearly beyond our control have required an adjustment on our part," said Russell Hanlin, president of Sunkist Growers, in a written statement.