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HBCU Classics: football, fun and feasts for all five senses

The unique locations, sounds and sights of classic rivalries begin this weekend

Some say it’s the food.

Some say it’s the fun.

Some say it’s the fans.

Others swear it’s the bands.

Contest any of those notions and a fight could break out … Did we mention the not-so-small matter of a football game?

For the uninitiated, this is football like you’ve never seen it.

We are talking black college football classics, where fans dressed in their Sunday finest descend upon dozens of cities — including some of the gridiron’s more hallowed grounds — for annual festivals and fanfare that sometimes last four, five or six days.

Black college football classics feature parties in convention halls, nightclubs, apartment complex clubhouses and even parking lots. But there are also parades, professional mixers and college and career fairs.

Howard Bison running back Aquanius Freeman (20) hits a big hole for a second quarter gain against Hampton on September 18, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Howard Bison running back Aquanius Freeman (20) hits a big hole for a second quarter gain against Hampton on September 18, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images

In other words, there is something for everyone.

Marching bands — most of them featuring high-stepping, booty-shaking dancing dolls — show up and stage random battles, often leading to a formal Friday night battle of the bands, with the climax being the must-see halftime show on Saturday.

Hours earlier, those same bands had marched along a morning parade route, sandwiched between national, statewide and high school acts — and greetings from every local dignitary from senator to mayor to dogcatcher.

Come game time and way too many fans leave after intermission, arguing over who won the halftime band competition — even before the second-half kickoff gets underway.

They won’t go too far, though. Most will be tailgating nearby and telling tall tales about their college days and past black college football classics, with the stories becoming more incredible as the years go by.

Then after the clock ticks down, many fans stream back into the stadium to see the teams’ bands try to drown out each other.

The classics date to 1924 when Tuskegee University and Alabama State University squared off in the inaugural Turkey Day Classic. Others soon followed, evolving to today, when games are staged almost weekly from Labor Day weekend to the final days of the Christmas-shopping season.

Below are brief descriptions of the top 10 classics, with a mix of games of national significance as well as a handful of regional favorites.

Also, you will see a complete calendar of 2016 black college football classics.

27th Southern Heritage Classic

Jackson State University vs. Tennessee State University

6 p.m. Sept. 10, Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, Tennessee

Television: TBA

2015 score: TSU 35, JSU 25 2015 attendance: 48,385

The Rundown: Never miss a chance to see Jackson State’s Sonic Boom of the South face off against Tennessee State’s Aristocrat of Bands. Two traditional black college powers square off in the backdrop of events that feature musical artists Frankie Beverly and Maze, Stephanie Mills, and KEM. A college and career fair will be held on Friday and for really early birds, the Tom Joyner Morning Show is broadcasting starting at 5 a.m. Know someone who knows someone? Try to score tickets to an invitation-only Friday luncheon featuring actor/director/producer Tyler Perry. Hayloo! (in Madea’s voice). And while in town, don’t forget to sample the tomato-based Memphis barbecue, which some call the best in the world. Website: southernheritageclassic.com

33rd Circle City Classic

Kentucky State University vs. Central State University

3 p.m. Sept. 24, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis

Television: TBA

2015 score: KSU 21, CSU 17 2015 attendance: 22,523

The Rundown: One of the best cities to host any sporting event — think the Super Bowl, Final Four, NFL combine – brings together two programs that recently revived big-time football. The organizers, the Indiana Black Expo, put on as well-run a classic as most folks have ever seen. Headliners include musical artists Lalah Hathaway, Slick Rick, Doug E. Fresh and Guy. Website: circlecityclassic.com

State Fair Classic

Grambling State University vs. Prairie View A&M University

4 p.m. Oct. 1, Cotton Bowl, Dallas

Television: TBA

2015 score: Grambling State 70, Prairie View A&M 54 2015 attendance: 51,328

The Rundown: Enjoy all that the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex has to offer during Texas State Fair week. Then top it off with a border-war matchup between Grambling State and Prairie View A&M at the historic Cotton Bowl, which sits adjacent to the fairgrounds. The game, first played in 1929, is a big part of black Dallas history and is considered the largest social event for both schools, bringing 60,000 to 70,000 fans to Dallas. A featured attraction is Grambling State’s world famous Tiger Marching Band, which brings out the best in the Marching Storm of Prairie View. Activities include a celebrity golf tournament, scholarship gala, concert and battle of the bands, featuring college and high school competitions. Website: bigtex.com

75th Magic City Classic

Alabama State University vs. Alabama A&M University

3 p.m. Oct. 29, Legion Field, Birmingham, Alabama

Television: ESPN3

2015 score: Alabama State 35, Alabama A&M 20 2015 attendance: 63,874

The Rundown: Deep in the heart of Southeastern Conference (SEC) territory, two of Alabama’s largest historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) rivals have made this one of the largest black college football classics in the nation. The game has been an annual happening since 1945, taking shape in the parallel universe to the state’s more widely known University of Alabama-Auburn University SEC affair. The week has attracted such entertainment talent as native son Ruben Studdard and Tom Joyner and includes such events as a block party, tailgate party, parade and postgame concert. Website: themagiccityclassic.com

Florida Classic

Florida A&M University vs. Bethune-Cookman University

2:30 p.m. Nov. 19, Orlando Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Florida

Television: ESPN Classic

2015 score: Bethune-Cookman 35, Florida A&M 14 2015 attendance: 45,728

The Rundown: Another intrastate dogfight, this one featuring the feuding Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s (MEAC) Hatfields and McCoys — with side trips to Walt Disney World and other Orlando-area entertainment. A FanFare starts at 9 a.m. on game day and is free to ticket holders, but don’t miss the Friday night battle of the bands featuring high school talents and Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Bethune-Cookman’s Marching Wildcats. Website: floridaclassic.org

Soul Bowl/Capital City Classic

Alcorn State University vs. Jackson State University

Time TBD, Nov. 19, Spinks-Casem Stadium, Lorman, Mississippi

Television: TBD

2015 score: Alcorn State 14, Jackson State 10 2015 attendance: 23,101

The Rundown: Traditionalists know this game as the Capital City Classic, because from 1993 to 2012 it was held in Jackson, Mississippi. Then it became the Soul Bowl in 2012 after Alcorn State decided it wanted a piece of the home-field action and the game alternated between the two cities. Now, Jackson is campaigning to become the game’s permanent host. Talk about a civil war. This year’s game does not have a classic moniker, but the weekend includes step shows, concerts, golf tournaments and other trappings of a traditional classic. Website: alcornsports.com

Battle of the Bay

Hampton University vs. Norfolk State University

1 p.m. Nov. 19, Hampton, Virginia.

2015 score: Norfolk State 24, Hampton 14 2015 attendance: 6,549

The Rundown: Two of the largest HBCUs in Virginia are separated by just 15 miles and the James River – and a fierce rivalry on the football field. Hampton, a private school, won five straight in the series from 2002 to 2006, but Norfolk State, a public school, has won four of the last six, including the last two, to put steam back into this matchup. Popular side trips include the Virginia Beach waterfront or the 30-minute drive to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia. Website: Hamptonpirates.com

Aggie-Eagle Classic

North Carolina A&T State University vs. North Carolina Central University

2 p.m. Nov. 19, O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium, Durham, North Carolina

2015 score: N.C. Central 21, N.C. A&T 16 2015 attendance: 18,409

The Rundown: The game no longer carries its traditional classic name, but the intensity of the rivalry and the pageantry between the schools 55 miles apart have not changed. The intensity has heated up after N.C. Central won the past two encounters to allow the Eagles to share part of the MEAC championship with the Aggies. N.C. A&T is the nation’s largest HBCU, and N.C. Central is North Carolina’s second-largest. Website: nccueaglepride.com

93rd Turkey Day Classic

Alabama State University vs. Miles College

3 p.m. Nov. 24 (Thanksgiving Day), ASU Stadium, Montgomery, Alabama

Television: ESPN3, Hornetvision

2015 score: Alabama State 26, Miles 7 2015 attendance: 15,201

The Rundown: The one that started it all (back in 1924) is shaking things up again. After some talk of changing the date to September, brighter minds prevailed and decided to Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man. That event has partnered with actor/comedian Steve Harvey, and The Original Kings of Comedy star declared he’s going to “bring Hollywood to Alabama. … I’m going to bring some funky mess down here. This little country town is fixing to be jumping.” In 2017, Alabama State will renew its 100-year-old rivalry with traditional foe Tuskegee University. Website: bamastatesports.com

43rd Bayou Classic

Grambling State University vs. Southern University

4 p.m. Nov. 26, Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

Television: NBCSN

2015 score: Grambling State 34, Southern 23 2015 attendance: 62,907

The Rundown: The Mardi Gras of classics — most famous because of its national telecast — is not the same as in the era of Grambling State’s Doug Williams and Southern’s Mel Blount, both Super Bowl heroes. But the fun and excitement has been enhanced. It’s the third-best reason to come to New Orleans, right after Fat Tuesday and the Essence Music Festival. It might be the greatest matchup of world-renowned marching bands and certainly the most visual matchup of rival dance teams — Southern’s unparalleled “original” Dancing Dolls vs. Grambling State’s dance team. Website: www.mybayouclassic.com

Complete Black College Classics Schedule

Sept. 3

4 p.m. Palmetto Capital City Classic, Columbia, South Carolina

Livingstone College vs. Benedict College

6 p.m. John Merritt Classic, Nashville, Tennessee

University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff vs. Tennessee State University

6 p.m. ABNB Labor Day Classic, Norfolk, Virginia

Norfolk State vs. Elizabeth City State

Sept. 4

5 p.m. Labor Day Classic, Prairie View, Texas

Prairie View A&M University vs. Texas Southern University

3 p.m. West End Classic, Salisbury, North Carolina

Edward Waters College vs. Livingstone College

Sept. 10

3:30 p.m. Chicago Football Classic, Chicago

Clark Atlanta University vs. Central State University

6 p.m. Southern Heritage Classic, Memphis, Tennessee

Tennessee State University vs. Jackson State University

6 p.m. Two Rivers Classic, Pembroke, North Carolina

Fayetteville State University vs. University of North Carolina-Pembroke

Sept. 17

3:30 p.m. AT&T Nation’s Football Classic, Washington, D.C.

Hampton University vs. Howard University

3:30 p.m. Down East Viking Football Classic, Rocky Mount, North Carolina

Morehouse College vs. Elizabeth City State University

4 p.m. W.C. Gorden Classic, Jackson, Mississippi

Grambling State University vs. Jackson State University

6 p.m. 5th Quarter Classic, Mobile, Alabama

Florida A&M University vs. Tuskegee University

Sept. 24

3 p.m. Circle City Classic, Indianapolis

Kentucky State University vs. Central State University

3 p.m. Eddie McGirt Classic, Charlotte, North Carolina

Elizabeth City State University vs. Johnson C. Smith University

Oct. 1

4 p.m. State Fair Classic, Dallas, Texas

Prairie View A&M University vs. Grambling State University

Oct. 8

2 p.m. Tuskegee-Morehouse Classic, Columbus, Georgia

Tuskegee University vs. Morehouse College

Oct. 15

6 p.m. Boom Box Classic, Jackson, Mississippi

Jackson State University vs. Southern University

Oct. 29

3 p.m. Magic City Classic, Birmingham, Alabama

Alabama A&M University vs. Alabama State University

Nov. 5

1 p.m. Commemorative Classic, Charlotte, North Carolina

Livingstone College vs. Johnson C. Smith University

2 p.m. Fountain City Classic, Columbus, Georgia

Albany State University vs. Fort Valley State University

Nov. 19

1 p.m. Battle of the Bay, Hampton, Virginia

Hampton University vs. Norfolk State University

2 p.m. Aggie-Eagle Classic, Durham,North Carolina

North Carolina A&T State University vs. North Carolina Central University

2:30 p.m. Florida Classic, Orlando, Florida

Bethune-Cookman University vs. Florida A&M University

Nov. 24

3 p.m. Turkey Day Classic, Montgomery, Alabama

Alabama State University vs. Miles College

Nov. 26

4 p.m. Bayou Classic, New Orleans

Southern University vs. Grambling State University

David Squires is an educator and digital journalist who lives in the Charlotte area and teaches journalism at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro. He has covered HBCU sports for several decades, first with the St. Petersburg Times and later as editor-in-chief of the original BlackVoices.com and BVQ magazine. He has also worked in news and sports in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Fort Worth and Hampton Roads. His passion is college basketball, and he is a die-hard Tar Heel -- born and bred.