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HBCUs need ‘classic’ rivalry games to raise their profile and money

Magic City, Bayou and Florida classics are big games — make them bigger

The first time I saw a Florida A&M and Southern football game, it was the fall of 2001 and I was a freshman at FAMU. Even though my parents met and attended South Carolina State University, that game was, for the most part, my first profound HBCU experience.

FAMU had a 14-7 lead for what seemed like forever — before Southern quarterback Anthony Fisher found Devin Lewis for a 35-yard, game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter. The gut punch for a young Rattler came in overtime on a chip shot field goal by Francisco Villagrana. That empty feeling was quickly filled in the 5th Quarter, as FAMU’s Marching 100 and Southern’s Human Jukebox bands played into the night.

That 2001 game was a classic, yet almost 20 years later, FAMU and Southern have faced each other only five times since. Why?

Making money and memories

On Sept. 21, Southern and FAMU played for the 61st time in Tallahassee, Florida, on a day when the single-game, non-homecoming attendance record in FAMU’s Bragg Memorial Stadium was smashed by nearly 8,200 fans. The attendance was announced as 27,191, higher than the previous record of 19,058 in a 1999 matchup against — you guessed it — Southern.

With that type of success, it seems almost nonsensical for FAMU and Southern not to alternate home games from now until forever. As the athletic directors from both Southern and FAMU explained, though, bringing the two teams together is easier said than done.

  • 2001: Southern 17, FAMU 14
  • 2007: Southern 33, FAMU 27
  • 2008: FAMU 52, Southern 49
  • 2011: FAMU 38, Southern 33
  • 2012: Southern 21, FAMU 14
  • 2019: FAMU 27, Southern 21

“I think people are trying, but there are a lot of variables that you have to factor in,” explained Roman Banks, the athletic director at Southern University. “Football scheduling is done years in advance, and some schools have to play more guarantee games to help bring in revenue or balance the budget for those schools’ athletic departments.

“Depending on the conference scheduled games and return games, it can be a hard puzzle to put together.”

Putting those pieces together can certainly be a challenge for any school, but especially at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), where the stakes border on survival — for athletic departments and institutions in general.

This matchup, and other iconic HBCU football rivalries or classics, should be perennial. This weekend is the Magic City Classic between Alabama A&M and Alabama State in Birmingham. In November, FAMU plays in another classic game, the Florida Classic, versus Bethune-Cookman. Then probably the most well-known HBCU classic game of them all, the Bayou Classic in New Orleans between Southern and Grambling State, will occur on Nov. 30.

Six-year-old photographer captures big moments at Southern Heritage Classic

John Eason, who has submitted his letter of resignation as athletic director at Florida A&M, agrees that there are ways to highlight popularity of the classics — at FAMU and abroad.

“I certainly think there are ways to continue to build on the popularity of these games and it does help in generating revenue,” Eason said. “When you bring in a Southern or a Grambling State, we know those are two traditional powerhouse programs from the SWAC and fans want to see those match-ups.

“We have a great alumni fan base, and we know if we had home-and-home series with those two programs, there are fans who would make the trip and support our outstanding program.”

Upon further review, there are games that have multiple rivals — Howard competed against Hampton in this year’s Chicago Football Classic; last season, it was Morehouse versus Miles College. At any rate, why not build a culture around the key classics while allowing room for new rivalries and lesser-known HBCUs to flourish?

As Southern’s Banks explained, if it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense.

“It doesn’t make sense to travel long distances of 10 hours or more that cost you a lot of money when you can probably engage in a Power 5 school or FBS school to meet your financial support,” Banks said. “I think at times you see more HBCUs trying to play classic games in neutral stadiums through promoters instead of on campus, as they have a chance to gain some revenue or have travel expenses cost go down.

“Still, we are starting to see less and less of that as attendance across the country [is going down]. Promoters are trying to make a profit and don’t want these large stadiums to look empty.”

It makes sense in terms of fan service — and, more importantly, in terms of economic viability for HBCU athletics — that these games are played with all the fanfare and promotion possible.

With that type of success, it’s almost nonsensical for FAMU and Southern not to alternate home games from now until forever.

Just last month, FAMU president Larry Robinson ordered an immediate freeze on new hires in the school’s athletics department as a means of reducing expenses. School officials were told that without adjustments, the school’s athletic budget could lead to a deficit as high as $2 million.

In February, it was reported that Southern’s athletics program finished last year with a $1.2 million deficit and has operated in the red over the last four years to the tune of nearly $3 million. While a single football game won’t eliminate that financial burden, promoting a culture that prioritizes black college football matchups will.

I would rather see an economic revival centering on black college football — and, by extension, HBCUs — instead of seeing guaranteed-money games with teams losing 72-0 or 62-0 on my TV or social media feed.

With all due respect and #HBCULove in mind, there are a handful of classics that define black college football: the Bayou Classic, Florida Classic, Magic City Classic, Turkey Day Classic, Tuskegee Morehouse Classic and the Chicago Football Classic.

There are schools that have multiple rivals; Tennessee State’s rivalry with Jackson State constitutes the Southern Heritage Classic. At any rate, why not build a culture around the key classic games while allowing room for new rivalries and lesser-known HBCUs to flourish?

I would rather see an economic revival centering on black college football — and, by extension, HBCUs — instead of seeing guaranteed-money games with teams losing 72-0 or 62-0 on my TV or social media feed. Sure, you get the very rare “Howard 43, UNLV 40” line. Players can get injured in these lopsided contests, and a hundred-thousand-dollar paycheck that lacks dignity doesn’t reinforce the rich history of the schools.

It’s one thing to understand that, because of integration and various opportunities, we may never see a time again where black colleges are in contention for NCAA Division I championships. It’s another thing entirely to acknowledge the fact that HBCUs are still very relevant in terms of higher education and cultural pride.

Florida A&M University defensive back Herman Jackson (center) returns a fumble 55 yards for a first-half touchdown in the Rattlers’ 22-21 win over North Carolina A&T last season.

Florida A&M University Athletics Department

We’ve also seen that major networks are willing to make the investment. ABC broadcasts the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl championship, which is a bookend to the season that highlights the best teams from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). Truth is, you can’t fit black college football into a single bowl — there’s too much history and prestige.

As for FAMU and Southern, Eason said, it is a priority for the two schools to make sure their rivalry is perennial.

“Various changes in leadership have affected the natural flow of this rivalry,” explained Eason. “With that said, I know there is a point of emphasis to play this game in the future. FAMU and Southern are currently in talks for the 2021 and 2022 season and beyond.”

The key to bringing it all together, Banks thinks, is understanding tradition, from teams to travel to traditions.

“I think finding the right matchups is a key in the new landscape of game scheduling,” Banks said. “I would say the excitement for these games is something that fans want, and it can lead to generating revenue and be incredible publicity for your university as you get to showcase your campus, game day atmosphere, alumni and events.

“But, it all has to make sense.”

Dollars and sense.

Ken J. Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast. Before and after commentating, he’s thinking about his wife and his sons.