|The Southern Heritage Classic:
A 20-year celebration
by Roscoe Nance, former USA Today reporter who has written about black-college football for 34 years
It would be easy to characterize the Southern Heritage Classic presented by FedEx as an overnight success, given that the inaugural contest drew just under 40,000 fans and that it has been among the top 10 best attended games below the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly NCAA Division I-A) every year since its inception.
But that would also be inaccurate.
The success of the Southern Heritage Classic, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2009, has resulted from countless hours, days, months and years of behind the scenes effort to make it a first-class entertainment event, not just a football game between traditional rivals Jackson State and Tennessee State.
In fact, the game is the highlight of a weekend of activities that includes a coaches luncheon and a VIP Party; Blues, Gospel, Classic R&B and Classic Comedy concerts; the Ed "Too Tall" Jones Golf Classic; a Classic Parade featuring the Jackson State and Tennessee State marching bands; a fashion show and brunch; a tailgate party and the always popular battle of the bands with the top high school show bands and dance teams from the Mid-South competing.
"It didn't start out this way," says Classic producer Fred Jones Jr., president of Memphis-based Summitt Management Corporation.
The Southern Heritage Classic began as two rivals with the idea of playing in Memphis on a continuous basis.
But there's a caveat to the Jackson State-Tennessee State rivalry. It is one of the most passionate rivalries around, and it involves two of the most storied black college football programs in the country.
Former Tennessee State athletic director and football coach Bill Thomas came up with the idea of the two schools playing in Memphis each year. He saw the game as a life line for Tennessee State's athletic budget, which had taken a hit as a result of the school going into the Ohio Valley Conference. The move meant Tennessee State could no longer play Southern and Grambling State, traditionally two of its biggest paydays, because of OVC scheduling requirements. Playing Jackson State in Memphis would offset the money Tennessee State lost by not playing Southern and Grambling State, which accounted for the bulk of the athletic department's revenue.
Thomas credits Jones for making the Southern Heritage Classic a success.
"He worked the game all year," Thomas says. "He was creative. He was able to add something to the game every year."
Thomas in 1989 approa-ched Jones about helping promote the Tigers' game against Murray State that year at the Liberty Bowl Stadium in Memphis. Jones passed, thinking he wouldn't have enough time before the game was played to adequately promote the contest, which wound up drawing just 8,879 fans.
Thomas later approa-ched Jones about producing a game between Jackson State and Tennessee State that would be played in Memphis each year. Jones had two trains of thought.
"One, if we did a classic we wanted to do it different," he says. "Two, it was going to be a challenge trying to get something like that done in Memphis. Memphis at that time was a place where big things hadn't happened. It had never had a major league franchise. It had the Liberty Bowl postseason football game, but beyond that – nothing."
As Jones weighed the possibilities of the schools playing in Memphis, he envisioned a game that fit the mode of Oklahoma-Texas, which is played in Dallas, and Florida-Georgia, which is played in Jacksonville. And he saw that the schools' proximity to Memphis – both are roughly 200 miles away – made travel a non-issue for fans and alumni.
Jones accepted Thomas' offer, rolled up his sleeves and went to work.
"The base and everything was already there," Jones says. "I had something to work with. It wasn't an unknown. It was a good quality product. It just needed different management. It needed different promotion. It needed a different ingredient to enhance it."
Jones' 20-year background in promoting entertainment events took care of the management and promotion aspects. The different ingredient, he believed, would be creating a Super Bowl-type atmosphere with a variety of events surrounding the game. Each year the events seem to get bigger and better.
"We look at putting events in that you can keep over an extended period and events that complement each other," Jones says, "and we try to put them in position to be as successful as possible."
However, Jones is mindful that the game is the main attraction and football is what makes the Southern Heritage Classic.
"Without that football game being what it is and what it represents, the weekend would be lost," he says.
The Southern Heritage Classic over the years has produced some of the most exciting games played. Twelve games have been decided by nine points or less. This decade, there have been two overtime games and one double-overtime contest.
The Classic has also had its share of fantastic finishes.
Tennessee State won the 2005 Classic in overtime, 20-14, on a two-yard run by Denard Cox one play after Jackson State was penalized for delay of the game after failing to return to the field following a timeout.
Tennessee State won in overtime, 31-30, again in 2006 by scoring a two-point conversion despite a botched attempt to kick the game-tying extra point.
Tennessee State won, 16-13, in 2007 on a last-second field goal after getting a new set of downs when Jackson State was penalized for illegal substitution with 46 seconds left in the game.
Television has played a key role in the growth and success of the Classic. The game has been on TV most of its existence, first on BET for 10 years as the only live black-college game the network carried. Fox Sports Network (FSN) carried it for one year. This is the third year that the game can be seen on SportSouth and the second year on the American Forces Network (AFN), which is available to our men and women serving in the military in 175 countries and 140 ships at sea.
It hasn't been all smooth sailing for the Southern Heritage Classic.
Even though Thomas had approached Jones about promoting the game, he now acknowledges having had reservations.
"Initially I didn't think he could pull it off," Thomas, now Associate Dean of Students at Texas Southern University, says. "I asked him for outlandish things I knew he couldn't deliver. He let me know in a non-threatening way it wasn't possible."
Thomas says he tried to price Jones out of the game by asking him to guarantee each team an unrealistic amount.
"He gave us a historical analysis of the how the game had fared when we played in Jackson and when we played in Nashville," Thomas recalls. "Then he asked, ‘How do you expect me to do better than that in the first year?' When people put that kind of information on the table, you have to go with them. He said, ‘We're going to grow this thing together. If we do that, we can give you more.' "
Jones has been true to his word. The first contract guaranteed visiting Jackson State $50,000. That was $20,000 more than it would have received if the game had been played in Nashville. As the home team, Tennessee State got whatever the game generated after expenses. This year the schools will earn $250,000; next year, the first year of a new five-year deal, that figure increases to $300,000 each.
In addition, Southern Heritage Foundation contributes to Memphis area charities. A $200,000 donation was made to LeMoyne-Owen College.
Memphis has also benefited. Last year's game had a $16.2 million economic impact on the city, according to a report prepared by Dr. Richard Irwin, director of the University of Memphis Bureau of Sport and Leisure Commerce.
Getting the business community to buy into supporting the Southern Heritage Classic was a tougher sale for Jones, particularly in light of how poorly attended the Tennessee State-Murray State game had been the previous year. Coca-Cola was the first sponsor to come on board, and it came in late.
"You're trying to say you're going to have this event and there were less than 9,000 people for the Murray State game the year before. In (sponsors') minds, what are you going to do different, and rightfully so. It was a new concept for this community to consider."
Jones was doing consulting work for the House of Seagram's A Taste of the Blues national tour at the time. He took the money he was making from that project and put it into the Southern Heritage Classic.
"Fast forward to today. I wouldn't start an event of this magnitude without sponsors in tow," he says.
FedEx is now the game's presenting sponsor. Allstate Insurance, AutoZone, Carrier, Nike, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, Harrah's Tunica, Tyson Foods, Coors Light and the Governor's Highway Safety Office are among the corporate partners.
Jones says that in the game's early years, one of the biggest obstacles he had to overcome was each school's belief that he was doing more for the other school.
"It was a delicate balancing act," he says. "It was a love for their school. It wasn't something that you didn't understand. I had to get both sides to understand what I was trying to accomplish was for the good of both schools."
Tennessee State has participated in the Southern Heritage Classic every year since its inception. However, there were two years when Jackson State, as the home team in its series with Tennessee State, opted to play the Big Blue at other venues using an independent promoter. In 1991, the teams played in Birmingham, and Tennessee State played Mississippi Valley State in the Southern Classic.
The 1993 Tennessee State-Jackson State game was played in Chicago, and Tennessee State played Grambling State in the Southern Heritage Classic.
Former Jackson State coach and athletic director W.C. Gorden says in hindsight, Jackson State, despite receiving slightly more money, would have been better served if it had played Tennessee State in Memphis those years.
"We got national and regional (television) exposure by playing in the Classic," he says. "That helped recruiting immensely. We were on TV every year rather than being scheduled haphazardly. The other attributes were greater in Memphis."
Gorden, along with countless others, says Jackson State and Tennessee State playing in Memphis is a natural fit, and moving the game or changing the match-up makes no sense.
"No question, just for the proximity of the schools alone,'' says Doug Williams, the Director of Scouting for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who was an all-American quarterback and later head coach at Grambling State. "It's an easy drive for fans of both schools to get there. It's nobody's home turf
Williams attended the 1993 Southern Heritage Classic when Grambling State played Tennessee State. He came away impressed with how well-organized the game was and the atmosphere around it.
"When you talk about Classics, I played in the Bayou Classic," Williams says. "I've done all of them (for TV), the Magic City Classic, Circle City Classic and the Florida Classic. This is just like them. When you talk about black colleges, you have to make Classics a family type environment where everybody can enjoy themselves. There has to be pageantry. Fred has done that. Memphis is a good place for that, and it's evident Fred has treated the schools right."
Alumni from both schools say coming to Memphis is far more preferable than playing a home-and-home series.
"Memphis is a favorable – if not the favorite – destination for our alumni," says Hilliard Lackey, President of the Jackson State National Alumni Association. "The aura of Memphis is like a magnet because of its location. When we get there, Memphis has its own attractions. Nobody has to look for anything to do. Memphis is everything we want. We know what to expect. It's a first-class production. There aren't any surprises. That's a wonderful thing. And there is the game itself. The only problem is lately we haven't been winning."
Tennessee State has a six-game winning streak in the Classic.
Tennessee State National Alumni Association President Leonard Stephens, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., says he stopped attending the Atlanta Classic, which matches Tennessee State against Florida A&M, in favor of attending the Southern Heritage Classic.
"I like the venue, and I like the logistical arrangement with entertainment packaged in conjunction with the game," Stephens says. "It's a fantastic weekend, as evidenced by the number of people who show up. They make it an event to be included in your travel plans because of the quality of the events. It doesn't hurt that Tennessee State has been winning. A win is a crowd-pleaser and keeps them coming."
The off-the-field attractions include Beale Street – known as the Home of the Blues – and a number of casinos, including Harrah's, 30 miles away in Tunica, Miss., also help to attract fans.
But partying and gambling aside, football is what the Southern Heritage Classic is all about. And Classic goers have Jones to thank for that.
"If there is a legacy for me when I'm not doing this anymore," Jones says, "it would be, ‘We kept moving forward.' "