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The Bayou Classic Is the Pride of Black College Football

Rivalry Week isn’t complete without Grambling vs. Southern in New Orleans, a celebration that harkens back to the decades when football at historically black colleges was dominant

Ringer illustration

By 1:30 p.m., the New Orleanian fog had cleared. Sunshine splashed the emerald turf at Tulane Stadium. Usually, Louisiana’s premier, predominantly white college football clubs owned this arena, the site of the Sugar Bowl, one of the sport’s most prestigious games. But on November 23, 1974, Tulane was in Baton Rouge to play LSU, which left history to decide on a hefty matter in the stadium. Who would win the first Bayou Classic: Southern University or Grambling State University?

Southern’s coach, Charlie Bates, was relatively new to the head job. The team had fallen from grace, losing its place as one of 20th-century college football’s most dominant forces, and needed a rebuild. Southern was like so many black institutions at the time: Federally mandated integration took away much of the brilliant athleticism that had paraded around their fields, stripping dominant programs of the talent pool that had sustained their athletic prowess.

Bates’s counterpart at Grambling State was Eddie Robinson, perhaps the most consequential coach in black football history, alongside Florida A&M’s Jake Gaither. Robinson was hired in 1941 when the school was still named the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute (it was renamed Grambling College in 1946, and Grambling State University in 1974). He built the program into a national phenomenon. His teams consistently produced All-Americans, and in 1974, Robinson’s 225 career wins were second only to Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama. The tiny, rural Louisiana college boasted the résumé of a national superpower, playing in Houston’s Astrodome, New York’s Yankee Stadium, Los Angeles’s Memorial Coliseum, Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, and Washington’s RFK Stadium. They were as much a giant of the game as any white college program in the country.

The Bayou Classic promised to be a spectacle, the most profitable neutral-site event in black college football history. In his 2010 encyclopedia on the rivalry, Bayou Classic: The Grambling-Southern Football Rivalry, the historian Thomas Aiello wrote that it “is the most significant in-state football rivalry in Louisiana and the most significant historically black football rivalry in the nation.”

The lead-up to the game featured the traditions that sustained the famed sporting congregations of black universities during the 20th century. It was community. It was passion. It was black power and pride. Grambling’s “World Famed” Tiger Marching Band faced off against Southern’s “Human Jukebox” in a battle of the bands. Parades and beauty pageants followed. Local and national celebrities rushed to New Orleans to watch. Organizers expected 76,000 people to attend. “The colleges probably made more money from this game than they ever made in the past,” Cissy Segall, one of the game’s organizers, said according to Aiello’s book. “It wasn’t just a football game. It was a happening.”

Doug Williams, Grambling’s freshman quarterback, threw three interceptions, but the Tigers won 21-0. Grambling won the game, but according to Aiello, Southern won the battle of the bands. Essentially, it was a draw. But what happened that weekend in New Orleans would set the stage for the modern black football national championship, a weekend of showmanship and undivided attention paid to the glory of the black college experience.

“That happening, as it turns out,” Aiello wrote, “was a culmination of sorts—a theatre for a variety of different cultural, political and athletic negotiations that gave the game its meaning, its significance.”

In 2009, the Sporting News described the Bayou Classic as the state’s most heated, most important rivalry and held it on par with Mississippi’s Egg Bowl, Alabama’s Iron Bowl, Oklahoma’s Bedlam, and Oregon’s Civil War. The rivalry began in 1932 when Grambling and Southern first played each other, but the game gained its fancy moniker and moved to the flashing lights of New Orleans in 1974. Robinson told the press after the game, “This game could be history-making, because this may be the largest crowd ever to witness a black football game.” It meant something to Robinson. He was born in Louisiana, played high school and college football at a time when he and his teammates didn’t have stands or bleachers, didn’t hear the roar of thousands of fans because segregation prevented them from playing football at white institutions and they didn’t have fields of their own. “It would have been pretty difficult to figure then coming to this Sugar Bowl and packing it,” he said.

For decades, black college football tried to determine its champion through a variety of different bowl games. FAMU’s Rattlers hosted the annual Orange Blossom Classic from 1933 to 1978; the Colored Championship games in the early 1920s featured members of the CIAA conference; the Chocolate Bowl appeared in 1935; the Steel and Vulcan bowls arrived in 1941; the National Bowl debuted in 1947; and the National Football Classic kicked off in 1954. But black college football couldn’t sustain any of these endeavors.

The Pelican Bowl lasted a few seasons in the 1970s by trying to pit the best of the MEAC against the best of the SWAC, but the venture failed to draw enough attendance to be truly meaningful. The Heritage Bowl was held through the 1990s to determine a black national champion, but by 1999 teams snubbed the game to play in the NCAA’s Division I-AA playoffs instead.

Indeed, the Bayou Classic has become one of the most prestigious games for historically black colleges. By the turn of the century, Grambling and Southern were powerhouses in black football. As of 2015, only FAMU had more all-time wins than Southern or Grambling. Since its inception in 1974, the game has been played in New Orleans every year except 2005, when it moved to Houston’s Reliant Stadium after Hurricane Katrina. From 1991 to 2014, the game was nationally televised on NBC, and has since moved to the NBC Sports Network, where it draws a slightly smaller audience. It’s frequently dubbed by fans and others as the “Black Super Bowl,” given its history. The two teams have met 70 times in their history and 45 times in the Bayou Classic; Grambling leads 23-22 after losing last year. The Tigers have the longest winning streak in the series: nine straight wins from 1970 to 1978, including a forfeit from Southern. The annual trophy, retired in 2014, was donated to the Smithsonian.

New Orleans earns at least $50 million in revenue the weekend of the Bayou Classic, according to the Times-Picayune, and more than 200,000 people flood the city to attend the game and the surrounding festivities. It is one of the most profitable events in black college football, an example of how investment in such an event can grow the game, and a reminder of how black college football became part of the bedrock of American culture. After federally mandated integration, white coaches from high-profile programs cherry-picked recruits and coaches from black colleges. Funding for these institutions has been cut, and they’ve been left behind. But the Bayou Classic has endured and remains a proud tentpole in the history of black college football and the sporting congregation that keeps the games and its fans prideful, proud, and unapologetically black.

There can be no rivalry week in college football, no nostalgia tour spanning each coast and region of the nation without the Bayou Classic. It is one of our oldest rivalries and our greatest games. It has withstood American segregation and integration, including the stripping of athletic talent from black colleges and the subsequent migration to white institutions.

Every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, if you march the famed French Quarter of New Orleans, you will find them. Black faces painted in electric Southern cerulean and grandiose Grambling gold. Dancing. Cheering. Singing. Strumming. It’s a family reunion until the lights come on inside the Superdome, where for 60 minutes, two teams will clash as titans, harkening back to the decades when black college football was dominant.