The Southern Heritage Classic – The Evolution of an Event
Still, after 30 years, the Classic’s star continues to shine brightly
By Cecelia Payne Wright
Each year, the Southern Heritage Classic presented by FedEx is one of the country’s most anticipated HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) football classics. Since 1990, thousands of fans have gathered at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis to see long-time rival football teams at Jackson State University and Tennessee State University battle for bragging rights and for the victory.
Before the Southern Heritage Classic started, the two teams certainly weren’t strangers. When they faced each other on the field, their Jackson and Nashville hometowns often were alternate locations. Students, alumni, faculty and fans from both colleges attended the games. However, when the football teams played on each other’s turfs, it was difficult to get people to come all the way from Jackson, MS to Nashville, TN or to travel from Nashville to Jackson.
But in the late 80’s came an idea that could resolve the dilemma. The solution was to start an annual football classic for the teams that would always be scheduled – not in Jackson or Nashville – but in Memphis.
“At the time I was the football coach of Tennessee State when the initial thought hit me,” said Bill Thomas, now Assistant VP of Student Affairs at Texas Southern. “The hometown games were attended by a significant number of students and alumni from both colleges. But when I looked at the numbers when Jackson would play in Nashville, the ticket sells weren’t reflecting the attendance that was there.”
Memphis was considered an ideal location because the Bluff City is mid-way between the two colleges. Thomas discussed the idea with W. C. Gorden, who was Jackson State’s football coach at the time. Gorden agreed that the idea had great potential.
“Having the two football teams play an annual game in Memphis could increase revenue,” said Gorden, who was inducted into the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame during his career. “The idea also gave us an opportunity to develop a rivalry that we believed the spectators and alumni would really look forward to.”
Dr. Walter Reed, a former athletic director at Jackson State, said that having a classic in Memphis also was likely to boost attendance.
“Memphis was considered a mecca for the game because it was about halfway between the two colleges,” Reed said. “Jackson Sate had a big alumni base in the Memphis area, and quite naturally, Tennessee State had a huge alumni base in the Memphis area.”
But Thomas said there was an obstacle since neither he nor Gorden felt they had the clout to make an annual game for their football teams in Memphis happen.
“Jackson State didn’t have any money and we didn’t have any money, and both of us were afraid of trying to reserve the Liberty Bowl Stadium because it was almost cost prohibitive based on projections.” Thomas said. “I was able to meet Fred Jones and I talked to him about it and he said he was interested. I thought he was kidding. But with a determined look, he said … ‘I would like to do it … and I can do it.’”
Thus, the Southern Heritage Classic was born.
Fred Jones Jr., Southern Heritage Classic founder and producer, said the event’s potential was its entertainment aspect.
“Whether it was in Jackson, MS, whether it was in Nashville or whether it was in Memphis, they had played the game,” Jones said. “But W. C. Gorden and Bill Thomas felt that this game should be played in Memphis because it had a better chance of being successful. They needed someone, who turned out to be me, to look into the idea and take over.
“But it had to be something different. I brought in the entertainment part. The only entertainment that was there before was the halftime show with the bands – which is world renowned – and which automatically gave me a leg up for entertainment value because of the great respect everybody had for the two bands.”
How the Classic evolved since the inaugural game
Jerry Butler and The Williams Brothers were featured entertainers for the first Classic, which included a black tie event at the Peabody’s Skyway. During the Classic’s history, other renowned entertainers have included Luther Vandross; Usher; The O’Jays; Gap Band; and Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. Gladys Knight, Charlie Wilson and Lavell Crawford are headliners for the 25th anniversary of the Southern Heritage Classic.
Eventually, many other annual events were added to the Classic, including the Classic Fashions & Brunch; the Nike Classic Coaches Luncheon; the Ed “Too Tall” Jones Golf Classic; the Classic Battle of the Bands; and the Classic College Fair. Other than the tens of thousands of people who flock to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium for the football game, the most heavily attended events each year are the Classic Tailgate and the Classic Parade.
“The Classic tailgate is probably one of the biggest tailgates at college or bowl games in the country,” Jones said. “And that’s especially once Tiger Lane came on line. That gave us something else to add to the Classic.”
Each year, the Classic has a variety of events to suit everybody’s tastes. But it’s the football game that’s always the core of entertainment. A number of football players who participated in the Classic have gone on to play pro football.
Tom Prestigiacomo, a legendary Memphis radio deejay and announcer, has been the only announcer for all of the Classic’s football games.
“I love the tradition about the Classic,” Prestigiacomo said. “It’s a spectacular event that has great value. For the fans, the football games are a show. For the football players, it’s an arena. They are stars because their moms are up in the stands.”
For many fans, the “icing on the cake” is always the halftime band performances of Jackson State’s Sonic Boom of the South and Tennessee State’s Aristocrat of Bands. Both are renowned for their unique marching precisions while playing a wide repertoire of music that’s ranged from Duke Ellington, Beale Street jazz or Beyoncé – to John Philip Sousa.
The dance lines for Jackson State’s Prancing J-Settes and Tennessee State’s Sophisticated Ladies also always bring the crowds to their feet.
“When I was coaching at Jackson State,” Gorden said, “the J-Settes emulated how Tina Turner dressed during her performances. Their uniforms were always long enough to be respectful, but yet, they were short enough to be exciting to the fans. In fact, one year my football players asked me if they could stay to see the J-Settes during halftime. I told them … ‘give me a 14 point lead and we won’t even go in for halftime because I want to the see the J-settes myself!’” Gorden laughed.
Jones added that while the halftime festivities always are strong, the other supporting events around the Classic have become bigger and have gained a lot of notoriety in their own right.
“But the game is always going to be the biggest event, he said.”
2 toughest years for the Classic – 9-11 and the Double-Header
During its 25-year history, the Southern Heritage Classic has never missed an annual celebration, although there were two years when Fred Jones faced monumental challenges. One of them was when “Classic weekend” just happened to be scheduled during the same week of the 9-11 tragedy.
“Nothing was as big as 9-11,” said Jones, who postponed the 2001 Classic until Thanksgiving weekend.
Margaret “Chris” Whitfield, a retired Nashville school teacher and retired director of alumni relations at Tennessee State, was among those who managed to make it to the Classic that year. Ms. Whitfield and her sister, Millie Washington, are both Tennessee State graduates. They live in Nashville and have never missed the event.
“Of course, no one could fly after the 9-11 tragedy,” Ms. Whitfield said. “My sister and I got in the car and drove there. The crowd was sparse but we were glad and thankful that we had made it there. I have a lot of respect for him to have found a way to hold the Classic in spite of the nation’s tragedy,” she said.
The other greatest challenge, Jones said, was when both the Southern Heritage Classic and the University of Memphis had football games scheduled at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium – on the same Saturday.
“It was in 1998 when we had to do the double header,” he said. “The University of Memphis played in the afternoon and we played in the evening. Everything didn’t go as planned. We couldn’t tailgate. They couldn’t tailgate either. I was glad I was able to work with the University of Memphis and the Memphis Park Commission to work through it. And out of that came the decision that we would never do a double header again. Today, it would be impossible because tailgating has reached the magnitude that it has, not only for the Classic, but for most events at the Stadium. So not being able to tailgate would be very problematic.”
Why alumni, faculty, students and fans are drawn back to the Classic each year
There are many reasons why Jackson State and Tennessee State graduates, faculty, students and fans come back to the Classic each year. Johnny Gross, who lives in St. Louis and graduated from Jackson State, said one reason is the exposure the event brings to black colleges and universities.
“We have a lot of alums who come down from St. Louis,” said Gross, who travels from his home in St. Louis to the game each year and has missed the Classic only once since it started. “I normally come by myself or with my wife; normally with other alums, too. The event gives exposure to what southern black colleges are like. It’s just a heritage that we like and we enjoy. It’s more than just going to your homecoming. Memphis has the right idea.”
Pat Owen, a Tennessee State graduate living in Memphis, says the Classic has evolved into a major event.
“It’s a lot of camaraderie – even between Jackson State and TSU,” said Mrs. Owen, who’s attended Southern Heritage Classic football games since 1991. “Everyone still comes together for the common goal of gathering. That’s a major piece, especially for our African American heritage.”
Irvin C. Walker Jr., who grew up just four blocks from Jackson State and now lives in Memphis, says his family is among many other families that plan their reunions around the Classic each year.
“We have enjoyed every year of it, so much so that we’ve made it a family … and friends … reunion,” Walker said. “We think of our reunions as being unique in the sense that my family’s origin is in Jackson, MS, but we also have ties with Tennessee State.”
The key to the Classic’s success
Jones says there’s one word that describes the Southern Heritage Classic.
“Continuity,” he said. “I wanted to make sure people would know when the game would be played again. It equates to looking at the big picture – not just one day or one year at a time. I saw a bigger picture, both from a business standpoint as well as politically. People know there’s going to be a Classic every year. And now – through September of 2019, people know that there’s going to be a Classic every year on the second Saturday in September.”
From day one, Fred Jones said the Classic’s success is attributed to the continual support of its sponsors.
“In any event, especially today, you are only as good as your sponsors and to the degree to which they are involved,” he said. “I think I was very fortunate in the beginning to start the event and Coca Cola was the first sponsor that came on line.”
Jones said some of the other major companies which also came on board, including FedEx; AutoZone; Allstate Insurance; Carrier Corporation; Nike; and MillerCoors, have continued providing tremendous support that’s enabled the Classic to become what it is today.
“Regardless of the size of an event – whether it’s the Super Bowl, the World Cup or a community event –sponsors are very important.” he said. “In fact, they have become the backbone for these events. You have to pay the bills and you have to have the attendance and the support from all the sponsors. Our sponsors come through every single year and that’s what uplifts me all the time.”
The success of the Classic has enabled it to pump millions of dollars into the Memphis and Mid-South economies. Annually, the Classic also donates proceeds from the event to various charitable organizations.
Jones said his dreams for the Classic in the future include seeing it become nationally televised. He’d also like the Classic to become one of the top 10 college football events in the country.
“We’re headed in that direction now, he said. “The Classic has all of what it needs. We just have to continue to have the overall attitude that this is one of the best events in the country. When people say they enjoy the event each year, it’s real … it’s not manufactured. People schedule their vacations around the Classic. People plan family reunions around the Classic. Even 9-11 and Katrina didn’t stop the Classic from happening. We’re still here!”
But his proudest moments are seeing how the event puts smiles on people’s faces.
“Somebody will say to me … ‘I can’t wait, I look forward to it,’” Jones said. “That is why I’ll keep doing this as long as I can keep people smiling. Then, we’ll be fine.”