The Southern Heritage Classic has grown into a Mid-South institution, far more than a football series between Tennessee State and Jackson State. This Saturday’s tilt will be the centerpiece in the 27th-annual celebration of these historically black colleges, their alumni, and, not incidentally, a pair of extraordinary marching bands. Founder Fred Jones — president of Summitt Management Corporation — has seen them all.
Can you share the original inspiration for the Southern Heritage Classic, how exactly the event was created?
It started off with a conversation [I had] with Bill Thomas, the athletic director at Tennessee State [in 1989]. The schools had always wanted to play here. But they knew they could not do it. I told him that if I [organized] it, I needed to change everything about it, going from just a football game and a halftime show to a bigger component, somewhat like the Super Bowl.
In 1989, Tennessee State played Murray State here in Memphis and they had less than 6,000 people at the Liberty Bowl. That same night, the Atlanta Hawks played an exhibition game at the Mid-South Coliseum and they had more people. We had to do something different, change everything about it. We had to give the game some consistency, let people know it was coming every year. Both schools wanted it here in Memphis. They just didn’t have the wherewithal to put the systems in place, create a destination. You had to put all these together. It had to become an entertainment event.
My vision wasn’t shared by very many people in Memphis. The person who helped me the most was the late Dave Swearingen, the marketing director at The Commercial Appeal.
I scribbled down the idea and he told me that day, “Fred, if you pull this off, you’ll have the biggest event in town.” That was counter to what other people were saying.
What memories stand out from the inaugural game in 1990? [TSU won, 23-14, in front of 39,579.]
Events around the game are a lot bigger now. That first game, it started to rain 15 or 20 minutes before kickoff. But people were not deterred; no one left their seats. Everybody was determined to be a part of whatever this was about.
There were actually two games that didn’t feature Jackson State. Mississippi Valley State beat TSU in 1991 and Grambling beat TSU in 1993. What were the circumstances?
There were some internal issues with Jackson State at the time. It took me a while to get them to really believe this was a mutually beneficial situation. The game was in Tennessee, although in some circles Memphis is north Mississippi. Administrators had different ideas. The “visiting” team gets mentioned first [with the home team alternating each year]. There were some issues with that. Both schools’ colors are blue and white, but the blues are different shades.
We finally got it right, from 1994 on. People were ready to embrace what we were trying to do. They were never going to get the resources playing a home-and-home in Nashville and Jackson. Back then, the home team would get about $100,000 and the visiting team maybe $50,000. We started with just one sponsor: Coca-Cola. Now, both teams get $325,000. Bill Thomas and [Jackson State coach/AD] W.C. Gorden understood it. The schools have earned, collectively, more than $10 million from the Classic.
The 2001 game — scheduled for the Saturday after the attacks of 9/11 — was postponed to Thanksgiving weekend. That had to be among the most emotional weekends in this series.
That was a trying time for the world. I was going to do an interview at WDIA and I got a call and was asked if I heard about a plane going into the building. While I was talking to that person on the phone, the second plane hit a building. I was on the air when the plane hit the Pentagon. We cut the interview short.
Once the NFL decided they weren’t going to play, the SEC decided they wouldn’t play either. Thursday afternoon, we decided to postpone. The one thing I wanted to really do is find a way to play the game, to keep the continuity. On Friday, we had a conference call with the sponsors. Without the sponsors understanding, it would have been really bad. The Classic parade through Orange Mound was actually held [for the first time] that Thursday. I missed that parade.
We bought 50,000 miniature flags that we planned on having at the game. When we cancelled the game, we went out in the community, stood on corners, and handed out those flags. We just had to figure out what to do, what we were dealing with.
Is there a particular game (or player) that stands out in your memory?
I rarely actually watch the game. There’s always something, always a challenge [on game day]. One of the high points was in 1993, when Grambling came. The stars affiliated with these schools have always embraced the classic. Wilma Rudolph [Tennessee State] was in the fashion show. Doug Williams [a Grambling alum and the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl] was coaching high school the week of the Classic. He was in the hospital with [an injured] player on Friday, but he drove all night to be at the Classic. From that day on, he has said this is the best place for this game, the best event for black colleges. Doug and Too Tall Jones [a TSU alum] have been big advocates. They were stars and they told people this was something to be involved with.
TSU has won the last four games and 11 of the last 13. Has the series become too one-sided?
Look at the years before that. [Jackson State won six of nine from 1994 through 2002.] People on the Tennessee State side were saying they’d never win. Then Jackson State had a lot of coaching changes. I don’t get into who wins or loses. We just try and make sure everyone has what’s needed for a first-class presentation. At the end of the day, both schools benefit, the city benefits, the alumni benefit.
The event has turned into a full weekend, so much more than a football game. What are your favorite non-football components to the annual celebration?
By far, it’s the parade [now on Saturday]. I was a part of the band at Booker T. Washington High School. We’d march at the Cotton Makers’ Jubilee, down Beale Street. And that was a proud moment. We’d have to weave our way through the crowd. The Classic parade brings back fond memories.