Article written by Cecilia P. 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 half time 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."
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.