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The rivalry: A look back in time

20th November 2017   ·   0 Comments


By Ryan Whirty
Contributing Writer

The annual Grambling-Southern football clash has become — after decades of triumph and tribulation, challenges and successes —arguably the premier HBCU athletic event in America.

That’s because it’s now known as the Bayou Classic, a week-long smorgasbord of festivities that brings tens of thousands of fans from across the country and feeds millions of tourist dollars into the local New Orleans economy. It’s broadcast nationally on NBC, and national media representatives descend on the Crescent City to cover the extravaganza.

As a result, the Grambling-Southern — and the Bayou Classic title — has entered the mainstream national sports consciousness. College football fans of all ethnicities and backgrounds know how big — and how important — the game is.

But the modern celebration belies much of the early history of the annual rivalry game. While the Bayou Classic proper was instituted in 1974, the two proud HBCUs had battled on the gridiron long before that.

“I think most modern fans take the Bayou Classic at face value and simply can’t process the thought that the Grambling-Southern rivalry goes back as far as the 1930s,” said Kenn Rashad, editor of HBCU Sports Web site. “For younger fans, the Bayou Classic in its current form is all they know. All they know is the game is played at the Superdome in New Orleans on Thanksgiving weekend. Considering the fact that the game has been played in New Orleans since 1974, it’s kinda understandable that the younger folks would feel that way.”

And those early games — especially, for example, the very first one — were not much more than a footnote on the state’s and country’s sports pages. Beginning with the very first contest in Monroe, La., in 1932, the initial decades of Grambling-Southern rivalry in many ways embodied Louisiana’s, and the entire South’s, rigid Jim Crow system of oppressive segregation.

As state schools, Grambling and Southern were theoretically entitled to (separate) but equal funding, facilities and support as Louisiana’s bigger, segregated schools like LSU.

But the ideal of equity ordered by the landmark Plessy V. Ferguson case in 1896 wasn’t just a mirage for the state’s Black community. It was a cruel joke, one that created a very separate but unequal educational and athletic reality.

While schools like LSU lavished their football teams with funding and facilities and promotion, Grambling (known at that time as the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute) and Southern (whose unfortunate nickname was the Bushmen) were forced to accept scraps from the state. That harsh truth applied to the very first Grambling-Southern clash in 1932.

“There was virtually no state funding,” says Tom Aiello, author of The Bayou Classic: The Grambling-Southern football Rivalry. “Normal students brought their own equipment, their own musical instruments if they were part of the band. Southern had more resources, but they paled in comparison to that of their white counterparts. They were given little if any attention by the powers that be.”

Still, the two squads made due, Aiello says. Southern at the time played its home games in places like Shreveport and Monroe instead of its Scotlandville campus, while Grambling didn’t even have a proper football field.

So in Nov. 1932, the two clubs met at Casino Park in Monroe, home to the legendary Negro Leagues team, the Monarchs, who had just come off a Negro Southern League championship and a “world series” with the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

Casino Park was thus a well-known athletic facility and, while Southern and Grambling were still growing as universities, the schools’ football programs had already gained a significant following, Aiello says. That made for a fairly well attended first showdown between the schools.

Unfortunately, those who did attend the game didn’t get to see much quality football — Grambling team was in just its fifth year of existence, while Southern had already developed into a significant football power. The Jaguars — or the Bushmen — dominated the meeting, 20-0, with the Tigers playing an understandably sloppy game.

Southern went on to win 12 of the first 13 clashes between the programs as the schools eventually played at alternating home fields — the first edition that took place at Grambling in 1936, and the 1938 edition took place in Ruston.

The embryonic pigskin rivalry didn’t happen every year — no game was played during World War II, for example, and there was a decade long gap in the 1950s — but the squads gradually raised their profiles in the state and across the country.

Their rivalry followed suit, especially among the African American community north of New Orleans, a population that, at the time, didn’t have many top-level athletic teams or events for Black fans.

Even though Southern was the big, established power and Normal was the new school up north,” Aiello says, “they were the two public ag schools in the state, and they developed a large following, as did the game itself. New Orleans, where there is a legitimate cluster of HBCUs, was like a foreign country for most in Scotlandville or Grambling.”

New Orleans, however, was a different story. In the years before the launch of the Bayou Classic, the Southern-Gambling game just didn’t generate much interest in the Crescent City, especially in the white community and mainstream newspapers of the day. The city already had existing HBCUs, like Dillard and Xavier, who had their own athletic programs, which took up much of the attention in the Big Easy.

That would, of course, change.

The last pre-Bayou Classic game took place in Shreveport in 1973 with a 19-14 Grambling triumph. By that time, the Jags held a 15-10 advantage in the series. The annual battle would eventually blossom into the Bayou Classic we know today.

Because of all of these historical factors — lack of funding, economics, segregation, lack of media coverage and just plain old geographic distance — many modern football fans, including HBCU followers, aren’t aware that the rivalry stretches back before 1974, way back to a time when Jim Crow ruled the state, the Great Depression racked the economy, and HBCU sports were decades away from entering mainstream consciousness.

That’s why education and the preservation and passing on of tradition remain so vital to the legacy of HBCU football.

“I think it’s extremely important,” Rashad said. “The process of preserving the history and legacy of HBCU football is getting more and more difficult. There appears to be a consistent push from a lot of different forces urging our HBCU administrators to become more mainstream. And that’s mostly due to many simply not appreciating nor willing to embrace the very things that make HBCU football so unique.”

This article originally published in the November 20, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper and has been updated with quotes from Kenn Rashad.

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