Another college football season started Sept. 1, with the bulk of attention heaped on the usual suspects, powerhouse programs such as Oklahoma, Alabama and Louisiana State. Such schools — members of lucrative Bowl Championship Series conferences — enjoy regular appearances on national TV, play in stadiums that seat 80,000 to 100,000 fans and often appear in bowl games with $20 million payouts.
But there's a less-publicized, less-affluent version of the game that's still going strong, too, more than 100 years since Livingstone College and Biddle College (now Johnson C. Smith University) met on Dec. 27, 1892.
That was the first black college football game; there will be hundreds more this season featuring the 52 teams from historically black colleges and universities — including Livingstone and Johnson C. Smith, which renew their 119-year-old rivalry on Nov. 5 in Charlotte, N.C., in the Commemorative Classic.
Four college leagues consist of HBCUs: the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) and the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC). A handful of other HBCUs play in mainstream leagues — the Ohio Valley Conference (Tennessee State) and the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (Cheyney) — or play as independents (Langston).
But no matter what level of football a black college plays, there's usually a "classic" or two to get everyone pumped up. These games take all the pageantry of regular HBCU contests, draw huge crowds to large, off-campus stadiums and morph into a combination of Homecoming-Black Family Reunion-Freaknic-NBA All-Star Game Weekend-Stone Soul Picnic.
Howard and Morehouse meet Sept. 10 in the inaugural AT&T Nation's Football Classic at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. That same day, Central State and North Carolina Central meet in the inaugural Cleveland Classic, held at Cleveland Browns Stadium. On Sept. 24, Howard will face off with Morgan State at the New York Urban League Classic in New Jersey's New Meadowlands Stadium.
Two of the biggest, most popular classics take place each in November between bitter, in-state rivals. Bethune Cookman and Florida A&M battle the weekend before Thanksgiving in the Florida Classic, in Orlando, while Grambling and Southern go at it the weekend after Thanksgiving in the Bayou Classic, in New Orleans.
"The vast majority of people come for the pomp and circumstance of the event," says Omarr Bashir, CEO of Heritage Sports Radio Network (HSRN). "That's what we do, and I don't think we should take a backseat to anybody. Let's be honest: The majority population is trying to capture that, but they just can't. No one does it better than black college sports, and that's not a bad thing."
HSRN taps into the interest by broadcasting black college football games nationally on Sirius XM and making its signal available to tune-in radio stations as well as "streaming affiliates" on different websites. The four-year-old company was founded and is staffed by HBCU grads with backgrounds in sports broadcasting and sports information.
ESPN has gotten in on the action, too. A Thursday-night package featuring games in the MEAC and SWAC is on ESPNU, while several other contests are carried on ESPN3.com, and the SWAC championship is broadcast on ESPN. "We try to put on the best matchups we can," said Dan Margulis, ESPN's director of programming and acquisitions. "We look for the best environment we can find. It's different and it's unique. We have all these classics, where the games in some cases are ancillary to everything else going on. We look at trying to balance that with trying to get as many teams on as we can. When you're talking about Thursdays, you need a lot of cooperation from the school, and it's easier for some than others."
Eric Moore, managing editor of Onnidan's HBCU Sports, is a pioneer in covering black college sports, having figured out 15 years ago that mainstream media wasn't doing a good job. He quit his faculty job at Fayetteville State and began filling in the gap, working closely with sports information directors at HBCUs to develop systems to distribute scores, game summaries and other news. He's no longer alone.
"As times have gotten tighter, the competition has gotten greater," Moore said. "The black college market has now become recognized as a niche that needs to be addressed. When I first started, I was amazed at the number of inquiries I got from alumni who were in the military overseas. I was their only resource."
Exposure isn't the only thing that has changed. The product now is a lot different from back in the day, when HBCUs produced future Hall of Famers such as Jerry Rice, Walter Payton, Shannon Sharpe and Richard Dent. Most of the top black players now attend major schools in the big-money conferences. HBCUs still produce NFL players — the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers have two in Donald Driver (Alcorn State) and Nick Collins (Bethune) — but they're rarely selected in the draft's high rounds, if they're drafted at all.
"No one wants to take a chance on someone who didn't go to Nebraska or something like that," Bashir said. "They know they can get [HBCU players] for the league minimum, and it's a business on that end. Schools have to do a better job getting the word out that their kids are as good as any in the country."
As the talent has spread out, the extracurricular activities have heated up. Between the bands, tailgating, step shows, people-watching and general socializing, the football game can take a backseat, which Jay Walker sees as a problem. "It's good for the crowd, but it's a definitely a distraction of the pure football purists," said Walker, a former Howard quarterback and current football announcer for ESPN. "That disappoints me somewhat. Depending on what region you're in, it's everything but the game. The size of some of these bands is unbelievable. After [the film] Drumline, bands took it to another level."
Gary Harrell, Howard's all-time leading receiver and its first-year coach, used to catch passes from Walker but isn't on the same page regarding the hoopla. "The pageantry helps," he said. "When you look at big-time schools like LSU and Oregon and listen closely as the game is played, they're playing the same tunes as our bands. They're smart enough to understand you have to put out the total package."
Deron Snyder, an award-winning journalist who covers sports, politics and pop culture, lives in Washington, D.C., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.