Five years ago, the future seemed bright for the marriage between the City of Houston and the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
Like a picture from central casting, the dime piece of Black College Football had apparently found its Sugar Daddy in Houston. And it appeared as if they would live happily ever after.
Why not? When it comes to the best spectacle in HBCU Sports, there is nothing that compares to a “Classic” involving SWAC teams who put flavor into college football and a game that is played in one of the NFL’s premier stadiums.
The SWAC had taken a page from the SEC, with whom they share the city of Birmingham, Alabama as their home headquarters. They moved their football championship to the largest media market in the conference, with all the bells and whistles that accompany it.
Southern and Jackson State brought the SWAC’s largest traveling fan bases to H-Town and were ready for a celebration with a championship hanging in the balance. Almost 40,000 fans braved an ice storm in the sunbelt that Friday – which probably scared off another 20,000 fans – to watch the Jaguars beat the Tigers in a last second thriller. The game was followed by a battle of the bands featuring every team in the conference.
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The ingredients of the event blended together like a classic Bayou meal. It was Black College Football gumbo. Take two great traditional programs playing for a championship blended with the “Drumline” culture of the marching bands in a world class city and boy it was tasty.
Southern returned the following season but lost to Alcorn State. However, the game was almost anti-climatic because the postgame show featured Frankie Beverly and Maze. For the price of a game ticket, there was great college football and a concert for the ages. Expectations abounded for a blissful future.
Then R. Kelly happened, and the divorce was imminent.
Kells was supposed to be the postgame show following the 2015 SWAC Championship, but it never happened. The conference’s official position was that Kelly got sick and couldn’t perform. Rumors persisted that Kelly wasn’t satisfied with the financial terms of the deal, so he was a no show.
Nobody has been able to confirm or deny what transpired. However, it was a devastating blow that left an embarrassing black eye on the city and the conference. It was the beginning of a slow, precipitous fall to this year, where the game is played on the campus of Alcorn State.
“The Reservation” – which is what Spinks Casem Stadium is known as – is one of the great environments in HBCU football. It’s an intimidating presence for opposing teams to visit.
But don’t get it twisted. Lorman, Mississippi will never be confused with Houston. H- Town is a travel destination worthy of a December trip. Lorman is a small college town in “The ‘Sip” that’s a challenge to visit.
If former SWAC Commissioner Duer Sharp’s team had done its job of marketing to the city of Houston, he would still be commissioner. And this year’s game would still be played in the current professional residence of J.J. Watt and Deshaun Watson.
The conference never embraced the community nor did try to brand the game locally. They never built a steering committee or bonded with civic leadership to find local sponsorships and keep a year-round presence on the mind of a fan base that loves college football. The SWAC spent little money with Black media in Houston, and when they did it was for only two weeks leading up to the game on one urban radio station that didn’t create a passion locally.
Houston is to the southwest what Atlanta is to the southeast. They are hubs that HBCU professionals call home in droves. Many of those are alumni of colleges across the country who land positions with companies that may have been willing to establish corporate partnerships, but there never was any outreach.
It was a core group of fans who would’ve been the audience that would’ve have sustained the game locally by purchasing tickets. Better yet, they could have introduced the SWAC’s potential to sponsors for marketing opportunities to a lucrative audience.
According to multiple sources, Sharp was coerced by ESPN and the conference to “suspend” the game altogether. The argument was that the SWAC Championship hampered travel for fans at Grambling and Southern, who were being forced to travel three times between Thanksgiving and Christmas to purchase tickets for the Celebration Bowl and they couldn’t afford to purchase tickets for the HBCU national championship game in Atlanta.
This is a video recap of the 2017 SWAC Championship football game between the Grambling State University Tigers and the Alcorn State University Braves on Saturday Dec. 2, 2017 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. Grambling Football News is hosted by Dameon Runnels.
SWAC Presidents looked at the costs associated with staging the game in Houston after their marketing agreement dissolved with Urban Sports and Entertainment. It apparently galvanized a group of schools whose programs weren’t contenders to vote in favor suspending the game that was a temporary death sentence for the only FCS conference championship game.
Charles McClelland, the former athletic director at Texas Southern University, watched how the SWAC neglected Houston while trying to stage its marquee event. The conference didn’t use the resources of its largest school in the nation’s fourth largest media market to increase its visibility. That was arrogant on the periphery and ignorant at its core.
With McClelland at the helm, the conference brought the championship game back to life with a DJ Khalid remix and will look to return it to a stage where it was in Houston. Multiple sources confirm there are several major cities in the southwest have who already inquired about hosting the weekend in the future.
If the bands needed a theme for the halftime show or a theme for the 2018 SWAC Football Championship, it should be taken from the R&B group Boys II Men. It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.
However, at least McClelland was able to resuscitate the event. And once his team is fully established, it figures to come back better than ever.
McClelland turned Prairie View into champions and led Texas Southern from the abyss of APR failure. He’ll surely take the SWAC Football Championship game to the next level, even if there’s no return to Camelot.