Arkansas-Pine Bluff prepares to start new tradition at Southern Heritage Classic — Andscape
When then-Jackson State coach Deion Sanders and athletic director Ashley Robinson revealed in February 2022 it would be the last year the Tigers would play in the Southern Heritage Classic, series founder Fred Jones Jr. was left scrambling to determine their replacement for the longtime football series against Tennessee State.
“We haven’t had anybody in the classic other than Mississippi Valley and Grambling State. From ’94 forward, it has always been Tennessee State and Jackson State, so it was surprising,” Jones told Andscape. “That forced us to make changes that we weren’t expecting,”
This year’s Southern Heritage Classic, which will take place Saturday in Memphis, Tennessee, now features the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff as Tennessee State’s opponent. It will mark Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s first football game this season against a historically Black college, Alonzo Hampton’s first HBCU matchup as coach and the first classic game the Golden Lions have played in since 2016.
“We hope to paint the city of Memphis black and gold because our guys have been making countless sacrifices since I was announced as head coach. All they want to do is win, so I told them let’s go,” Hampton said.
Tennessee State coach Eddie George told Andscape he is excited to play Arkansas-Pine Bluff for the first time since 2019.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity [and] is always about preserving the tradition of the Southern Heritage Classic,” George said. “Although we changed our opponent, the idea is still the same for both teams, to compete and win the game.
“We say goodbye to an old tradition, which I’m not saying is long-term, but for the near future we will preserve it with another great institution. … We’re going to come together and enjoy another great day of football.”
Tennessee State linebacker Monroe Beard III spent his last four seasons at Arkansas-Pine Bluff before entering the transfer portal and committing to the Tigers in December. On Saturday, Beard will line up against his former team.
“Emotions will be there because I was a part of that family for the last 3½ years, so this is a homecoming for me,” Beard said. “But business is business at the end of the day, and we [Tennessee State] gotta take care of it, but it will be fun.”
The only other HBCU matchup the Tigers have this season is their homecoming game against Norfolk State in October. Mikki Allen, Tennessee State’s director of athletics, said the Southern Heritage Classic carries special significance for the university.
“It’s important when you have two HBCU bands competing during halftime and our teams going at it during the game,” Allen said. “It’s a cultural celebration to get fan bases together for a game that showcases Black excellence in a classic or series, which is pretty special.”
Jones’ team took several factors into consideration while evaluating a potential partnership with Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Proximity was a significant one. Pine Bluff, Arkansas, is about 145 miles from Memphis, Tennessee, where the game takes place at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium – and where many Arkansas-Pine Bluff alums live, according to Tanesha Washington Thompson, president of the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff National Alumni Association.
After football season concluded for Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s band, the Marching Musical Machine of the Mid-South (M4), director John Graham led the band on a performance tour throughout Memphis as an unofficial petition for the classic, including a stop at the popular annual Memphis Christmas Parade in Whitehaven.
“I told the students when we started preparing that we’re going to go there and just introduce ourselves to the people who haven’t seen us [and] make an excellent impression,” Graham said.
Jones said the band’s performance impressed the Whitehaven community.
“When they played at the Whitehaven parade, people took pictures and sent them to me and told me, ‘This is somebody that needs to be in the classic,’ ” Jones said.
Chris Robinson, Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s vice chancellor for intercollegiate athletics, said participating in the Southern Heritage Classic has always been his dream. After multiple discussions with Jones and his staff, Robinson’s dream ultimately became reality.
“To be able to be on this stage is an epic opportunity for us because this game is something that a lot of people build their year on, like a family reunion to where they can come to the Southern Heritage Classic and celebrate together,” Robinson said. “This is something that alumni like myself and our student body can look forward to every year as our presence continues to grow.”
Darrell Walker, an Arkansas-Pine Bluff alumnus and Memphis native, said the classic is a big deal for the university and reminds him of his college days when Arkansas-Pine Bluff participated in the Gateway Classic in St. Louis.
“To us alumni, this classic is a big deal. UAPB fans are very familiar with the Gateway Classic, where we used to take close to 30,000 fans,” Walker said. “Being a native of Memphis, I know Memphis is going to come and support this game [and] UAPB [alumni] is coming to support them.”
Jones said this year will be like no other for the Southern Heritage Classic and he hopes to continue the partnership with both universities.
“At any HBCU game, there’s a spirit that you don’t get with any other type of football game,” Jones said. “I’m looking forward to both the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Tennessee State University to step forward and continue to show people that it really can be done on a high level [and] big scale with the Southern Heritage Classic.”
What: Southern Heritage Classic When: 7 p.m. Sept. 9 ET Where: Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium, Memphis, Tennessee Information: southernheritageclassic.com