The 90-year-old Orange Blossom Classic has grown into one of the largest historically Black college events in the country, with more than 45,000 people expected to attend the football game and related events in Miami Gardens, Florida, this weekend. But despite the large scale of the event, fans, students and alumni say the classic’s intimate family reunion vibe is what makes it so popular year after year.
“I think this has the potential to be right up there with the other top classics – the Florida Classic, Bayou Classic, Magic City Classic. You know, all those classic games that traditionally year in, year out people look forward to attending,” said Florida A&M football coach Willie Simmons, whose team will face Southwestern Athletic Conference rival Jackson State in the game on Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium.
“Their ability to bring football teams, bands, alumni, university leadership and students to one place such as South Florida to have a great time – it’s a great event.”
It will be the final Orange Blossom Classic for Florida A&M for the foreseeable future after the university decided not to renew its contract beyond 2023 for the annual event, which returned to Miami Gardens in 2021 after a 43-year hiatus.
The Florida A&M Rattlers, who have lost the last two classics to the Jackson State Tigers, are looking for redemption and a strong start to their season.
“The most important thing for us is just trying to win every day. … And that means that we took care of the little things, control of things that we can control – our attitude, our work ethic [and] our attention to detail,” Simmons said.
The seriousness of the game is not lost on Jackson State either. It will be the first conference game for the Tigers, who kicked off their season by defeating South Carolina State on Aug. 26 at the MEAC/SWAC Challenge in Atlanta.
“Anytime you can have a stage on ESPN against a premier football team like FAMU and a well-coached team with a great head coach in Willie Simmons is big,” Jackson State coach T.C. Taylor said. “We know what that game means. The last two years it’s decided the East Division championship. … It’s an Eastern Division opponent. Anytime you play anybody in your division, you know the ramifications of that game.”
Despite the allure of Miami-area weather and the game’s multiple related events, Taylor said he wants his players to understand they’re at the Orange Blossom Classic to play a football game. The “other stuff” is for the fans and other attendees.
“That’s the thing – guys get caught up in the classic atmosphere. You pull up and you smell the barbecue and there’s fans everywhere and you see parties posted all weekend, but the real party is on the football field,” he said.
Kendra Bulluck-Major, executive director of the Orange Blossom Classic, said people can expect this year’s event to be the best yet due to the strength of the participating teams and the multitude of related events.
“These two teams are the No. 1 and the No. 2 team right now in the conference and, you know, when we started this we didn’t know that it was going to shape up to be such a huge rivalry as it has become,” Bulluck-Major said, adding that she expects more than 45,000 spectators to attend the game. “Of course anytime you have a classic, you can’t just have a football game. So we are throwing a call out for all HBCUs, not just FAMU and Jackson State alums, but everyone who loves HBCUs, those who love the HBCU culture, to attend.
“Labor Day weekend, Miami Gardens is the place to be, so they can expect a lot of events around the game, and nightlife, of course, is huge. But we have our parade, we have our scholarship luncheon, we have our golf tournament. So there’s something for everybody.”
Bulluck-Major said she’s proud to see how much the event has grown and has built on the legacy of the original Orange Blossom Classic, which was founded in 1933 by the son of Florida A&M President J.R.E. Lee Jr.. It soon became the postseason’s premier game and served as an opportunity for historically Black colleges and universities to showcase their talent.
Bulluck-Major, whose son is a football player for Florida A&M, said she first learned of the game’s significance in the Black community from her father.
“I heard him talk about the Marching 100 and the parade and how the parade was just as big as the game itself,” she said. “So I know, and I have a lot of individuals – I call them my OBC legends – they are people who were a part of the original Orange Blossom Classic, and so they’ve told me stories.”
Younger generations are just as enthusiastic about the event. Senior Lauren Temple, the reigning Miss Jackson State University, said she’s looking forward to meeting Florida A&M’s royal court and discussing ways for them to collaborate.
“I’m excited to see hopefully a win from Jackson State University and really just to be around other peers and other fans that enjoy that HBCU football culture,” said Temple, a pre-med student majoring in biology.
Temple and the current Mister Jackson State University, senior Austin Rolfe, said the highlight of the weekend for them will be seeing the bands, FAMU’s Marching 100 and Jackson State’s Sonic Boom of the South.
“I’m looking forward to hearing the Boom play,” said Rolfe, who is majoring in business marketing. “I’m looking forward to hearing the crowd get hyped and excited for the game. And most of all, I’m looking forward to seeing the Jackson State Tigers win.”
Though the competition with FAMU is intense, both students said they’re ultimately all one big family.
“HBCU rivalry is just simply a competitive environment where success thrives for the most part. We challenge and uplift each other through different means and competitions, so it’s all love on our end and it’s all love on their end,” Rolfe said.
During the Orange Blossom Classic, Rolfe and Temple will join university staff in helping recruit prospective students to Jackson State. Alumni from both universities said the annual event helps show students in the region why they should strongly consider attending an HBCU.
“I don’t want the tradition of the Orange Blossom Classic to end because regardless of what school is represented, it exposes our kids and our families to HBCUs,” said Vernon Chipman, a 2011 Florida A&M graduate. “I know what it’ll do for the generations to come, and it will allow them to see that camaraderie, regardless of what school is being represented.”
Chipman, like Bulluck-Major, gained his appreciation of the event from his parents, who told him how they attended the classic when they were young.
“Knowing that we’re [the] legacy of Rattlers, too, it’s like, in our family it’s a tradition. … If we’re not there, it’s a problem,” Chipman said. “This time of year is good because we’re allowed to come together. You see so many Rattlers from old to young, you know, different generations, multigenerational. However, we still come together, we fellowship, we have a good time. And again, it’s just that burning fire in you to know that you’re a Rattler and you’re doing something for the people that paved the way before you.”
Crystal C. Pittman, a Jackson State alumna from the Class of 1994, said she loves to watch all the families that attend the event. Her son is currently a student at her alma mater.
“You see a lot of families, and of course with the HBCUs we all call each other family,” Pittman said.
The classic also gives high school band students the chance to see HBCU bands up close, she said. A Battle of the Bands showcase will feature local high school marching bands competing for bragging rights on Saturday.
“I’m excited for them because they really do really well,” Pittman said. “Most of the time they mimic the colleges, so that’s an excitement to see that you have the baby Rattlers, that you have the baby Tigers that are coming out.”
Florida A&M alum Oliver Gilbert, the chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission, said classics are more than simply games and that they are like family reunions for HBCUs in general.
“Football games happen on the field, but classics happen in communities,” Gilbert said.
“When we get together, it’s that old family, that old FAMU feeling that comes together, and so I think the energy is going to be off the charts,” he added.
2023 Orange Blossom Classic
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 3
Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida