Tennessee State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff seek season’s first victory in Southern Heritage Classic
For those who don’t know better, particularly lifelong northerners, the Southern Heritage Classic sounds like it might not be welcoming to Black people.
But, in fact, it’s among the longest-running and most impactful cultural celebrations on the HBCU calendar. More than 40,000 fans typically attend the annual game in Memphis, while non-ticket holders flock to “Bluff City” for the adjacent activities. The three-day event featured a Gladys Knight concert Thursday night and a college and career fair. Saturday’s festivities include a tailgate, parade, a battle of the bands and a brunch and fashion show.
The scene is old news for Tennessee State University, a participant every year since the event’s inception in 1990. But it’s all new for University of Arkansas Pine Bluff, making its debut and replacing Jackson State University, which is absent from the SHC for the first time since 1993. TSU has lost the last three Classics, but won six consecutive matchups beforehand.
“This is something our fan base is very passionate about and something that I have circled on my calendar, saying this is a game we must be successful in, ” TSU head coach Eddie George said this week. “We know what Jackson State was the last couple of years,” he said, alluding to Deion Sanders’ tenure at the university. “Last year I felt we played well enough to win but we didn’t get enough offense to make a difference in the game.”
The Tigers didn’t get much offense last week, either, suffering a 56-3 defeat at Notre Dame.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff can relate after absorbing a 42-7 defeat at Tulsa last week.
Although Alonzo Hampton’s tenure as UAPB’s 22nd head coach didn’t begin with a win, but he was pleased with the effort. The Golden Lions led, 7-0, after the first quarter. “On their first three possessions we had takeaways,” Hampton said this week. “We had the opportunity to be at least 13-0, and it could’ve been 21-0 because we were moving the ball. That’s the frustrating part.”
Aside from a first-place finish in the pandemic-shortened spring 2021 season, the Lions have grown familiar with frustration. They’ve been last in the Southwestern Athletic Conference West division seven times since 2014. The SWAC preseason poll predicts another cellar-dwelling finish, but Hampton is undaunted.
“We’re trying to restore the pride, and we’re excited about playing Tennessee State,” Hampton said, noting that both teams are 0-1 with blowouts against bigger schools. He expects a more competitive contest against the Tigers, predicted to finish fifth in the Big South-OVC Association, but wants his players to remember the mission amid the classic’s festivities.
“I told my team the party is not for us,” Hampton said. “The game’s for us. That’s where we get our enjoyment from. So, let’s get out there and concentrate and do what we’re supposed to do – restore the pride and get UAPB back on track.”
George enters his third season as TSU’s coach with the same goal in mind. His Tigers were 4-7 last year, dipping from 5-6 in his inaugural season. Playing another game in front of a huge crowd – though not quite the 77,000 fans at Notre Dame Stadium last week – should provide an extra spark to get in the win column.
“When you play in front of that many people, you feed off the energy whether you’re on the road or at home or at a neutral site like this Saturday,” George said. “You feel the energy. It makes a big difference when we can play in front of a crowd that large that is interested in the ballgame. It’s great for college football. It’s great for both programs, and it’s great for HBCUs to have a game in Memphis. It brings a great deal of revenue and excitement and energy to that area.”
Both teams played two quarterbacks in Week 1 and likely will continue. Mekhi Hagens and Jalen Macon split time for UAPB, while Deveon Bryant and Draylen Ellis took snaps for TSU. Pine Bluff halfback Johness Davis was a bright spot against Tulsa, averaging 4.8 yards per carry for 82 rushing yards. “We couldn’t tackle him in fall camp, and obviously Tulsa couldn’t either,” Hampton said. “He just runs mad, and we’re excited about him.”
Defensively, both teams yielded more than 500 yards, but the Lions recorded two sacks and two interceptions, while also forcing a pair of fumbles.
George said UAPB’s defense is a threat. “They play with their hair on fire,” he said. “They were competing throughout even when they were down. That team is hungry for success and well-coached with a first-year staff. We’re going to have our hands full.”
Deron Snyder, from Brooklyn, is an award-winning columnist who lives near D.C. and pledged Alpha at HU-You Know! He’s reaching high, lying low, moving on, pushing off, keeping up, and throwing down. Got it? Get more at blackdoorventures.com/deron.
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