It was quite a sight, wasn’t it?
Eleven years ago, they showed up in the tens of thousands, stuffing themselves into every corner and cranny of Veterans Memorial Stadium.
They arrived by car, by motorcycle, by RV, by bus. Given no other option, Southern and Jackson State fans might’ve pulled up in a Big Wheel.
The 1999 showdown between SU and JSU was that important. That year, those two teams played for the right to call themselves The Team of the ‘90s in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
Before a crowd of 62,000, the Jaguars won 26-14. Two months later, in front of 47,621 in a rematch at the SWAC championship game, Southern gave Pete Richardson his third straight title.
At the time, none of this seemed unusual.
Of course, Southern and Jackson State were duking it out for SWAC supremacy. Didn’t they always do that?
For the better part of three decades, three teams - SU, JSU and Grambling - ruled the conference, all but freezing out other members from a shot at the championship.
In the past decade, the once top-heavy SWAC has become the ultimate display of parity, each reigning champion routinely replaced by another.
Don’t believe it? Consider this: Over a 27-year stretch from 1977-2003, a member of The Big Three - Grambling, Southern or Jackson State - won or shared the conference title 24 times.
In the past eight seasons, seven different programs have won the SWAC championship game.
Stop. Think about that. Seven different champions in eight seasons.
Here’s the list: Southern (2003), Alabama State (2004), Grambling (2005), Alabama A&M (2006), Jackson State (2007), Grambling (2008), Prairie View (2009) and Texas Southern (2010).
Sure, the Big Three were still in the thick of it. But these days, their stranglehold on the trophy has slipped.
The proof lies in places like Prairie View, Texas, a picturesque small town that now lies about 15 miles northwest of the Houston outskirts.
You might remember that Prairie View once dominated black college football in the 1950s and early ‘60s, then turned into a national joke. Football fans everywhere knew only one thing about the Panthers: They once lost 80 games in a row.
But in the early 2000s, the university made a hard U-turn. It got serious about football again. It gave out athletic scholarships. It hired a great coach in Henry Frazier III, who took advantage of a talent-rich recruiting base.
As a result, the program’s steady growth culminated with a SWAC title in 2009.
Frazier is gone now, and Baton Rouge native Heishma Northern has taken over. Despite the change, Prairie View will remain a contender. Next year, the university will start construction of a new on-campus football stadium.
“If I don’t see any bulldozers in May, there might be a mutiny going on over there,” Northern joked.
Then there’s Texas Southern, which moves into a brand-new stadium in downtown Houston, sharing the facility with the MLS Dynamo soccer team.
Over the past few seasons, the TSU football team did some building of its own.
Texas Southern - which hadn’t won a SWAC championship since 1968 - hired a strong athletic director in Charles McClelland and a football coach, Johnnie Cole, who had a deep knowledge of the conference.
Last season, with a swarming defense and burly offensive line, the Tigers won that elusive title.
OK, so Cole was fired amid an NCAA investigation (interim coach Kevin Ramsey has replaced him). Still, TSU proved that with the right mix of talent, resources and coaching, it can remain a contender for years to come, so long as it also plays by the rules.
The sea changes aren’t limited to the Western Division.
Remember that in 2009, while Prairie View made its rise to the top, Alabama State was on the rocks.
At one point that year, after a road loss, coach Reggie Barlow returned to Montgomery and found four flat tires on his car. They’d been slashed.
And he’s an ASU alum.
Last summer, Barlow and the Hornets were picked to finish fourth in the Eastern Division. Instead, they finished first, clinching their first trip to the SWAC title game since 2004, when quarterback Tarvaris Jackson helped the Hornets by SU 40-35.
Last year, they came within a touchdown of upsetting TSU, losing 11-6 in the title game.
If recent history is an accurate forecaster, neither team will make a second straight appearance.
These days, the SWAC is very much up for grabs.