There was a time when conventional wisdom held that, when it came to the Bayou Classic, records didn’t matter. Fans would fill the Mercedes-Benz Superdome regardless.
And they did, making Thanksgiving weekend in New Orleans a must for those wanting to both see and be seen — the model for such events around the country.
But times change and, with one program or the other down in recent years — sometimes both — turmoil inside and outside the athletic departments of both schools and even a post-Hurricane Katrina malaise, that hasn’t been the case.
Some even suggested the Classic needed a major shakeup — namely, dropping Grambling and finding another foe to face Southern.
That didn’t happen.
And now, with the SWAC Western Division title on the line for both teams Saturday for the first time since 2003, game officials are looking for a decided upswing from the relatively meager turnouts of late.
“Our presale is higher than our final total of last year,” said Dottie Belletto, head of New Orleans Convention Company Inc., which is in its fourth year of serving as the event’s management company. “The game and the excitement level is coming back.”
That seems particularly true at Grambling, which last year suffered through the embarrassment of a player revolt after the firing of Doug Williams. It resulted in the Tigers forfeiting a game at Jackson State and a final record of 1-11, including a 40-17 loss to Southern in the season finale.
But under first-year coach Broderick Fobbs, Grambling has rebounded to a 7-4 record (7-1 in the SWAC), and not even Thursday’s no-confidence vote on interim President Cynthia Warrick by the school’s faculty senate seems to have put a damper on the alumni’s football enthusiasm.
“No matter what else is going on, football and the band are going to be recognized as the front porch of Grambling State University,” said Eric Eaton, special assistant to the president and the school’s representative on the Bayou Classic Executive Committee. “I think next weekend will be a time for all Grambling folks to gather together, put aside whatever differences we might be having and to enjoy the things that bring us together. The stability Coach Fobbs has brought to the program has definitely helped.”
Eaton said ticket sales from the Grambling end were about 10,000 higher than last year.
Southern Athletic Director William Broussard said he understood why his school’s excitement about the Bayou Classic may have waned.
“Fans want more entertainment and value for their dollar,” he said. “If the game isn’t competitive or if there are problems inside the school, then people don’t care as much. But when both teams are going well, you’ve got a game that everybody wants to see. Passions are lot more robust when there’s a championship on the line.”
While Southern and Grambling have taken care of business on the field, Belletto said her firm is working to improve the entire experience.
The Thanksgiving Day parade will run from the Superdome to the French Market on Thursday. On Friday, along with the usual traditional career fair at the Hyatt, there will be two “Shark Tank”-like contests to award aspiring entrepreneurs. Black Enterprise will decide the winners among three-minute videos pitching business ideas. The top entries will win travel and free registration at the 2015 Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference in Atlanta.
Also, Capital One Bank will award $60,000 in grants to the winners of a Louisiana-based small businesses competition demonstrating the best growth plans. On Wednesday, the U.S. Black Chamber of Commerce will conduct a solutions series seminar, with representatives from firms such as IBM, Google and American Express on hand.
“We want to put young people in the same room with the decision-makers,” Belletto said. “It’s vital that they get the opportunity to network and interact with them.”
Also, the Friday night Battle of the Bands has been improved, Belletto said, by re-arranging the staging and adding an LED light show.
Besides being for a divisional title and a trip to the SWAC title game Dec. 6 in Houston, this year’s Bayou Classic will have another special significance: Each school has won 20 times since the first classic was played at old Tulane Stadium.
After this game, the trophy that goes to the winner will be retired and sent to the Smithsonian’s new African-American Museum in Washington, where it will be part of a permanent display commemorating HBCU athletics.
Reasons like that, Broussard said, are why suggestions that any other teams play in the Bayou Classic are non-starters.
“The Bayou Classic is Southern and Grambling,” he said. “If you put anybody else in it, it becomes just another game.”