His most important victory at Southern University was only minutes old. The team buses hadn’t started yet. Inside the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., where the Jaguars upset Alabama State 26-23 on Nov. 12, players hadn’t even peeled off their uniforms.
Yes, quite naturally, Stump Mitchell was proud of the Jaguars’ win. But just moments after the game ended, his grin had already turned into a scowl.
Mitchell’s eyes shot fire as he screamed into a microphone, all but challenging Southern and Grambling fans to show up for the big game. That, of course, being the showdown with Grambling in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Saturday.
“I know that’s going to be a tough game at the Bayou Classic. No question about it,” Mitchell said.
“But, hey, folks: Alabama A&M and Alabama State had 56,000 (fans). They had 56,000,” he repeated, yelling into the microphone.
Mitchell was speaking — no, shouting — about the Magic City Classic, the annual rivalry game between Alabama A&M and Alabama State. And actually, Mitchell’s number was way off. It was way short.
On Oct. 29 in Birmingham, Ala., the Magic City Classic drew 66,473 fans.
The Bayou Classic hasn’t seen a crowd that large since 2004, and judging purely from attendance figures, the Magic City Classic has surpassed the big game in New Orleans.
“Let’s show them what Grambling and Southern can put in the Superdome,” Mitchell said.
So, what happened?
For years, fans and publicists used to refer to the Bayou Classic as the Super Bowl of black college football. It was, without much doubt, the most important game in the Southwestern Athletic Conference each season.
The problem is, in recent years, the big game hasn’t been very big.
Dreamed up by two Grambling legends, coach Eddie Robinson and publicity genius Collie J. Nicholson, the Bayou Classic began in 1974 at old Tulane Stadium.
Grambling coach Doug Williams remembers it well. After all, he was in the middle of the action, being the Tigers’ starting quarterback and all.
Though he threw an interception on Grambling’s first drive, Williams also fired the first touchdown pass in Classic history, to Dwight Scales. They led Grambling to a 21-0 win.
But in a sense, both schools were winners. They put on a show before 76,753 fans, and an annual tradition was born.
“A lot of times when I traveled, the folks always used to say they didn’t know the name of the game,” Williams said. “But they just knew about the game with the two bands around Thanksgiving. And that in itself speaks volumes, and I think it’s important that we keep the Bayou Classic going.”
Clearly, the game needs a boost.
Maybe crowds have shriveled because of the economic downturn, which forces families to take a hard look at their entertainment spending (the Bayou Classic, after all, is for many people a weekend-long affair, with hotel stays and restaurant bills to go along with ticket costs).
Maybe it’s another long-lasting ripple effect of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Bayou Classic exceptionally hard (crowds haven’t been the same since the storm hit in 2005).
Maybe it’s none of that.
Attendance at last year’s Bayou Classic was listed at 43,494 — lowest of all time. By the second half, much of the terrace level was so lifeless that a parade of tumbleweeds could’ve rolled through the aisles without ever hitting a pair of legs.
It was probably no coincidence that Southern got thumped by Grambling 38-17 to finish with a 2-9 overall record, the worst in school history.
Translation: Maybe, for the Classic to succeed, it needs Southern to succeed.
Consider this: From 2000-04, the average attendance was 70,198. During that same time, Pete Richardson’s teams posted a 40-19 overall record, with two berths in the SWAC Championship Game.
From 2005-09, the average attendance was 53,428. During that time, Richardson’s teams went 28-24, with two losing seasons and no trips to the title game.
“I think it’s really Southern University,” said R.L. Stockard, a former newspaper correspondent and SWAC public relations director, who has attended every Classic since ’74. “It may be many years before we recover, to get to the point where the game used to be. But I still think the wins and losses contribute heavily to the attendance at the Bayou Classic. I really think so.”
Of course, there were other factors in play.
The event took a massive blow when Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005, forcing a one-year relocation to Houston’s Reliant Stadium, which welcomed 53,214 fans.
The 2006 meeting — the first post-Katrina Classic in the Superdome — drew what was then the smallest crowd in the game’s history (47,136).
Still, after that, people had plenty of incentives to see the show.
Two years later, in 2008, Grambling and Southern played with a potential berth in the SWAC Championship Game at stake. Ultimately, Grambling clinched the Western Division with a win, but a Southern victory would’ve forced a three-way coin toss between SU, Grambling and Prairie View.
That, of course, would’ve taken SWAC nuttiness to a new stratosphere — which, for the SWAC, is saying something.
But even the possibility of a surreal, stranger-than-fiction coin flip wasn’t enough to pack the place. A crowd of only 59,874 showed up.
It’s worth noting that a potential walkup crowd — often a big portion of Bayou Classic ticket sales — wasn’t much of a crowd at all that year, perhaps shooed away by dreary, rainy weather in New Orleans (yes, we all know the Superdome has a roof, but black college football is driven as much by the surrounding atmosphere as it is about the game).
But after that, the excuses start to fade.
So, what happened? Why has attendance sagged in recent years?
“I think the economy has something to do with it. I really do,” Stockard said. “And ... I think you had people in New Orleans who went to that game, and it was the only black college football game they attended all year. For whatever reason, some of them aren’t going anymore.
“But I would say, more than anything else, you have to start Southern University’s win-and-loss record.”
Lately, it has certainly seemed that way.