Looking to fill his nonconference football schedule a few summers ago, Southern athletic director Roman Banks set his sights on Florida A&M.
The two programs had a long history together, having played annually for decades in one of black college football’s fiercest rivalries. From standpoints of tradition, travel and gate appeal, it only made sense for Southern and FAMU to play again.
“We did sign a long-term scheduling deal with them,” Banks said Thursday. “You see how important it was for us to launch that relationship, because it was missing for a few years.”
It won’t be missing anymore. Beginning in 2021, the teams will play together in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
Florida A&M’s board of trustees unanimously voted Thursday to leave the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference for the SWAC, joining one of their oldest rivals in what will be an 11-team league.
“Most of us believe this will be a jewel in our conference,” Banks said.
The SWAC formally announced the addition after a special executive meeting of presidents and chancellors.
"This alliance undoubtedly makes all of our institutions stronger," SWAC commissioner Charles McClelland said in a statement. "Many of our member institutions have enjoyed long standing history of competition against Florida A&M in several sports; most notably football.”
The addition of FAMU marks the first expansion for the SWAC since 1999, when it added Alabama A&M and established a championship game for football.
It also connects two longtime rivals in FAMU and Southern, who have plenty in common. They played for the first time in 1941 and met every season from 1946-2001. Though the annual series was suspended, Southern and FAMU have played five times since then — including last Sept. 21, when the Rattlers won at home 27-21 in Tallahassee, Florida.
FAMU is scheduled to complete the home-and-home agreement with a game at 6 p.m. Sept. 12 at A.W. Mumford Stadium.
“We worked hard to get them on our schedule,” Banks said. “They’re scheduled to come back here, though we don’t know if or when that will happen because of COVID-19.”
Florida A&M will remain in the MEAC for one more season.
FAMU athletic director Kortne Gosha proposed the move to the SWAC, citing savings as one of the keys. According to a report from the Tallahassee Democrat, Gosha said this week that the move could cut travel expenses by 30%.
The SWAC’s footprint currently stretches from Texas to Alabama, meaning FAMU can make bus trips for road games instead of flights.
Road games in the MEAC include flights to Washington (Howard), Baltimore (Morgan State) and Dover, Delaware (Delaware State).
Florida A&M was a member of the MEAC from 1979-84 and rejoined the league 1986, staying there except for the 2004 football season, when the program attempted to move up to the FBS level.
Through it all, FAMU maintained rivalries with the likes of SWAC members Prairie View and Grambling, occasionally facing them in the Orange Blossom Classic.
But the SU-FAMU rivalry is especially deep.
Throughout the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, iconic coach Jake Gaither led FAMU against the Jaguars and their own legendary coach, Arnett W. “Ace” Mumford (the two men combined to win 11 black college national championships).
Later, in the 1990s, the SU-FAMU game was often a showdown between the best team in the MEAC, coached by Billy Joe, and the best team in the SWAC, led by Pete Richardson.
Those games often played out in front of big crowds, and the fan bases shared equal amounts of trash-talk and mutual respect.
"While we have had a long-standing relationship competing in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Florida A&M's impending move to the Southwestern Athletic Conference is one that is in the best interest of the University," school president Larry Robinson said in a statement. "The positive impacts on student-athletes, cost savings, re-establishment of long-term rivalries and opportunities to generate revenue are among the key factors in this decision."