Southern University and Florida A&M fought tooth and nail on the football field, and beyond, in one of the HBCU’s longest annual rivalries.
By the late 1990’s the series, which began in 1946, got so heated the schools decided to break it off after the 2001 game. The Rattlers then found a way to symbolize what would become a “cooling off” period rather than an end.
As opposing players shook hands and Jaguar fans ran onto Tallahassee’s Bragg Field after Southern’s 17-14 overtime victory, the sprinklers came on and stayed on as FAMU leveled one last dig at its old adversary.
“You could expect anything when you go to Florida A&M; that was nothing new,” sniffed then Southern color analyst Henry Baptiste, who watched the event unfold. “I remember one time they wouldn’t let us in the dressing room. People were pretty upset, but they got over it.”
The series was only extinguished temporarily; the teams have played five times since. Now, they will be locked together on a more permanent basis.
When the SWAC football schools gather in Birmingham, Alabama, on Tuesday for the 2021 Media Day, Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman will be among the participants, having left the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference for what has always seemed a more natural affiliation.
The move has left all parties smiling over strengthened brands, increased exposure, more economical travel and some of the best football rivalries HBCUs have to offer.
“They joined July 1 and it was like Christmas in July to add brands such as these,” SWAC Commissioner Charles McClelland said. “It doesn’t happen every day.”
FAMU is one of the elite Black College programs with 15 HBCU titles and one Division I-AA title (1978), while Bethune won HBCU national titles in 2010 and 2015. The teams evenly split 16 of the MEAC titles since both joined in 1979.
The move for FAMU has been a subject of dreams and speculation for decades, especially among Southern fans who consider the Rattlers as the Jaguars most favored rival after Grambling and Jackson State. Southern athletic director Roman Banks has been trying desperately in recent years to restart the series.
The teams played in 2007-08 and 2011-12 and had a two-year deal for 2019-20. Southern lost 27-21 in 2019 but the return game was wiped out when the COVID-19 pandemic forced an abbreviated SWAC-only spring season. But the teams are set for a fall 2021 meeting on Nov. 6 Baton Rouge.
“That’s a game our fans desire,” Banks said. “When that game decides who wins the conference, that’s absolutely on fire for the fan bases.
“It’s big for our conference. It makes us one of the premier FCS conferences in Division I. It creates more excitement about rivalries this conference has always been known for. Just attendance alone, there’s no comparison.”
Southern’s history with Bethune-Cookman is far less frequent. The teams haven’t met since 2006, when Southern defeated the Wildcats 30-29 in the Gateway Classic at Jacksonville, Fla.
Both schools will join the SWAC East Division with Alcorn State moving to the West, intensifying that burgeoning Southern rivalry. Banks and FAMU athletic director Kortne Gosha said the schools will work hard to play each other as nonconference foes when they rotate off the schedule of league games.
Any trace of bitterness from the days when Southern’s Pete Richardson and FAMU’s Billy Joe couldn’t agree on swapping game tape appears to be past, outweighed by what the participants have to gain.
“Our two brands, there aren’t many like it, with all due respect to my other HBCU peers,” Gosha said. “There are a few above the rest, especially in football pedigree. We have to play every year. The economics are too strong not to. You take the Rattlers and the Jaguars and it’s going to be standing room only.”
Gosha proposed the move to the SWAC, citing savings of up to 30% on travel expenses. The SWAC’s footprint now stretches from Texas to Florida, prompting a Miami Herald writer to call the new alignment the “Black SEC.”
Florida A&M’s board of trustees unanimously in June to make the move. Bethune-Cookman, a private institution in Daytona Beach, Florida., followed suit a few weeks later, each ending a 41-year membership in the MEAC. It’s the SWAC's first expansion since 1999, when it added Alabama A&M and established a championship game for football.
FAMU can make bus trips for road games instead of flights as far as Washington (Howard), Baltimore (Morgan State) and Dover, Del. (Delaware State). Through it all, FAMU maintained rivalries with the likes of SWAC members Prairie View and Grambling, occasionally facing them in the Orange Blossom Classic.
“It’s already had a significant impact on sponsorships, the interest to see and watch, recruiting and more media rights partners want to do more,” McClelland said. “We are the largest Division I HBCU conference, and we have the 12 best bands.”
Reggie Flood, host of the radio talk show Jaguar Journal, likened the new setup as a homecoming.
“For years it’s been talked about,” Flood said. “We always felt FAM should have been in SWAC in the first place.”