By Alvin Hollins Jr
Special to HBCU Sports
When the inaugural Celebration Bowl kicks off in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, December 19, it will be the 26th postseason football bowl game pitting teams from HBCUs, joining a line of such bowl games and major classic contests which date back into the 1920s.
Unlike the previous HBCU Bowl games staged over the years, the Celebration Bowl will take a giant leap forward in the evolution of the Black College Football brand, particularly with the corporate endorsement of ESPN, the Worldwide Leader in Sports providing premium national exposure for the next six years, beginning with prime coverage on ABC.
In addition, with the securing of the conference champions for the length of the six-year contract, each league will receive up to $1 million to distribute to their respective champions, as well as to other league members.
Finally, to assure first-rate on-site game management, as well as local marketing and sponsorship solicitation, the event will have as a major partner, the 100 Black Men of Atlanta, which has successfully staged the Atlanta Football Classic since 1989, and whose members are deeply involved in all aspects of Georgia’s Capital City.
The Celebration Bowl then, is a true celebration of the long-running tradition that is Black College Football – a legacy that extends back prior to the start of the 20th Century.
In fact, the first-ever HBCU game was played on December 27, 1892, on the front lawn of Livingstone (N.C.) College, against visiting Biddle College (now Johnson C. Smith) in the snow.
Biddle won that first game, 5-0, getting help from the snow, which covered the boundary markers, and sympathetic officials, which overturned an apparent Livingstone touchdown on a fumble recovery.
From that humble beginning 123 years ago, HBCU Football blossomed into a long-running success story, which produced Pro Football Hall of Fame players; College Hall of Fame players and coaches, as well as some of greatest teams in American college football history.
Here is a look at HBCU Bowl and Classic history:
MEAC vs. SWAC
Since the Celebration Bowl is the latest incarnation of the ultimate battle for supremacy and bragging rights between the nation’s two Division I HBCU conferences – the MEAC and the SWAC – let’s take a look back at previous bowl contests involving the two leagues.
Just for the record, the SWAC holds a 12-3 lead in the previous bowl showdowns in history:
HERITAGE BOWL(1991-99): SWAC 6, MEAC 3
This game began in Fort Lauderdale in 1991, pitting North Carolina A&T against Alabama State. The ASU Hornets won that first game, 36-13, setting the stage for the SWAC to continue its’ dominance, with six wins in the nine games.
The 1992 game was played on New Year’s Day at Florida A&M University at the behest of then FAMU President Frederick Humphries, when financial support for the game fell through in south Florida.
In 1993, the game moved to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, where it was played through 1999, changing title sponsors from Alamo Rental Cars to Jim Walter Homes during its’ nine-year run.
The game ended after the 1999 season, as the MEAC was committed to the NCAA FCS playoffs, often placing two teams in that postseason tournament, leaving the SWAC champion to face the second or third place MEAC squad, which killed the concept of a Black College title game.
FREEDOM BOWL ALL-STAR GAME (1984-86): SWAC 3, MEAC 0
@ This All-Star game was played in Atlanta, showcasing the top seniors from the two leagues, affording the players exposure to professional scouts leading up to the pro football drafts the following spring.
Since the traditional college all-star games selected just a few, if any HBCU seniors, this game was heralded as a chance for overlooked players to workout combine-style for a full week under the eyes of talent scouts from the American and Canadian leagues.
PELICAN BOWL (1972; 1974-75): SWAC 3, MEAC 0
@ Played in New Orleans all three years, the Pelican Bowl was actually the first MEAC-SWAC bowl matchup, as the younger MEAC had just begun operating in 1970, while the older, established SWAC had been running since the 1920s.
Grambling played in the first two games (1972, 1974), and Southern in the final game (1975), with the SWAC clubs winning all three games.
OTHER HBCU BOWLS
Close to 20-plus bowls involving HBCUs were held from the 1920s through the 1970s and early 1980s.
Many of those events were short-lived, some opening and closing in one year, others lasting two to three years, while still others enjoyed longer runs, but like the others, faded into history when sponsorship dollars couldn’t be found.
The earliest of the HBCU Bowls was the Prairie View Bowl (also called the Bayou City Bowl), hosted by Prairie View A&M University in Houston, Texas from 1929 to 1962.
Prairie View, which was a Black College gridiron power for most of the first half of the 20th Century, would face off against an invited opponent on New Year’s Day.
That concept led to a number of schools hosting postseason events, but none was more enduring and captured the imagination of HBCU fans than Florida A&M University’s Orange Blossom Classic.
Founded in Jacksonville, Florida in 1933, the OBC became the literal “Granddaddy” of all HBCU Classics moving forward, when the event moved to Miami in 1947.
The Classic became the first event featuring African American athletes in the recently-completed Orange Bowl Stadium, and by the 1960s, the event drew crowds in excess of 40,000, half of whom were White fans who were drawn to the novelty of Black College football and the competing marching bands, which were a show all to themselves.
In 1983, the NFL Hall of Fame honored the OBC for “its showcasing of Black College Football talent” for pro scouts, who often signed players to contracts after that game.
The OBC suffered the same fate of all other events of the kind, as sponsorship dollars became harder to come by, and with the advent of the NFL into the South Florida market in the mid 1960s, the novelty of Black College football faded with the rise of integration.
Plus, with the move of FAMU and other leading HBCUs to Division I in the late 1970s, the OBC had to be moved to a regular season format to allow teams to be eligible for NCAA playoffs, ending the run of a signature event.
But the spirit of the OBC and Prairie View games live on today in the various HBCU Classics, such as the Bayou Classic (Southern vs. Grambling in New Orleans), Florida Classic (FAMU vs. Bethune-Cookman in Orlando), Magic City Classic (Alabama State vs. Alabama A&M in Birmingham), the Atlanta Football Classic (September) and the Circle City Classic (Indianapolis, October)