We are days away from pigs flying.
We are days away from hell freezing over.
We are a couple of days from what was once unimaginable becoming reality when Baton Rouge’s two Division I football programs take the field Saturday as Southern goes to South Baton Rouge to take on LSU.
Is this your average FCS-vs-Power 5 matchup you see this time of the year? On paper, perhaps. However, the history — on and off the field — between the two colleges, along with the city they share, makes this a little deeper than other “money games” you will see on the slate.
There is now a concerted call for unity in Baton Rouge with the colleges joining hands for charitable events.
There was a similar call for unity in 2003 when LSU won its first national title since integration and Southern winning another Black College National Championship. The city was showered with purple, Columbia blue and gold as both teams paraded to the State Capitol.
It was a great time for the city, and it seemed like the long-entrenched divides were going to ease away with each gridiron victory by the Mighty Jaguars and the Fighting Tigers.
Nowadays, it seems Baton Rouge is more divided than ever. In 2003, there was just the East Baton Rouge School System and private schools.
In the years after 2003, suburbs like Zachary, Baker and Central broke away from EBRSS to form their own independent school districts. Now, suburban neighborhoods south and east of LSU in the parish want to break away and form the City of St. George.
A second attempt to break away succeeded, but the break-up has been messy and is currently in the courts.
The flight of white residents to Livingston and eastern Ascension parishes that turned Billy Cannon’s and Bob Petit’s alma mater of Istrouma High School from once all-white to all-Black was followed by the flight of Black residents to those same suburbs.
If young white and Black folks didn’t move to Livingston or Ascension, they completely left the state to Houston, Dallas and other promising job markets.
Both universities list Houston as their largest alumni base outside of Louisiana.
Portions of the city are beaten down and depressed, including portions of North Baton Rouge and South Baton Rouge. The areas between Downtown Baton Rouge and the LSU campus, the oldest Black neighborhoods in the city, are among those places along with areas between Southern and Florida Boulevard (an unofficial boundary between the northern and southern parts of the city).
The Great Baton Rouge Flood of 2016 did not do the city any favors, further depressing already-dilapidated portions of the city.
However, there’s a silver lining: Saturday nights in the fall.
For generations, fans of the Jaguars and Tigers rode the emotional rollercoaster of ups and downs of their teams. The fans have gone through the gamut, from improbable comebacks to seasons of dominance to seasons of discontent.
In the middle of the 20th century, the Tigers saw Paul Dietzel win a national championship in 1958 with the help of the legendary Chinese Bandits and another Southeastern Conference title in 1961. Across town, A.W. Mumford had Southern rolling with a fifth Black college national championship in 1960.
The programs spent the next decades flirting with success until Southern hired Pete Richardson in 1993 and LSU hired Nick Saban in 2000. Ironically, Richardson and Saban each lost games coaching against their future employers in Shreveport, Louisiana: Richardson’s Winston-Salem State squad lost to Southern in 1992 and Nick Saban’s Michigan State team lost to LSU in the 1995 Independence Bowl.
Richardson’s Jaguars were an FCS power during his 17-year career, and Saban’s 4-year stint at LSU turned the Tigers into a national power.
The schools combine for nine Pro Football Hall of Famers, but it’s the ties between the players that bind the programs under the surface. Several players from both schools share family and/or school ties, growing up either as teammates or rivals from Pop Warner through the high school ranks.
Richardson’s early years at Southern were bolstered by the quarterback play of Eric Randall. Eric’s younger brother, Marcus, is forever etched into LSU lore for “The Bluegrass Miracle.” Former LSU All-American and current ESPN personality Marcus Spears prepped at Southern Lab before playing for the Tigers, and Spears comes from a Southern-heavy family.
In 2015, LSU player Travin Dural and Southern player Randall Menard — cousins – rescued a trapped motorist whose vehicle landed upside-down in a waterless ditch.
As the teams get together Saturday, fans must take into consideration that this might not happen again for a while. The SEC adding Texas and Oklahoma to its ranks means LSU might have fewer open dates to schedule in the future.
The SWAC added Florida A&M and Bethune Cookman a year ago, and Southern does have other opportunities for lucrative games to complement its conference schedule.
There is hope this game spurs a kind of renaissance in the city, while there are also doubts anything will change.
Just be happy that you saw the pigs fly and witnessed hell freezing over.
Eat some food.
Tailgate. Swap some stories.
Enjoy the silver lining.