The State Farm Bayou Classic wasn't the only sporting event in
Louisiana, sportsman's paradise, over the Thanksgiving weekend.
Last Friday night oyster-bar TVs showed the Ben Franklin-Sacred
Heart schoolgirl volleyball game for the state title. In Baton
Rouge on Friday afternoon LSU defeated Arkansas in football to
earn a place in the SEC championship game. Lord knows there were
Louisianans catching bass and killing deer. But there was
nothing, anywhere in the state, that could match the Bayou
Classic for soul and color, for funk.
The classic, held for the 30th time on Saturday, is the annual
football meeting of two historically black Louisiana
universities, Grambling State and Southern. The game is played on
neutral turf, at the Superdome, the New Orleans football
cathedral where six Super Bowls have been played. The house was
packed, as it always is for this game: 70,000 people, nearly all
of them African-American, many of them Bayou Classic regulars.
They're onto something. Most every year, the game and the weekend
around it are far more entertaining than any Super Bowl
The whole thing is a party, a three-day celebration of football,
black culture, state pride and school loyalty. It seemed that
whenever you tried to cross a street last week, a high school
marching band was parading by, the majorettes black and
beautiful. Street vendors sold Kangol hats and African Shea
Butter skin moisturizer and knockoff Burberry handbags. The plush
lobbies of the Canal Street hotels, ordinarily the province of
white businessmen in starched shirts, were the weekend living
rooms of scores of black families on holiday, looking comfy and
deeply into the whole laissez les bon temps rouler thing.
The weekend had moments of solemnity, most notably around noon on
Friday, during a benediction at a coaches' luncheon for players,
sponsors and boosters. Up on a dais, separated by a half-dozen
administrators, were the two coaches, the bespectacled and trim
Pete Richardson of the Southern Jaguars and the spacious Doug
Williams of the Grambling Tigers. Richardson, an Ohioan, came to
Southern, in Baton Rouge in brackish south Louisiana, in 1993.
Since then the Jaguars have lost only once to Grambling.
Williams, a native son of Louisiana, is a football hero across
the state, particularly in the vicinity of Grambling, in the
woodsy north. He played for Grambling (and famously in the NFL)
and returned to his alma mater in December 1997 to succeed his
coach, the iconic Eddie Robinson. Williams was 4-0 in the Bayou
Classic as a player, but going into last week he was 1-4 coaching
"Southern's a little haughty," Williams said on Friday, escaping
the dais during the salad course. "They're down there in the
capital city. We're just a country team."
At the lunch, which was held in a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency
New Orleans, Richardson was hounded by well-wishers and waiters
with cameras and state troopers with Sharpies. "You get used to
it," the Southern coach said of his annual bout of celebrity.
The players sat at round tables, wearing suits and drinking Coke
out of eight-ounce glass bottles, most of them ignoring the
Marine Corps recruiting cards placed in souvenir coffee mugs. The
weekend was a chance to reach a lot of well-educated black
people, and State Farm and Coca-Cola and the U.S. Marines took
advantage of it, along with scads of others. In a conference room
near the ballroom, dozens of companies and universities had set
up recruiting tables. You could have filled a shopping bag with
brochures about Enterprise car rental, Northrop Grumman and
Lockheed Martin, not to mention Kansas State, Penn State and
Friday night at the Superdome there was the Battle of the Bands
and Greek Step Show. At least 20,000 people were on hand but no
footballers. The coaches had their players sequestered in
suburban hotels. Smart move. The show was not intended to quiet
the heart or any other part of the body.
The Greek component consisted of performances by dance teams
representing each of the Divine Nine, the five fraternities and
four sororities with chapters at many of the country's
historically black colleges. The sisters, some of them impossibly
luscious and wearing outfits that would have made J-Lo blush,
lip-synched to lyrics that sounded like "It's a brand-new dance
called the hooka-looka." Try going to sleep after that.
Nothing in a Michigan-Michigan State halftime show could rival
what the Southern and Grambling band members and cheerleaders did
on Friday night at the Superdome. It was beyond words, really,
except to say it had something to do with percussion, with
catching high notes and with shake-shake-shake,
shake-shake-shake. Who knew that team fight songs could be so
titillating? You had to hear it live to get it.
The French Quarter was packed with Grambling and Southern fans
right through daybreak. Canal Street was an SUV parking lot, and
a man pushing a shopping cart filled with stuffed jaguars and
tigers did a nice business. The comedian Sinbad played the
Saenger Theatre. Public drinking from "go cups" is legal in New
Orleans, and pot smoking seemed to have been decriminalized as
Friday night came and went. The 1 p.m. Saturday kickoff was too
early for many.
The game was wild, frenzied from the start. Grambling came in at
6-0 and Southern at 5-1 in Southwestern Athletic Conference play.
Southern had 15 Bayou Classic wins, Grambling 14. The winner
would secure a spot in the conference title game. Southern scored
on its first drive and Grambling on its first pass. NBC carried
the game. Touchdowns were coming so fast that the network was
able to run promo spots for its new comedy The Tracy Morgan Show
again and again.
Southern led, Grambling led, Southern led, Grambling led. It was
crazy. The ball was in the air so much, the game looked like
Ultimate Frisbee. Jaguars quarterback Quincy Richard threw 42
times, completing 34 passes for 552 yards. Tigers quarterback
Bruce Eugene tossed 48 passes, 26 of them caught, for 409 yards.
Southern won 44-41.
Doug Williams was 1-0 as a Super Bowl quarterback, but he's 1-5
as a Bayou Classic coach. He gathered his players around him in a
still, dank locker room. They could hear the drumbeat of the
celebrating Southern marching band through two steel doors.
"We had a great season," the Grambling coach said. "Don't let
anybody tell you otherwise. I know how you feel, because I feel
the same way."
The players and coaches bowed their heads in prayer. The weekend
had its second solemn moment. The Grambling bus headed north, for
Saturday night was a repeat of Friday night on the ancient
streets of the French Quarter, except there were Southern players
among the revelers. Pete Richardson is known for running a tight
ship, but he gave his kids the night off.
The Southern-Grambling game is not a black version of storied
college rivalries. It is not a black version of Florida-Florida
State. It is a storied college rivalry. "The game is really about
northern Louisiana versus southern Louisiana," Richardson said.
"It's about Southern families and Grambling families. It's about
playing for pride."
On Sunday morning at the Hyatt, at the ungodly hour of 11
o'clock, there was a final Bayou Classic event called the Gospel
Brunch. Many Southern families were there and some Grambling
families too. It was a chance to praise the Lord, to load up on
crawfish and to brag and commiserate, brag and commiserate.
What the two schools' bands and cheerleaders did was beyond
words, really, except to say that it had to do with percussion
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