The birth of the Bayou Classic, a New Orleans tradition
For much of the 20th century, the world of black college football ran parallel to — and was overshadowed by — that of “big-time” gridiron institutions like LSU and Tulane. But in 1974, the Crescent City was introduced to the illustrious, historic and vibrant football tradition of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities when teams from Grambling and Southern universities — squads that shared arguably the greatest black college football rivalry in the nation — clashed in Tulane Stadium for the first annual Bayou Classic. The city didn’t just get treated to the best of HBCU football, either. The lead-up to the game included a week of beauty pageants, luncheons, dinners, lectures and, of course, the incomparable Grambling and Southern marching bands. Wrote Louisiana Weekly reporter Bobby Hall, “The Bayou Classic is a Bowl Game by itself.”
Forty-four years later, the grand tradition is stronger than ever. The event survived a few lean years after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, when the teams had to play elsewhere and the Grambling program nearly fell apart. But in 2016, nearly 68,000 fans attended the game, about 30,000 took in the high-flying Greek step show and Battle of the Bands, and hundreds packed the House of Blues for a gospel brunch. All in all, an estimated 200,000 visitors arrived to spend a reported $50 million to boost the local economy — and participate in what has become a New Orleans tradition.
- The first official Bayou Classic was in 1974, but the Grambling Tigers and Southern Jaguars started their rivalry way back in 1932, when the squads kicked up a dusty field at Monroe for a 20-0 victory for Southern. Southern owned Grambling at the beginning, claiming 12 wins in the first 13 meetings.
- Before landing in New Orleans for the Classic, the Tiger-Jags rivalry moved from location to location each year, although for the majority of the clashes, the squads traded home fields. The last non-Classic meeting, in 1973, took place in Shreveport.
- The Grambling-Southern game hasn’t been played each and every year. Several years were skipped, including during World War II and a decadelong run between 1949-1958.
- As it stands now, the all-time series rests at 37-31 in favor of Grambling. However, the Bayou Classic record is closer, with Grambling just edging out the Jags, 22-21, after a 52-30 Tiger triumph in 2016.
- The first Bayou Classic in 1974 was a less-than-stellar event on the field. Turnovers, miscues and sloppy play made for an ugly game dominated by Grambling, 21-0. The Tigers used a potent run game to salt away the game. How shoddy was the play? “The battle of the century,” penned Bobby Hall, “really wasn’t any battle at all. … The game wasn’t anything to write home about.”
- That first game served as a coming-out party for freshman Grambling quarterback Doug Williams. After starting the season at No. 4 on the QB depth chart, Williams played under center against Southern and, although his stats weren’t superb — including three interceptions — his cool demeanor, along with timely strikes when needed — he did the job on the biggest of stages.
- Williams would go on to have a stellar career in the NFL, including a Super Bowl MVP and win with the Redskins. After his playing career, Williams took the reins as Grambling’s head coach.
- The official attendance for the 1974 contest was 76,753, a record attendance at the time for a college game between two HBCUs, and about $300,000 in game revenue was produced. A representative from the event’s promotion and management company told the T-P, “It was an entire weekend, it wasn’t just a football game. It was a happening.”
- Although Grambling dominated the game, it was the Southern marching band that shined in the Battle of Bands. “It’s not that the Grambling band did not play well — they did,” T-P contributing writer Joyce Davis wrote. “They played very well. But Southern’s Jaguar band did more than just play. They put on a show, and it was their show all the way.”
- While Robinson had been already ensconced at Grambing for roughly three decades by 1974, Southern’s head coach, Charlie Bates, was in only his third season at the helm of the Jaguars. Bates, a former All-America defensive end at Alabama A&M, installed his juggernaut wishbone running attack at Southern — reportedly the first HBCU to ever use the complicated, multi-prong ground attack — but in the first Bayou Classic, a smothering Tiger defense stonewalled the Jags, who only gained 134 yards on the ground.
- On the Friday before the game, a grand parade wound its way from Elk Place, down Canal Street and ending at the Rivergate exhibition hall, where a pre-game rally was held.
- The first Bayou Classic was dedicated to the memory of longtime Louisiana Weekly sports editor Jim Hall, who had died the previous July.
- In 1974, after Grambling blanked Southern in the Bayou Classic, it advanced to the Pelican Bowl two weeks later in New Orleans, which served as a de facto HBCU national championship. The Tigers beat South Carolina State, 28-7.
- For many years, an important facet of Classic week was the Miss Bayou Classic Pageant. The initial one took place in 1976 — with Pamela Chenault from Grambling earning the first crown — but the pageant was discontinued after the 2001 version, which saw Southern’s Rashaune Payton take the crown.
- The Bayou Classic trophy that was awarded to the winner for more than 25 years was donated to the Smithsonian Institution after the trophy was retired following the 41st Classic. The donation was official made in 2015.
N.O. DNA: In a state that was shackled by Jim Crow for decades and riven along racial and social lines, the Classic has become enmeshed in the political and cultural reality of Louisiana. Sure, it celebrates a rich, long-running football rivalry, but it also carries a larger meaning than the typical football game. Author Tom Aiello, when discussing the 1974 Classic, wrote in his definitive history of the game, “The Bayou Classic wasn’t just a football game. It was a happening, and that happening, as it turned out, was a culmination of sorts — a theater for a variety of different cultural, political, and athletic negotiations that gave the game its meaning, its significance.”