The time for an HBCU football playoff has come.
The Cricket Celebration Bowl this past weekend was everything it was built up to be. It is the purest of an HBCU national championship that has ever existed. For decades, the HBCU national champion was decided strictly by polls. Near the middle of the century, the winner of the annual Orange Blossom Classic was declared the champion and was echoed by the most respected news service covering black college football, the Pittsburgh Courier.
The legends of HBCU coaching, Eddie Robinson, Jake Gaither, AW Mumford, John Merritt and others won their national championships this way. While HBCUs were in D-II, this was the only comparable way to match the schools together to determine a champion. The Pelican Bowl between the established SWAC and upstart MEAC was the blueprint for what we have today.
In 1978, the MEAC and SWAC moved up to NCAA I-AA. The conferences and their institutions were granted access to the smaller school grouping of the NCAA’s highest division. FAMU was in the SIAC and was not initially granted access to I-AA. It would have to appeal the NCAA’s denial and have a preliminary acceptance to the MEAC in order to gain access to I-AA.
That year, both FAMU and Jackson State made it into the inaugural field of the NCAA I-AA (FCS) playoffs. We all know the story from there. FAMU and JSU played a tough game, with the FAMU escaping with the wind and then cruising to the inaugural NCAA I-AA championship. FAMU head coach Rudy Hubbard contends that the JSU game was actually the national championship because they both knew whomever won between the two would dominate the championship game.
HBCU football classics have maximized profitability and interest
For a few years, HBCUs endeavored to make it into the playoffs. At some point, the schools realized that their own classic would make more money than playing in the NCAA playoffs. The Bayou Classic, the Turkey Day Classic, and the Florida Classic all were scheduled on Thanksgiving weekend, which coincided with the first week of the FCS playoffs. The schools knew that it was much more important to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars through the classic games than it was to make the NCAA playoffs.
FAMU and Bethune-Cookman, with encouragement from the MEAC during the mid-1980s decided that it would be beneficial to move the Florida Classic a week earlier and allow the conference to regain automatic qualifier status into the NCAA FCS Playoffs. FAMU coach Billy Joe dominated the conference during that span and made it all the way to the semifinal game of the NCAA playoffs in 1998. MEAC programs South Carolina State and NC A&T won a playoff game apiece in the 1980s and 1990s.
Along the way, a fledgling effort that turned out to be the predecessor to the Celebration Bowl was formed. It was called the Heritage Bowl. It ran from 1991-1999 and was positioning itself to be the defacto national championship game. The issue with the loosely organized effort was credibility from the start.
The inaugural Celebration Bowl was held in Atlanta. Played in Mercedes Benz Stadium, the event was supported by both Division-I HBCU conferences and had all the ingredients to be the bonafide national championship game. The MEAC and SWAC were in concert in supporting the event, which was conceptualized by then-MEAC Commissioner Dr. Dennis Thomas and executed by ESPN Events under the direction of John Grant. The director of the Celebration Bowl is a major key to its success.
The emergence of the Celebration Bowl
John Grant for years facilitated the Atlanta Football Classic. That contest, in which Bank of America became the headline sponsor, was one of the most exciting HBCU classics of the season. Being centrally located in Atlanta, HBCUs from all over the US could attend with easy airport access. Eventually, several factors contributed to the decline of the Atlanta Football Classic. But Grant pivoted with the creation of the Celebration Bowl as ESPN would jump in with both feet and put their coffers of resources behind it. The game is actually broadcast on ABC, another in the family of the Disney conglomerate.
Annually, it has provided an opportunity to declare a clear HBCU football champion. The surrounding job fair, community service events and ancillary events make a great experience for the players. After a second consecutive loss in the Celebration Bowl, Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders alluded to what I had been thinking for some time. “This (Celebration Bowl) is wonderful for experience for our young men. We need more of this, they need to expand it,” Sanders said.
Meanwhile, in the NCAA FCS world, there seemed to be a clear snub in FAMU being left out of the FCS Playoffs even though they had a better record than several of the teams who attained bids. Just like last season, the Rattlers went 9-2, only losing to Jackson State and the University of North Carolina of the FBS division. Again Sanders would chime in. “How in the world did FAMU not make the FCS playoffs,” said Sanders. “They lost to us, the SWAC champions and a Power Five school, then win nine straight games. Somebody help me understand that.”
The obvious next move for Grant would be to mimic what the FBS schools do with a four-team playoff. It would provide additional revenue to more schools and garner an even bigger buildup to the Celebration Bowl. With over 2.4 million viewers for this year’s Celebration Bowl and a record attendance, the formula is solid.
Like the FBS playoffs, now is the time to expand
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Celebration Bowl. But, with HBCUs struggling with funds to make budgets, an additional in-house money game would go a long way in HBCUs utilizing their own draw to rectify shortfalls. The SWAC and MEAC need to consider authorizing a four-team playoff, with the NCAA’s blessing. The top four teams would vie for the crown jewel, the Celebration Bowl.
When asked about it at the Celebration Bowl, Grant had a reasonable response.
“We have the national championship game which is the Celebration Bowl. It is unlike any other. Any adjustments or additions would have to be generated at the conference level. In a sense we have a playoff on the SWAC side with the SWAC Championship,” Grant said.
The gathering of not just fans from the participating schools in the Celebration Bowl, but thousands of other HBCU alumni, proudly wearing their school colors is a sight to see. It was like a giant multi-school homecoming. A family reunion of sorts. Let’s hope we can find a way to capture more of this in the future.
One possible solution for HBCU football would have the top two teams from each conference play in semi-final games the week following the SWAC Championship. This is where the Orange Blossom Classic could turn into a major attraction, as one of the playoff games. The other game would need to be in the west like New Orleans or Houston. The top team in the MEAC would play the second team in the SWAC, while the SWAC’s top team would play the second team in the MEAC. The winners would meet in Atlanta for the Celebration Bowl.
The goal is not to diminish the Celebration Bowl, but to enhance it by making the buildup even larger. More importantly, like the FBS has learned with expansion to the playoff field coming in 2024, there are millions to be made with a playoff.
At that point, FCS HBCU Football would not have to wait to be disrespected like FAMU was in being overlooked this season for teams with far worse records. It’s part of the reason the Orange Blossom Classic was established to begin with.