2023 Football

Road to the Florida Classic: It all started with a comeback

40,000 HBCU football fans showed up to Tampa Stadium for an unforgettable first-ever Florida Classic in 1978.

The stage was set.  It was the first-ever Florida Classic. The Florida A&M Rattlers came into the game at 8-1 and the Bethune Cookman Wildcats were 7-2-1.  As with any game in the B-CU vs FAMU rivalry records simply did not matter. The game that year had finally found a home in Tampa Stadium.  “The Big Sombrero” as it was nicknamed would see Rudy Hubbard’s Rattlers take on Andy Hinson’s Wildcats.

Bethune Cookman was having a successful season.  A win over the Rattlers would be an emphatic cap to the season.  With the season’s only losses coming to Alabama A&M and Jackson State, the Wildcats tied with American International.   B-CU came into the game with consecutive wins over Delaware State and Morris Brown.

FAMU was rolling.  They were coming off an undefeated season in 1977 and had but one loss in 1978, a crushing 24-21 loss to Tennessee State.  They had defeated Tuskegee, Southern, and Alabama A&M leading up to the game.

The 1978 game was a turning point for both schools

The 1978 Florida Classic was a departure from what had been done in the past.  The rivalry game had long outgrown the home stadiums of B-CU and FAMU.  For a decade, the games had been moved around to accommodate the crowds.  FAMU had the luxury of access to Florida State’s Doak Campbell Stadium.  It was a large Division-I stadium able to accommodate the large crowds.  Bethune Cookman used various venues including a historic game in 1974 at the Daytona International Speedway. 

Visionary athletics directors Tank Johnson of B-CU and Hansel Tookes of FAMU agreed to begin the Florida Classic.  The impact of the idea set their legacies on a firm foundation.  It is one of the only classic games in the entire world that is completely owned by the two rivals.  The central Florida location made the game accessible for both fanbases.

40,868 attended the first-ever Florida Classic

It was a new and groundbreaking development for rivals to jointly agree to hold their game at a neutral site and the fans responded.  A crowd of nearly 41,000 loaded into Tampa Stadium to witness the birth of the mainstay for both schools.

Before the Florida Classic moved to Tampa, there had not been much success in Tampa Stadium.  The Buccaneers were 2-24 after their first two years, coming in as an expansion team along with the Seattle Seahawks in 1976.  Bringing in the Florida HBCU rivals meant a rejuvenation of the venue.

The first half was all Wildcats

Everything that could go wrong for FAMU in the first half.  Behind a field goal from Lynn Thompson, who would later become athletics director at Bethune Cookman, the Wildcats took an early 3-0 lead over the Rattlers.  They would tack on two more touchdowns before the half and go into the break with a 17-0 lead over the Rattlers.

Legend has it that FAMU coach Rudy Hubbard was so frustrated that he punched a hole through the chalkboard at halftime.  The room went silent and then he challenged his team to dig down and not let their hopes of making the inaugural NCAA I-AA playoffs go down the drain in Tampa.  The Rattlers would respond.

Florida Classic FAMU Bethune Cookman

Rudy Hubbard and the Rattlers would catapult to winning the 1978 inaugural NCAA I-AA Championship

Chester’s heroics lead Rattlers to improbable Florida Classic win

Behind a heroic effort led by FAMU quarterback Albert Chester, the Rattlers would roll.  On a critical fourth down, Chester would weave through the Wildcats defense to give the Rattlers a crucial first down.  The FAMU offense would put up 27 points in the second half while the defense led by Joe Yates would shut out the Wildcats for the last 30 minutes.  It was a crushing blow to B-CU and a gasp of air for FAMU as they kept their playoff hopes alive.

In the end, the first Florida Classic ended in a 27-17 win for the Rattlers.  Since then, the game for years determined the MEAC champion and has also had NCAA playoff implications.  Season records don’t matter when it comes to this rivalry. Several upsets came at the hands of teams whose only saving grace for their seasons was to defeat their rival.  It has also become some lore and some fact that coaches of both teams feel that a homecoming loss and a Florida Classic loss in the same season are immediate grounds for firing.  Records have shown over time that this is more fact than fiction.

With over two million patrons since its inception, the Florida Blue Florida Classic is one of the most successful athletics events in the entire country. Set for Nov. 18, 2023 and with both the Rattlers and Wildcats sporting 1-1 records, this year’s Florida Classic is shaping up to be another classic matchup, this time with SWAC championship implications.

Future Major League All-Star Vince Coleman played For FAMU

Florida Classic FAMU Bethune Cookman

In 1978, FAMU’s punter and placekicker was two-sport star Vince Coleman. He was an integral part of the Rattlers’ success. He played football for Hubbard and baseball for FAMU’s famed coach Costa “Pop” Kittles. After graduating from FAMU, he went on professionally to play his second sport, which was baseball.

Coleman would battle Ricky Henderson for the title of king of stolen bases. He ended his career with 752 steals. He would also score 849 runs while knocking in 346 RBI.

While at FAMU, Coleman was an All-MEAC kicker in 1980 and 1981. His biggest claim to fame at FAMU was kicking the game-winning field goal in 1979 as the Rattlers defeated the University of Miami Hurricanes 16-13.

Road to the Florida Classic: It all started with a comeback
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