MikeCheck: Southern Heritage Classic a boon for Memphis, an early ‘bowl game’ for Tennessee State-Jackson State rivalry

MEMPHIS – Despite preparing to experience the Southern Heritage Classic for the first time as a head coach, Jackson State’s John Hendrick sounds like a sage veteran when breaking down the transformative impact this game has on everyone involved.

Hendrick knows the history of the annual rivalry, with Jackson State having lost six straight and 13 of the last 14 against Tennessee State.

Hendrick knows the future of the showdown is solidified, with both JSU and TSU having recently signed extensions with the Southern Heritage Classic to meet in Memphis – literally the midway point from their respective campuses in Jackson and Nashville – for the next four years.

Most importantly, he knows the magnitude of the present moment for players and fans on both sides.

“This is a big-time atmosphere,” Hendrick told Grind City Media this week. “When you play college football on any level, you want to play in games when the stands are almost full and you’ve got the bands going, and you’ve got crowds even outside and people are excited about watching you play.”

Big-time atmosphere? Check.

A full house of JSU and TSU fans expected at the 61,000-seat Liberty Bowl Stadium? Check.

JSU’s Sonic Boom of the South and TSU’s Aristocrat of Bands cranking back and forth? Check.

Overflow crowds of tailgaters outside, swelling stadium grounds attendance to nearly 100,000. Check.

Check. Check. Check. And check.

It’s an electrifying environment. It’s one of those games on the schedule where that’s all you hear about all year long from the fans and alumni … There are going to be 60,000 people there. We just want to go down there and play good football.

TSU Coach Rod Reed

Welcome to the 30th annual Southern Heritage Classic, where even a relatively pivotal, season-defining football game between two major HBCU programs takes a backseat to a slate of concerts, pageants, community service initiatives, band performances and more that will rock Memphis this weekend.

Anticipation for Saturday’s game is more palpable than ever after last year’s showdown was canceled by lightning and inclement weather delays that left fans and both teams waiting at the stadium for hours. So far, the threat of bad weather doesn’t loom over what both sides view as a must-win game Saturday.

Southern Heritage Classic

Tennessee State has had the upper-hand against Jackson State winning six of the last seven meetings in the Southern Heritage Classic. Photo by Tennessee State Athletics.

“It’s like a bowl game for our guys,” TSU coach Rod Reed said. “It’s an electrifying environment. It’s one of those games on the schedule where that’s all you hear about all year long from the fans and alumni – it’s ‘we’re going to beat Jackson State this year.’ The rivalry between Tennessee State and Jackson State goes all the way back to the 1960s, when coach (John) Merritt came to Tennessee State from Jackson State and it has gone all these years. Now, it’s a midpoint between both universities in Memphis, and there are going to be 60,000 people there. We just want to go down there and play good football.”

TSU (1-1) and JSU (0-2) enter Saturday’s game having taken similar paths to Memphis.

Both are coming off hard-fought ‘guarantee games’ on the road against FBS-level competition, in which they were paid to step up a level to face bigger programs. TSU jumped out to an early lead against Middle Tennessee State and was in that game until the fourth quarter last Saturday before falling 45-26. Meanwhile, JSU remained within striking distance of South Alabama despite several key players sitting out with injuries before running out of steam in a 37-14 setback.

Both teams have also shuffled between quarterbacks because of disciplinary issues, nagging injuries or inconsistent performances. Jackson State used three different signal-callers in its season-opening loss to Bethune-Cookman, but primarily played returning starter Derrick Ponder last week. For TSU, Reed’s decision on a starter for Saturday remains in question as Michael Hughes and Cam Rosendahl work through treatment for injuries sustained in the loss to MTSU.

Coincidentally, both historically black colleges could be starting white quarterbacks at this year’s Classic should Ponder and Rosendahl lead their respective units onto the field, as expected. Ponder said during the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s media day over the summer that neither race nor the historical background of the program factored in his decision to play for JSU out of junior college.

“I’ve never felt like any of that mattered, and my mindset was always to be somewhere where I had an opportunity to play and help a team win,” Ponder told Grind City Media. “It’s been nothing but love here from my teammates and me to them. I’ve never been uncomfortable with any of it. We all want the same thing, and that’s to get this program back to winning and playing well for our fans.”

Another similarity is that JSU and TSU represent two of the largest fan bases in the nation at the FCS level, and certainly among HBCU schools. Jackson State led the nation last season in average home attendance at nearly 25,000 fans, while TSU was also in the top 10, according to 2018 NCAA figures. And both schools travel exceptionally well. Case in point: The ESPN-sponsored MEAC-SWAC Challenge announced its first ever sellout in the nationally televised season opener between JSU and Bethune-Cookman in Atlanta’s Georgia State Stadium.

When you play college football on any level, you want to play in games when the stands are almost full and you’ve got the bands going, and you’ve got crowds even outside and people are excited about watching you play.

John Hendrick

So, it comes as no surprise that the Southern Heritage Classic is annually one of the top-five attended HBCU ‘Classic’ games on the schedule, with a recent average of 45,000 fans inside the Liberty Bowl and a reported economic impact of $21.6 million generated from the weekend of festivities.

Off the field, both JSU and TSU view Memphis as fertile territory for recruiting students in general and athletes in particular. Last season, TSU’s football team had seven starters who were from Memphis. On Saturday, the teams will have a combined 12 players on their rosters from the metro area. That includes former Ridgeway High standout Quincy Casey, a freshman quarterback who started JSU’s season opener

“We’re both HBCUs, we play each other annually and both of us are trying to be the best we can be as football teams,” Hendrick said. “We recruit up in northern Mississippi and into Memphis and Tennessee. So it’s big-time for us to play in front of some kids who would like to come to Jackson State.”

Of course, Reed agrees.

“That (Memphis) area has been real key for us,” the TSU coach insisted. “So it’s huge for us to be able to play the Southern Heritage Classic. Financially for both schools, it means a lot. So we’re definitely glad to keep playing in it and have that extension done.”

Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, the Southern Heritage Classic’s result is a win-win for all sides.

TSU’s Rowland snags Player of the Week honor

Back when I was based in Tallahassee and covering Florida A&M football on a regular basis 20 years ago, I was often distracted by two of the most dynamic playmakers I ever saw on a college football field. At the time, they played for the state’s two biggest football schools – Florida State and Florida.

Just get the ball in his hands and let him do as much as possible … It is a luxury to have Chris.

TSU Coach Rod Reed

FSU’s Peter Warrick and Florida’s Jacquez Green were like magicians on the field, zigzagging around would-be tacklers and using their speed, nifty moves and vision to make defenders look foolish. When I watch Tennessee State FCS All-American Chris Rowland play football on Saturdays, I often get flashbacks to what it was like seeing Warrick and Green in action back in the day.

Chris Rowland

Tennessee State’s Chris Rowland was named the Ohio Valley Conference Co-Offensive player of the week on September 8. Photo by Tennessee State Athletics.

Fittingly, Rowland was named the Ohio Valley Conference Co-Offensive player of the week after catching 11 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns in TSU’s 45-26 road loss to MTSU. In the first quarter, Rowland caught a swing pass and outran the defense for a 96-yard score. In the third quarter, Rowland scored on a 60-yard play when he caught a pass, broke five tackles and darted away.

The 96-yard touchdown was the second longest in TSU history and ranks as the second-longest play from scrimmage in FCS football this season. Rowland, a senior from Nolensville, ranks first nationally in all-purpose yards (218.0), total receiving yards (374), receiving yards per game (187.0) and receptions per game (11.0) while ranking third in receiving touchdowns (3).

“To have a guy like Chris, when you can put the ball in his hands on a five-yard route and he can turn it into 60 on a play you’ve got to have, there’s a whole lot of confidence in him,” TSU coach Rod Reed said. “Just get the ball in his hands and let him do as much as possible. At some point, we know teams are going to try to take him away and we have to get other guys involved. But it is a luxury to have Chris.”

Another week, another breakout HBCU band performance

This one comes courtesy of Southern University’s ‘Human Jukebox’ at halftime of last week’s visit to the Liberty Bowl to face Memphis. My only hope was Southern’s Jaguars would keep the game competitive enough on the field until halftime, when I knew Southern’s Jukebox would take over and rally strong.

Memphis won the game on the field going away, 55-24. But Southern earned the split in the bandstand. No wonder the Jukebox snagged that invitation to perform in the 2020 Rose Bowl Parade.

Grind City Media HBCU Shoutout To …

Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis

Davis and Rose, two of the best basketball players to make it out of Chicago, are always giving back to their community. Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images.

NBA training camps open in a few weeks, but Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis are already dishing quality assists in their Chicago hometown. Rose collaborated with Davis to sponsor 4,000 students from the South side neighborhood they both grew up in to attend Saturday’s Chicago Football Classic between prestigious HBCUs Howard and Hampton at Soldier Field.

Rose and Davis are considered two of the best players to make it out of Chicago, with Rose leading the University of Memphis to the 2008 NCAA title game before becoming the youngest player in NBA history to win the league’s MVP award in 2011. Davis is a six-time NBA All-Star and perennial All-NBA selection.

While Rose and Davis are providing the student tickets, another Chicago hoops icon, Mark Aguirre, is taking care of the transportation costs to get the youth groups to the stadium on Saturday, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Game organizers hope to expose 15,000 Chicago-area students to two of the nation’s most highly regarded black college institutions through weeklong events leading to the game.

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