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More than 30,000 gathered for HBCU Battle

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Scenes from 2021 Orange Blossom Classic which coaches agree was more than a game!
Photos Credit: Richard A. Moore/TMN

Labor Day weekend has become even bigger for HBCUs and their football programs, especially those participating in classics.

Spirited rivalries, as well as a different level of safety and security has been the catalyst for more fans donning masks, and even getting shots so they can participate in the HBCU classic experience; especially after over a year hiatus for many because of the pandemic.

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Dallas-based promoter Al Wash cited several classics where the attendance was great over the weekend in games that pitted Tennessee State v. Grambling State and Texas Southern v. Prairie View A&M.

As he prepared for the State Fair Classic in Dallas September 24, Mr. Wash said he feels good about attendance.

“We’re passing more with ticket sales than in 2019,” he said. “I think we’ll have one of the biggest attended games this year, at least in the top 3.”

For the first time in 43 years, the Orange Blossom Classic returned to Miami, FL and according to officials, 30,210 fans filled the stadium as Jackson State University welcomed Florida A&M University to the South-western Athletic Conference (SWAC).

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Even more fans took part in a week of events that ranged from concerts, boat rides, cookouts, parties, pageantry, the tailgating, fashion shows, reunions, battle of the bands, and the football game.

Led by NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders (Coach Prime), the Tigers emerged victorious over the Rattlers, 7-6; whose Coach Willie Simmons led the Rattlers to a 9 2 record last season in his second year at FAMU.

The Mideastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) had been home to the Rattlers for four decades and in July the school officially joined the ranks of other SWAC powerhouses like JSU, Grambling, Southern, Alcorn and Prairie View A&M Universities.

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The move was the right one, says Coach Simmons.

“I spent six years in this conference,” said Simmons, who left Prairie View to coach at FAMU and was the offensive coordinator (running backs) at Alcorn State and Middle Tennessee State. “I cut my teeth as a head coach in the SWAC. Phenomenal conference, that’s why we’re so excited about joining the conference.

“We know the caliber of football and the pageantry and the branding opportunities that the SWAC provides.”

Accepting full responsibility for the loss, Coach Simmons was joined by student athletes Markquese Bell and Xavier Smith.

“Obviously we didn’t have the outcome we wanted and that’s on me as the head football coach,” the coach said, adding that he accepted full responsibility for the loss. “I thought these guys played their hearts out. They played with grit. They played with passion.”

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Citing “little things” that played in the overall outcome of the game, he said it was a learning experience for everyone and that the team will “get better.”

Joined by student-athletes Aubrey Miller, Jr. and Shedeur Sanders; Coach Prime, who like Coach Simmons are from Florida, celebrated the win, as well as the Classic.

“This was like a bowl week for us, and it’s going to be hard — all the other classics got to — hear me clearly — it’s going to be hard to top this,” he said. “It was incredible. My first real classic. Home state. FAMU which is right around the corner. I was married to a wonderful woman from FAMU that gave me two beautiful kids.”

As he talked about the game, Coach Prime assessed his son, Shedeur’s performance; and acknowledged that mistakes were made.

“Our motto is smart, tough fast, disciplined. We weren’t disciplined. We weren’t smart at times. We played tough and we played fast,” he said. “We’ll clean up a couple other things that we weren’t successful at.

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But we’ll get that fixed… We can fix what we did wrong. And we will.”

Anyone witnessing could detect a sense of conviction coming from Coach Prime, who displayed characteristics reminiscent of other great coaches like A.S. “Jake” Gaither of FAMU and Eddie “Coach Rob” Robinson of Grambling who saw their teams as more than foot- ball players.

“We’re trying to get to the next level,” explained the former FSU standout. “We’re trying to go pro. We’re trying to win everything and we want the whole team going pro. We want us at the draft. That’s what we want. That’s the goal. That’s the vision. That’s the expectation.”

He continued, talking about building character.

“It all starts with that. I don’t care how much talent they have. The character is going to allow them to remain in the situation that they desire to be in. Your talent will get you there, but your character gotta keep you there.

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“And I’m not crazy enough to believe that all these guys are going to be pro-fessional football players, we just desire them to be professionals, and the character is everything.”

Referring to his team as his “babies,” Coach Prime went on to talk about re-warding the “babies” for their hard work. And since the spotlight is on them, the coach asked a question that is sparking commentary across the country.

Asking Mr. Mller to turn around, Coach Prime pointed to the back of his jersey.
“He got his darned name on the back of his jersey… Why don’t we do that in the SWAC? Is it that expensive to put the darned name on the back of the jerseys?

Don’t you think his momma and them would want to see their baby’s name on the back of the jersey? Don’t you think his siblings, his friends, his family, loved ones?”

According to Coach Prime, who considers himself to be very detailed, people take for granted “stuff” like the name on the back of the jersey, but he doesn’t.

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“That guy worked his butt off, did what he had to do, changed his whole composite of his thought process. We could at least put his darned name on the back of his jersey. How simple is that? What is that an extra $5 a jersey? ‘d take care of it for the whole SWAC if they’d do it.”

Theoretically it sounds good, but it could be a costly undertaking says Mr. Wash who, in addition to numerous other classics across the country, is the machine behind one of the largest, The State Fair Classic; which pits Grambling State v. Prairie View.

“Each university would pay for them and they could be ordering new jerseys every year,” he explained.

This week, JSU faces Tennessee State and FAMU will face Fort Valley State.

The Orange Blossom Classic’s headline sponsor was Denny’s and the game was covered on ESPN2 with broadcasters Tiffany Greene, Jay Walker and Tiffany Blackmon.

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