By Sylvia Dunnavant Hines
Cotton candy, healthy cattle, iconic cooked foods, and fancy cars are all things you can count on from the Texas State Fair. The ever-changing and growing phenomenon is the State Fair Classic Football Game.
After over four decades of working with the State Fair Classic, Al Wash, president of ALW Entertainment, is making changes to ensure this year’s game has a record attendance.
Over the last two years, the pandemic has had an impact on the game’s attendance.
“In 2020, we canceled the fall game and did a spring game. Then we had a snowstorm and pipes that burst at the Cotton Bowl. We had to move the game to Arlington to Ranger Stadium, which didn’t work out as well for us,” said Wash.
This year, Wash has made a few changes and he’s pulling out all the stops to have a record attendance.
The game will start two hours later at 6:00 PM. This will allow for a pre show kick-off concert at 4:00 PM, with Grammy award-winning singer, Ashanti Douglas.
After the game, the New Orleans Preservation Jazz Band will perform. The jazz ensemble has been performing since 1961. All the concerts will be on the Chevy Stage which is right outside of the Cotton Bowl.
“Over the years I have seen things happen. When Hurricane Katrina hit, the students had to evacuate from New Orleans. Then, in 2001, when we were preparing for the game, on September 11, there was a terrorist attack and the entire country came to a halt,” said Wash.
“We have crossed some hurdles that have been devastating for us, but we have always been able to bounce back to become one of the largest black events in Texas under one roof.”
The State Fair Classic has a rich history extending from the first game in the Cotton Bowl in 1925 between the Wiley College Wildcats and the Langston University Lions.
Since 1985, the Classic showdown has been between Prairie View A&M University and Grambling State University.
Since then, the pair-up between the Panthers and the Tigers has been the major matchup at the State Fair Classic. From the beginning of the pairing of the two teams, Grambling won every game except for one game until this changed in 2009.
Many of the early wins were by legendary coach Eddie G. Robinson, Sr, who received his 324th career win against Prairie View at the 1985 State Fair Classic Game. Robinson, whose coaching career spanned 50 years, has been recognized as having one of the best records in history.
“Over the years, I have seen Prairie View become more competitive against Grambling,” said Wash. “It used to be back in the time when Eddie Robinson was the head football coach that everybody knew that Grambling was going to beat Prairie View 50 to nothing, but they still showed up for the game.”
Wash, attributes Coach Robinson for his involvement with the game.
At the root of the State Fair Classic is a deep rivalry between Grambling State and Prairie View A&M that attracts people to come to Dallas from over 4,000 miles away.
“People come as far away as Alaska and Des Moines, Iowa. We have attendees from places that you would not even think would come to the game – like Hawaii and New Mexico. Of course, we have local people from Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana as well,” said Wash.
According to Wash, about 25,000 people come from out of town to attend the game.
“Since Grambling is in Louisiana and Prairie View is in Texas, you would expect Prairie View to have the most fans at the game. But I don’t think that is the case,” said Cathy Conwright, president of the Metro DFW Alumni Chapter of Grambling University. She said this year the Grambling host hotel for out-of-town guests is already near capacity.
Faithful Grambling fans like Conwright are looking forward to this year’s historic game between the two teams. Even though previous matchups between the two has given Grambling the competitive advantage of 26 wins to 9 losses over three and a half decades, the last four games have been won by Prairie View.
“This year we expect to change Prairie View’s winning streak. We have a new head coach, Hue Jackson. The motto that we have given him is Huedat, in honor of the famous New Orleans Saints’ fan chant – whodat. Our hashtag is #Huedat,” said Conwright, who is a member of the Wayne Family. With over 40 members to graduate from Grambling University, in 2010, her family captured the Guinness Book of World Records for the most family members to graduate from the same university.
With both schools having students from North Texas, the game is very competitive. The festive half-time show and the battle of the bands help bring out school spirits. According to Wash, a lot of football players went to high school together and now they are playing at opposing colleges. For them, a win is mostly an opportunity for bragging rights.
“When I was in school attending Prairie View, we only beat Grambling one year. This was out of the whole four years that I was there. Then there was a series of 10 to 12 years that we lost every game. Yet, that didn’t bring a damper to the school,” said Lalonni Hagerman, president of the Dallas Prairie View Alumni Association, and the financial secretary of the National Association.
“For some odd reason even if we knew the outcome of the game was that we were going to lose, we still came out to support the school. Our Panther Pride was still always there,” said Hagerman.
For the first time in two years, the week leading up to the game will be packed with outside events. Many of the activities will not be advertised. There will be everything from a press conference on Monday at the Cotton Bowl to a comedy show at the Arlington Improv, with Shuckey Duckey and some of his comedian friends on Wednesday night.
National Recording Artists, Steven Ray Ladson and saxophonist Don Diego, will perform at Club Odyssey on Friday evening as well.
There will be an exclusive VIP Corporate reception for Grambling and Prairie View alumni, with national recording artists, Steven Ray Ladson and saxophonist Don Diego.
“I like to see people enjoying themselves. We have always been in the top three in attendance when it comes to classic games. Due to COVID, the last few years, we have been in the top five consistently,” said Wash.
With new coaches, alumni enthusiasm, and a week of stellar activities, Wash is looking forward to everything lining up in his favor.
“I am a winner. I would like this to be the number one in attendance for the Classic games for the year,” said Wash.
Some of the sponsors for this year’s game are McDonalds, the City of Dallas, State Fair of Texas, Methodist Hospital, Cricket Wireless, and Chevy.
“As always, we are looking for a win and safety as the alumni gather to fellowship this year. People will be cheering on their children, nieces, and nephews as we all have a good time and watch the game,” said Hagerman.