Howard, Morehouse rekindle football rivalry

September 8, 2011

They are arriving on party buses and in car caravans, on planes and on trains. Alumni will join students to backslap and trash-talk, holler and rally in maroon, blue, red and white on the campus of Howard University and the streets of Washington. And on Saturday, the bands will battle.

It’s time, D.C., for a good old-fashioned HBCU Classic.

Rebooting a gridiron rivalry that was scuttled nearly 15 years ago, Morehouse College and Howard University, two of the most prestigious historically black colleges and universities, are playing the first annual AT&T Nation’s Football Classic on Saturday afternoon at RFK Stadium.

“Everybody’s talking about this game,” said Ronika Harris, 19, a Howard junior from Omaha. “A friend of mine from Morehouse, even before the year, was like: ‘I’ll see you at the Classic.’ I said: ‘What classic?’ He told me about it, and we’ve been talking about it ever since. It’s Howard and Morehouse. It’s gonna be huge.”

On Thursday, the schools sponsored a heady conversation about black male achievement, headlined by such luminaries as Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at Georgetown University. Alumni from the two schools have put together a joint fundraiser. The United Negro College Fund is sponsoring a jobs fair Friday. The schools, both founded in 1867, will also engage in a student debate. Of course, there will be parties.

“This is more than just a football game,” said Alvin Thornton, senior adviser for academic affairs to Howard’s president. “Yes, we want to showcase our scholar athletes, but we also want to incorporate discussion and intellectual rigor into a weekend like this.”

Similarly, Morehouse President Robert Franklin said the weekend was an effort to raise money and display the best of black athletic and academic achievement.

“There have been some high-profile attacks on HBCUs recently, the need for them and their viability,” Franklin said. “This gives us yet another opportunity to showcase all that we are about.”

Football classics have a long tradition among historically black colleges and universities. HBCUConnect.com lists 44 classics in the 2011-12 college football schedule. Former Washington Redskins quarterback Doug Williams, who returned to Louisiana’s Grambling State University for his second stint as head football coach last spring, said classics have provided an opportunity for black colleges to entertain large audiences. As a college quarterback at Grambling, he played in the inaugural Bayou Classic in 1974.

“The Grambling stadium wouldn’t hold 76,000 people, and the Southern [University] stadium wouldn’t either, so we had to play someplace that was large enough to accommodate the people who wanted to see the game,” he said.

The rivalry between the Bison of Howard and Morehouse’s Maroon Tigers petered out in 1997. But Erik Moses, 40, a senior vice president at Events DC, the founder and organizer of the Nation’s Classic, said at least 10,000 people are expected to attend the game.

“These two schools are both prestigious,” Moses said. “They compete with each other all the time, and we thought that would make for a great rivalry on the football field.”

Headlining the entertainment Friday at the weekend’s kickoff rally will be hip-hop impresario Sean “Diddy” Combs, who attended Howard in the late 1980s, and music producer Jermaine Dupri.

Trash talk is a big part of the weekend. Howard students, for instance, call their school “The Mecca”; Morehouse students simply call their school “The House.”

A Facebook page about the rivalry has been active all summer. A typical post from a Morehouse supporter included: “Maaaaan, I heard Howard’s football team and cheerleaders practice together.” And from the Howard side, referring to the rainy weather: “(SHOUTING at Morehouse) YALL THINK THIS WEATHER GON’ SAVE YALL??? WE are BISON we laugh at water!!!”

“The thing about this rivalry is that Howard can talk smack right back at us,” said Joe Carlos, 36, who initially attended Howard but graduated from Morehouse, where he is now an assistant director of admissions. “We can go tit for tat, because there have been so many prestigious alumni who have gone to both schools. But when we say Martin Luther King Jr. graduated from Morehouse, that usually shuts the conversation right down.”

Morehouse’s sister school, Spelman College, has joined the fun. Erin Harper graduated from Spelman in 2002 and will be making the trip from Atlanta. She could not care less about the game. “I really don’t know anything about sports, but I do like running my mouth.”

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