Bayou Classic: The Grambling-Southern Football Rivalry
On Armistice Day 1932, the Southern University Bushmen football team traveled to Monroe, Louisiana to play the Tigers of Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute for the first time. Normal was far younger than Southern. It was a two-year junior college in the northeast cotton town of Grambling, and its football team was less than a decade old. Southern was the pride of the state’s black population, serving the traditional role that larger southern state universities played for whites—a source of identity for populations with few cultural, economic, or political advantages. In 1933, the following season, Southern and Normal played again. Again Southern shut out the Tigers 20-0. “Southern was always larger,” said sportswriter Russell Stockard, “and it was close to Baton Rouge, the state capitol…Southern always seemed to have an advantage.” The school’s dominance led the series with Normal to languish until the 1940s. But Grambling would not be daunted.
In the early 1940s, Grambling hired Eddie Robinson, who would lead the team to 408 wins until his retirement in 1997. The two-year school became a four-year institution—Grambling College—with rising admission and graduation rates. Still, the school’s fundamental disadvantages remained. Southern, too, would undergo change. In 1934, the university would join the expanding Southwestern Athletic Conference, finding a new regional legitimacy outside of the state. In 1936, the Bushmen also found themselves playing under a new nickname. The “Bushmen” became the “Cats,” and those Cats would later transmogrify into Jaguars. That same year, Arnett Mumford would take over as head coach of the Southern football team. He would stay until 1961, becoming the university’s most successful coach with a record of 169-57-14.
And then, in 1947, Southern and Grambling would renew their rivalry in Baton Rouge. “A pall of gloom enshrouded the moss-hung bayous of Louisiana today,” wrote then-Grambling athletic director Collie Nicholson, “and the usually reliable Southwest Conference, deflated but unbowed, rallied to regain its momentum after the Grambling College Tigers ambushed Southern University’s Jaguar Cats, 21-6.” Grambling’s first victory over Southern did more than just salve a wounded regional pride. Grambling wouldn’t officially join the SWAC until 1958, but the team’s ability to compete with Southern would ultimately usher it into the burgeoning organization.
The rivalry would continue at both Grambling and Southern—the contests alternating venues each season—through the next decade. But in the 1970s, the game would take on a new significance. Grambling Sports Information Director Collie J. Nicholson used a special NFL commission and the construction of the New Orleans Superdome as an arguing tool to make the annual Grambling-Southern football game a neutral-site affair. In 1974 the teams met in New Orleans for the first game designated the “Bayou Classic.” The game was played at Tulane Stadium (the Superdome was not yet ready) in front of 76,753 fans. Grambling won 21-0. The teams, like those in 1932, played a neutral-site game. There was a shutout. But the stakes and the audience had changed. In 1990, the schools signed a broadcast contract with NBC, and the game remains the only annual HBCU football game on national broadcast television.
The significance of the Bayou Classic is unprecedented in HBCU athletics. It serves as a significant source of revenue for the universities, New Orleans, and NBC. But it is, at base, the same state rivalry it was in 1932. “To appreciate the rivalry,” noted Grambling’s Eddie Robinson, “you have to realize Grambling and Southern fans are close friends, as well as relatives.” Louisiana Holy Day tells the stories of Grambling, Southern, and the communities that invested so much in them. It describes the Bayou Classic and its predecessor games, demonstrating their broader significance to Louisiana, athletics, and the state’s black community.