The legacy of black college football can be told from alumni to current students everywhere for decades. The loud sound from the band, the university paraphernalia vendors and the rivalries remind everyone that it’s game time.
“There was a time when TSU beat us, and their band played all through Gibbs (Hall) and all the way up to the Set. Man, it got pretty ugly,” said Mickey Clayton, director of booster relations.
Getting pretty ugly seems to be one way to describe the ongoing rivalry that the Tennessee State University Tigers and Florida A&M Rattlers have had for the past 17 years.
This legacy began in 1989 at Georgia Tech’s Grant Field and has continued to the Georgia Dome.
But the schools first met in 1944.
“The game between TSU and FAMU evolved way before there was a classic, because there was a rivalry anyway,” Clayton said. Although students know the TSU and FAMU game as the Atlanta Football Classic, these two teams began playing each other as home and away games before the game evolved into a classic. Before 1997, it was called the Atlanta Ebony Classic.
“It became a classic because (former FAMU head coach) Jake Gaither and (former TSU head coach) John Merrit had the two best football programs, and the game would always be sold out,” Clayton said.
The classic was placed in Atlanta partly because it was a suitable distance to Atlanta for FAMU and TSU fans.”It is a four-hour ride from Tallahassee and Nashville to Atlanta, so it was convenient as well,” said Alvin Hollins Jr., assistant media relations director for the FAMU athletic department.
Atlanta is not just great for location; the city is good for recruitment and entertainment purposes as well, said FAMU running back Anthony Edwards, who is from Atlanta. “There are a lot of things to do in Atlanta, so it’s a great city to go to,” Edwards said.
In addition to feeding the rivalry’s flames, both schools can reap financial benefits from the Atlanta Classic.
“When games are played in the Georgia Dome, there is an opportunity for a check to be cut for both institutions,” Clayton said. The money dispersed can be used to better the athletic teams for both schools.
“When the games were held in either Tallahassee or Nashville, the home team would receive the rewards,” Clayton said. “Back then, a lot of people would try to get to the classic because they would see black college football played at its best.”
Although the game is the main focus of the Atlanta Classic, most people cannot talk about it without mentioning the battle of the bands. The FAMU Marching 100 and TSU Aristocrat of Bands show up and battle it out each year to be the best band at the classic.
“Our squad is pretty good this year, and we are going to bring our A game,” said Erica Witherspoon, a senior TSU electrical engineering student from St. Louis.
Erica’s sister, Brittanie Witherspoon, a third-year FAMU pharmacy student, returns to Atlanta each year for the classic.
“There is a friendly rivalry between us. I always ask my parents, ‘Are you going to sit on the winning side or TSU side,'” Brittanie said.
The tensions between the two teams are high and are ready to be released in the Georgia Dome on Saturday.
For the past three years, the game has come down to the last quarter. The Rattlers came out on top each time.
“My prediction for the game is 14-7 and TSU will win,” Erica said.
But Clayton disagreed.
“They have always tend to be delusional,” Clayton said.