Coming into the season, only one thing made the Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Tennessee State football game a big deal — it’s the first time since 1947 the two teams will square off.
And it’s all because of tradition that’s put on hold.
The last week in September is usually reserved for UAPB fans preparing to spend the weekend in St. Louis, visiting the Edward Jones Dome and seeing the Golden Lions play some team in the Gateway Classic. Since 1994, it’s often been considered a homecoming week before homecoming week; that’s how important the Classic has been.
But earlier this year, UAPB and the Classic organizers could not come to an agreement for another game. According to athletic director Lonza Hardy Jr., the last contract with the Classic called for UAPB to earn $100,000, which was contingent on the university selling tickets. Can’t a team get more playing Oklahoma State?
It’s not like UAPB couldn’t sell tickets since the Classic has become such a staple in the die-hard fan’s schedule, but Hardy said the school was seeking a guarantee on the game.
“If a university has to sell tickets, I don’t consider that a guarantee,” he told The Commercial when the Lions’ schedule was finally released.
Before the schedule came out, news of UAPB appearing on Tennessee State’s slate broke, and it was big news. Something, or maybe more than one thing, made these two historically black institutions of higher learning wait 65 years to play again.
The reason or reasons are anyone’s guess. What we do know is that Tennessee State often loads its schedule with Ohio Valley Conference opponents and travels to Memphis every year to play Jackson State in the Southern Heritage Classic.
Tennessee State also finds traditional black college powers to play in nonconference competition, like Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M, and victories in these games help Tennessee State draw national acclaim in the way of rankings.
So, the idea that both the Tigers and Lions would be ranked in the Sheridan Broadcasting Network poll going into Saturday’s game was probably no assumption in the scheduling process. UAPB would have enough of a challenge on its hands trying finish the first four weeks of the season with three wins — which they did.
Before Tennessee State, UAPB had to see how it would fare with one game in Pine Bluff and two conference contests on the road. On top of that, the Lions lost to three of their first four 2012 opponents in 2011, leaving some with doubts.
But winning at Alabama State has given so many in Golden Lion Nation hope for an upset of the No. 1 black college team in the nation. And who expected Tennessee State, which was 5-6 a year ago, to be No. 1?
The Tigers and Lions are signed to a two-year agreement through next season, meaning Tennessee State will visit Pine Bluff next season. So, a game that will factor into the black college national championship race could be the start of a new rivalry if schedules permit.
Whether or not the St. Louis tradition is revived, UAPB vs. Tennessee State shows a lot of promise in excitement. Not just for the present, but the future.
I.C. Murrell is the sports editor of The Commercial. Email him at email@example.com.