Thirty-eight seasons in, which Bayou Classic games mattered the most? I’m talking turning-point moments. Not just because that particular day was (or wasn’t) a big win, but because it had a lasting impact. Leading up to Saturday’s Bayou Classic XXXVIII, here’s our take …
When Mike Williams walked off the Superdome carpet with the most valuable player award after the ’80 Bayou Classic, it marked the end of an era.
The Williams’ era.
A quarterback named Williams, either Mike or older brother Doug, had started for Grambling in every Classic until that point — and had won four of the seven MVPs ever given.
GSU had also gone 6-1 against Southern with a Williams under center, falling only in 1979. Five of the Top 6 best-attended games, including Nos. 1-4, occurred during this span, as well.
Doug Williams remembered the very first game, played at Tulane in 1974 while construction of the Superdome was completed: “I looked around and said: ‘What am I doing here?'” he told me in 2003. “We had 75,000 at a historically black college football game. I was a redshirt freshman, and scared to death. I was blessed to have some veterans around me and Coach Robinson ran a conservative offense that didn’t put too much pressure on me.”
Doug Williams would, of course, be named MVP in that game, as well as the third Bayou Classic in 1976. Mike Williams took over in 1978, and won the Classic MVP that season and in 1980.
(Grambling wingback Sammy White, a long-time assistant at his former school, was MVP in ’75, followed by GSU wingback Robert Woods in 1977. Southern quarterback Wilfred Charles was the 1979 honoree.)
Rookie Southern coach Pete Richardson stormed into the SWAC — beating his first six league opponents by an average of 30 points. In fact, he’d only stumble once coming into the season-ending Bayou Classic, and that was against out-of-conference foe Nicholls State.
“I voted for him for Coach of the Year,” former GSU line coach Billy Manning said in 1993. “It’s hard to come in and turn a team around like that. … It all boils down to execution, motivation, technique and preparation. The talent has been there.”
Southern had already punched its ticket to the Heritage Bowl, after GSU fell to Alabama State three weeks before. Richardson then topped Eddie G. Robinson in the 1993 Bayou Classic 31-13 with sophomore quarterback Eric Randall as MVP.
A subsequent bowl win over South Carolina State meant the first-year coach, along with current Grambling defensive coordinator Clifford Yoshida, had led Southern to the school’s second 11-win season ever, its first SWAC title in 18 years and its first outright championship since 1959.
What followed was a stunning run of dominance for Southern, as Pete eventually took eight straight Classics — six from Robinson and two from Doug Williams, Rob’s eventual successor. He beat Grambling by an average of two touchdowns over that span.
Before Pete, Grambling actually held a 13-6 Classic series lead, and Southern had never won more than two in a row (1981-82 and 1987-88). By 2000, the Richardson had already won four SWAC titles (1993, then 1997-99) — and pulled ahead in the Classic series, 14-13.
It all started with that 1993 victory.
In many ways, this Bayou Classic was somewhat routine, as Grambling won 25-13 — Eddie Robinson’s second in a row over Southern coach Gerald Kimble. GSU had, in 1990, won 12 of the initial 17 editions.
Only this time, 200 million people had the opportunity to experience the game — not to mention the halftime pageantry — through a new partnership deal with NBC TV.
Former Grambling sports information director Collie J. Nicholson’s dream — 12 years after his celebrated 30-year run at GSU ended — had finally been completely realized.
“When Eddie Robinson came to Grambling, people in Lincoln Parish didn’t even know where Grambling was,” Nicholson told me in 2003. “It took a long time to build name recognition for the school, during the time of segregation.”
This was a guy who used to type up the game stories, then drive 70 miles to Shreveport to wire them all over the country. Now, Nicholson’s game was being beamed into every home in America.
Grambling quarterback Shawn Burras was the 1990 Classic’s MVP, leading a unit that included SWAC offensive player of the year Walter Dean and future NFL receiver Jake Reed. Still, I think my favorite guy from this period is Raymond Smith, the 6-7, 435-pound offensive tackle who so richly earned the nickname: “World.”
Oddly enough, despite the addition of television coverage, the 1990 edition turned out to be the highest attended Classic since Southern beat Grambling 22-17 in 1982. The announced crowd of 70,600 was then No. 7 all time.
Nicholson, who was recognized with the Bayou Classic Founder’s Award two seasons later, passed in 2006 after experiencing a series of health problems. The press box at Robinson Stadium is named in his honor.
Coaching legends Eddie Robinson and Marino Casem — winners between them of 568 college contests — faced off again, producing another remarkable rivalry game.
And another razor-thin margin.
Three times, they roamed the sidelines at the Bayou Classic. The average margin of victory: 6 points.
In ’92, GSU won 30-27 before a sold-out crowd of 71,283, the year before Casem moved up to become Southern’s athletics director. It was the last time these two Southwestern Athletic Conference legends met on the field.
The Classic’s most valuable player was Grambling quarterback Alex Perkins, who would then help craft a 45-15 win over Florida A&M in the Heritage Bowl to win the ’92 black college national championship — the final under Robinson.
This would be the only time Robinson got the better of Casem in New Orleans. Southern beat Grambling by a touchdown in both 1987 and ’88. (Southern’s Daryl Garner and Chris Scott, respectively, were named MVPs.)
In all, 182,516 people saw these titanic struggles, which led to one of the most famous descriptions of this game from Casem — who called it “the biggest and best thing in all of blackdom.”
Known as The Godfather of the SWAC, Casem served as coach and athletics director at both Southern, Alcorn and, for one season early in his coaching career, at Alabama State.
That run included seven football titles at Alcorn, where he set a school record for wins. (Though the two played to a virtual draw over Casem’s first decade at Alcorn, Rob eventually established a 13-8 advantage). Casem oversaw another four SWAC championships as AD at Southern, then had another brief tenure in the same position at Alcorn before retiring.
Both Robinson and Casem, who finished with a coaching record of 160-91-8, are now members of the College Football Hall of Fame.
It’s not just that this game was the first to be played in the Superdome, which is reason enough.
The ’75 edition boasted more eventual NFL talent from Grambling than any Bayou Classic ever: Eight starters went on to play three or more years in the pros, and at least 15 were eventually invited to NFL camps.
“Grambling’s football tradition is second to none,” former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in 1992. “Under Eddie Robinson’s leadership, Grambling contributed an unusually large number of players to the NFL.”
Wingback Sammy White (Vikings, 1976-86) took handoffs from quarterback Doug Williams (Buccaneers, 1978-83; and Redskins, 1986-89). A longtime receivers coach at Grambling, White was named the game’s most valuable player.
Williams also had Dwight Scales (Rams, 1976-79; Chargers, 1981-83; and Seahawks, 1984) as a top target. Big Ron Singleton (Chargers, 1976; and Niners, 1977-80) would play both tight end and offensive tackle.
The group scored 33 points that year on Charlie Bates’ Southern Jaguars, thrilling a crowd of 73,214 at the Dome.
Defensive back James Hunter (Lions, 1976-82) and linebacker Robert Pennywell (Niners, 1976; and Falcons, 1977-80) led a unit that held Southern to 17 points. The defensive line was anchored by Robert Barber (Packers, 1976-80) and Michael St. Claire (Browns, 1976-79; and Bengals, 1980-82).
Others from this amazingly talented Tiger team who appeared on NFL rosters included offensive tackle Larry Favorite (Falcons); defensive end Arthur Gilliam (Broncos); defensive tackle Jessie O’Neal (Oilers, Seahawks and Redskins); offensive lineman Robert Simon (Oilers); defensive backs Eugene Williams (Jets) and Michael Harris (Eagles, Jets and Steelers); and center Billy Manning (Saints) — who later became an assistant under Robinson.
The Bayou Classic would be played another 29 times at the Superdome before Hurricane Katrina rendered the facility unplayable in 2005. After a one-year hiatus at Houston’s Reliant Stadium, the contest returned home in ’06.
There would be no stopping Southern’s Pete Richardson, then in the midst of eight years of domination in New Orleans.
Nevertheless, Eddie G. Robinson’s final game, after 57 seasons at Grambling, provided the proper send off to college football’s winningest coach.
The NBC broadcast included several features chronicling his storied career. Tributes flowed in from then President Bill Clinton (in a phone call pictured above), fellow coaches like Penn State’s Joe Paterno and a bevy of former players.
More than 300 media credentials were issued, and they quickly scattered out to interview the likes of Willie Davis, Charles “Tank” Smith, Elfrid Payton, Henry Dyer, Mike Williams, James Hunter, and others.
The build up threatened to subsume the Bayou Classic itself.
Of course, Robinson took it all in stride: “I’m really not trying to think of this game as my last,” he said in 1997. “It’s there in the back of my mind, but I’m really just trying to take this as just the next game we have to try to win.”
That didn’t happen, as Southern dispatched GSU, 30-7.
Even so, there were other numbers threading through the four-hour broadcast, staggering numbers — 408 wins in 587 games, 17 SWAC titles and 210 players in the NFL. Hundreds, if not thousands of young men, with a road map to life in the form of a college degree.
In carrying the game, NBC shared the story of Eddie Robinson with the world one final time.
The 1997 Classic was one instance — 2006, with the return to New Orleans, was another — when it seemed appropriate that the game turned into a sideshow.
Eddie Robinson’s towering achievements deserved no less.
Also considered: 2004 Bayou Classic, an upset win by Grambling’s Melvin Spears that sent Richardson into a tailspin. Then the reigning SWAC champion, the Jaguars went on to lose in the ’04 title match and didn’t manage a winning season again until 2007. … 1974 Bayou Classic, the first ever held. This game was played at Tulane Stadium while construction of the Superdome continued. … 2006 Bayou Classic, an emotional homecoming in New Orleans, a year after Hurricane Katrina.