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HBCU Football

SWAC bets big on the Celebration Bowl

League drops its own championship to focus on the money and TV exposure of the HBCU title contest

Questions. Questions. Questions.

There were lots of them coming out of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Media Days in Birmingham, Alabama. Some were no-brainers, while others garnered raised eyebrows.

  • Is Grambling State quarterback DeVante Kincade the right choice for the SWAC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Award?
  • Is Jackson State defensive end Keontre Anderson the right man as SWAC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year?
  • East Division defending champion Alcorn State was named the preseason favorite to capture the division. What do Alabama State (selected to finish second with 66 points), Jackson State (59), Alabama A&M (45) and even Mississippi Valley State (20) have to say about that?
  • And, in the West, SWAC champion Grambling State was chosen as the overall favorite after amassing a conference-best 85 points in the voting by the league’s head coaches and sports information directors.

And fans and media alike had questions about the Celebration Bowl, the postseason game that was started in 2015 that features the champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and the SWAC. The reason is simple: When commissioner Duer Sharp decided to discontinue the SWAC championship game after the upcoming season, it put the spotlight squarely on the ESPN-owned bowl game as the marquee game of football for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

The Celebration Bowl, whose title sponsor in its first two years was the Air Force Reserve, will be played in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Dec. 16 and broadcast on ABC. If the game does well — in attendance, national TV viewership, sponsorship and marketability — everybody wins.

“We’re rolling all our chips into the Celebration Bowl, and it’s going to be big,” said Grambling State University coach Broderick Fobbs, whose Tigers defeated North Carolina Central 10-9 in last December’s Celebration Bowl, anointing Grambling as the best HBCU team in the country just a few years after the Tigers went 1-11. Fobbs continued: “All 10 of our schools here in the SWAC conference and also in the MEAC conference, we’re considered FBS programs now. So when you’ve got an opportunity to play in a game of that magnitude on national television, with the benefits that it brings, it’s huge for all teams involved.”

Alabama A&M coach James Spady admitted to not being thrilled about the decision to drop the championship game but said he believes the SWAC and MEAC need to make the most out of being the only FCS conferences with a postseason bowl game.

“We have to throw ourselves behind the Celebration Bowl,” Spady said. “It makes us unique in college football. We’ll be able to do that as well at this level. It’s a great recruiting tool.”

Nobody knows that better than former North Carolina A&T State running back Tarik Cohen. The diminutive running back rushed for 295 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries in the inaugural Celebration Bowl, putting his name — and his school — on the national stage. Although the days when HBCUs routinely churned out future NFL greats such as Walter Payton, Steve McNair and Michael Strahan are past, the nationally televised bowl is an opportunity for a few players to showcase their talents on a stage that players of yesteryear never had. Cohen parlayed his performance into a fourth-round pick by the Chicago Bears in this year’s NFL draft.

A matter of dollars and sense

In defense of Sharp and the university presidents, the decision to discontinue the SWAC championship game was far from knee-jerk; the game was losing money and prestige. The league had its championship game since 1999, moving from Birmingham to Houston in 2013. The first three games at NRG Stadium each drew about 40,000 people. Last year’s matchup between Alcorn State and Grambling State brought just under 25,000 fans — a significant decline from 2015, which featured the same two teams. Said Sharp: “Our presidents just said it’s not sustainable.”

The SWAC has a six-year contract to play in the bowl game, and Sharp is hoping to extend it to 10.

Dropping the SWAC title game in favor of the bowl contest should increase the league’s annual payouts to member schools, Sharp added. This money will help schools cover the costs for big-ticket items such as instant replay equipment. “Those funds that we would have spent on the SWAC football championship, we’ll now take those funds and purchase video equipment for all 10 member institutions,” Sharp said.

It’s important to note the SWAC doesn’t receive an automatic bid for the FCS playoffs, and it doesn’t participate in the FCS postseason. Sharp said the conference wants to be a part of the postseason, but that’s far off. For starters, several teams have scheduling conflicts. The league would have to change the dates of the Bayou Classic, along with Alabama State’s regular-season finale against in-state teams, which are on the same weekend as the first round of the playoffs. Those are legendary rivalry games. Changing their dates isn’t an option.

Of course, it’s answers – not questions – that HBCU fans want more than anything, and those will come soon enough, when players suit up for games in a matter of weeks. Perhaps Kincade, after helping lead the Tigers to a conference-best 11-win season, will prove voters right for selecting him as the voters’ choice for SWAC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year. Ditto for Jackson State defensive end Anderson, who was tabbed SWAC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year after leading the nation with 25.5 tackles for a loss to go along with nine sacks and six hurries.

It’s these answers – and many more – that the people want. Answers that will make us all celebrate in the end.

Born in the UK and raised in Jamaica, Mark W. Wright is a writer and director of special projects at The Undefeated. A quick glance at his work and it’s safe to assume that soccer – and coverage of Historically Black Colleges and Universities – are among his passions.