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Naejuan Barber, Nathaniel Wilcox
South Carolina State defensive lineman Naejuan Barber (left) holds up champions sign with South Carolina State defensive end Nathaniel Wilcox (right) after the Cricket Celebration Bowl game against Jackson State on Dec. 18 in Atlanta. South Carolina State beat Jackson State 31-10. Hakim Wright Sr./AP Photo
Locker Room Talk

The Celebration Bowl is now the cornerstone in rebuilding the prestige of HBCU sports

Deion Sanders helped ignite the spark that the MEAC and SWAC had started years ago

ATLANTA — From the very beginning, what I’ve loved about the Celebration Bowl is the self-defining statement it makes about the efficacy of Black college football. This was our game, our championship. We determine the terms of our success. We assign value.

With so many Black athletes playing at predominantly white institutions (PWIs), Black college football was defined by outsiders as less than, as an inferior product with little entertainment value. Before the creation of the Celebration Bowl, Black colleges had to wait to be deemed fit to be invited to the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs. In the 43-year history of those playoffs, the selection process favored teams from conferences outside of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). Routinely, there were examples of multiple teams from the PWI conferences being invited to participate with worse records than MEAC and SWAC teams.

When HBCU teams finally did receive an invite, the expenses were significant and the results were lousy, usually a first-round loss.

Finally, MEAC commissioner Dennis Thomas decided that enough was enough.

After years of being rebuffed, Thomas, with a substantial commitment from ESPN in his back pocket, sold MEAC school presidents and coaches on the idea of a title game matching the champions of the MEAC and SWAC to determine a Black national champion.

On Saturday, a national television audience saw the fruits of Thomas’ effort: The sixth Celebration Bowl was won in an upset by MEAC champion South Carolina State. The Bulldogs upset Deion Sanders’ Jackson State Tigers 31-10 in front of a record crowd of 48,653 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“The playoffs have not been good for us recordwise or economicwise,” Thomas told me Friday.

No one really lost on Saturday. The payout per conference for this year’s Celebration Bowl is $1.15 million. Each conference will determine how much the conference champion will receive and how much will be distributed to other conference members. 

Whenever we talk about historically Black colleges, the narrative usually focuses on what was and what used to be: a rich past when Black athletes, barred from white programs, flocked to historically Black colleges and universities. We talk a lot about the golden age of Black college football. The Celebration Bowl represents a fresh narrative: the here and now of Black college football.

“We’re building on the legacy of back then,” said Charles McClelland, SWAC commissioner. “A lot of what we are doing is kind of like the movie Back to the Future. We’re trying to get back to where we were.”

As if on cue last Wednesday Travis Hunter, the No. 2 high school football recruit in the country, upset the recruiting applecart when he announced he would attend Jackson State and not Florida State, to whom he originally committed. His commitment was made in large part because of Sanders.

His commitment set off a tidal wave of debate, much of which underscored the need for a Celebration Bowl.

Critics said Hunter was hurting himself by attending a Black college, that NFL teams would punish him by ignoring him in the draft as they have ignored HBCU players in the recent past.

Either way, the move is good for Hunter, good for Jackson State, good for HBCU football in general and the SWAC.

“Those are the type of players that we had back then, and the vision for us is to move forward,” McClelland said. He added that the SWAC’s long-term goal is to eventually phase out the demoralizing “money games” where conference members play — and lose — to powerhouse teams for a big paycheck.

“I don’t think that our goals and objectives are to continue to play game guarantees against Power 5 schools,” McClelland said. “Our goals and objectives are to create an economic engine so when we play ourselves, we make as much or more money than playing the Power 5s. A lot of it is really going to be us identifying that we are special, that we are unique, and continue to grow that brand on top of the history and tradition that everybody talks about.”

The Celebration Bowl was announced at the College Football Hall of Fame in March 2015. In the inaugural game, North Carolina A&T defeated Alcorn State 41-34 in front of more than 35,000 fans at the Georgia Dome.

The Celebration Bowl might not represent a return to the glory years of the 1960s and early 1970s, but by crowning its own champion, the game unapologetically defines what success means to the Black college universe.

“The champion we crown is just as viable as the champion that anybody else crowns,” said John Grant, the executive director of the Celebration Bowl. “I don’t buy into anyone else’s narrative to define us. The Celebration Bowl is a wonderful way to switch the narrative.”

Grant said that the Celebration Bowl has “forced people to look ahead in the front windshield and not in the rearview mirror. This year’s Cricket Celebration Bowl represents a milestone in the journey of what is and what the possibilities are. This game has driven a new narrative for HBCU football, and the narrative is that it’s time for our kids to come home. Not all of them, but a lot of them.”

With Saturday’s upset by South Carolina State, the MEAC is 5-1 in Celebration Bowl games. But the conference faces potential problems that might threaten the integrity of the game.

North Carolina A&T, which won four of those title games, became one of two MEAC schools to leave the league and join the predominantly white Big South conference. Hampton left the MEAC to join the Big South two years ago. Two other MEAC members, Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman, left last year to join the SWAC. The departures leave the MEAC with the minimum number of football-playing schools to maintain NCAA Division I status.

“We’re stronger than ever before,” McClellan said.

How will the MEAC stop another member from leaving the conference and more importantly, who can it attract and will it reach out to a predominantly white institution? This is the challenge for incoming MEAC commissioner Sonja Stills, who begins her tenure as conference commissioner next month.

“The most important thing we have is the support from all eight institutions,” Stills told me Friday. “We’re going to look at how we can become stronger as an eight and not just jump at an institution that wants to come in.”

By contrast, the SWAC is in excellent shape.

The conference has the glitz of first-year head coach Deion Sanders at Jackson State and the buzz of a blue-chip recruit. Two weeks ago, former NFL head coach Hue Jackson was named the Grambling head coach.

“What you’re seeing now is really a part of the strategic plan. The death of George Floyd accelerated that plan. We have eyes on the conference that have never looked at the Southwestern Athletic Conference before. People are wanting to be a part of what we have,” McClellan said. “I want to create the movement. I want to be the movement: great entertainment value, reclaiming our student-athletes who normally would go somewhere else. Keeping our economic dollars internally, making money for the institutions and graduating the historically underserved. I think that’s the track and the trajectory we need to stay on.”

For all the success of the Celebration Bowl, there is hardly an expectation of a sudden surge of young Black students attending Black colleges. McClelland received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Prairie View A&M but earned his doctorate in higher education administration from Texas A&M University.

A lot of people fought very hard. A lot of people died for the right for me to go to any school that I want to go to,” said McClellan. “I would never be against you looking at whatever school. But I’m going to tell you, you’re going to miss out if you don’t go to an HBCU. A little piece of you — in some instances, a large piece of you — will not be complete without having that HBCU experience.”

The Celebration Bowl has become a cornerstone of that experience.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.