MikeCheck: HBCU bragging rights in tradition rich Tuskegee-Morehouse Classic extend to Memphis
MEMPHIS – They vow to keep it civil.
But for the next few days, at least, there will be some competitive hostility throughout the office and around the city when they cross paths. Bragging rights are definitely on the line for Mike Sutherland and Kaelin Bridges. Normally, they’re close colleagues at the Memphis branch of Georgia-Pacific. But at lunch this week, the two instinctively separated themselves with an empty chair between them.
Just to sort of keep a safe distance.
“It’s obviously a big rivalry, and it’s one of those love-hate things,” said Sutherland, a 42-year-old Morehouse graduate. “On one hand, there’s a brotherhood and sisterhood at all HBCUs. But at the same time Morehouse is still the best. When it comes down to it, I always represent Morehouse in any competition anywhere.”
Bridges countered, of course.
“We all know ’Skegee is at the top of the line,” said Tuskegee grad Bridges, 23. “We’ll keep it civil and cool at the office this week. On campus, that’s different. That’s a different story altogether now.”
The days leading into the annual football showdown between Tuskegee and Morehouse – two of the nation’s most tradition-rich Historically Black Colleges and Universities – send shockwaves of pride through the country. And they reverberate to Memphis, where both schools have solid alumni bases.
In major college football, the Florida Gators and Georgia Bulldogs are known for the World’s Largest Cocktail Party when they meet each year and bring hundreds of thousands of fans to Jacksonville.
On one hand, there’s a brotherhood and sisterhood at all HBCUs. But at the same time Morehouse is still the best. When it comes down to it, I always represent Morehouse in any competition anywhere.-- Mike Sutherland
For NCAA Division II football, the Tuskegee-Morehouse Classic does much of the same on a smaller – but equally intense and festive – level when these programs meet at the midway point of their campuses for a neutral-site game. That showdown is Saturday in Columbus, Georgia, at the 83rd Tuskegee-Morehouse Classic, one of the longest running “Classics” on the Black College football schedule.
The Tuskegee-Morehouse game has drawn an average of 25,000 fans the past two years. By comparison, the NCAA Division II national average attendance last season for all football games was 3,273. It continues a trend of HBCU schools dominating their counterparts at the gate. According to NCAA figures, 10 of the top 19 average attendance marks in 2017 on the FCS level were set by HBCU schools.
And on the Division II national level, Tuskegee led the NCAA in 2017 home attendance while Morehouse was third. The football rivalry between the two schools is essentially the Harvard-Yale of the HBCU ranks, and dates back to 1902. And much like their Ivy League counterparts, Tuskegee and Morehouse are more acclaimed for producing some of the world’s greatest leaders, entertainers and scientists.
So naturally, even over lunch at Lafayette’s in Midtown to discuss the significance of the football rivalry, the conversation easily pivots to world news, notable alumni and societal impact. For every reference Sutherland can make to fellow Morehouse Men in Martin Luther King Jr., Edwin Moses, Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson, Bridges can point to Tuskegee’s Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Alice Coachman and Lionel Richie.
Verbal sparring aside, there’s at least one point on which the two easily agree.
“Right off the top, when you think of Tuskegee and Morehouse, it’s like the top competition of black excellence,” said Bridges, who graduated with a supply chain management degree and is a procurement specialist in Memphis. “We’re just trying to keep the tradition alive. And if it’s lasted this long, there’s something there that’s solid and concrete.”
This might be battle week heading into Saturday’s game. But for the other 51 weeks of the year, there’s far more of a significant bond that ties the two schools together.
“One of the biggest things about Morehouse is the legacy of Martin Luther King, knowing he came through the same matriculation I went through, and to became what he became means everything,” said Sutherland, who’s been in Memphis three years as an information technology executive. “So to see that and also to see where you’ve sustained in ways where a lot of other schools have fallen off, I definitely take pride in Morehouse and Tuskegee still going strong.”
We’re just trying to keep the tradition alive. And if it’s lasted this long, there’s something there that’s solid and concrete.-- Kaelin Bridges
That’s the case on the football field as well.
Tuskegee (3-2) has historically dominated the matchup between the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference members, having won 20 of the last 24 meetings. But Morehouse (5-0) is off to its best start in a decade and is the lone undefeated HBCU team on any level in the nation.
Sutherland and Bridges won’t get to the Classic this weekend in Georgia. But one of them will certainly make it into the office in Memphis bright and early next week with plenty to say – depending on the game’s outcome.
“We’re going to ball and party,” Bridges said of the company’s handful of Tuskegee grads if the Golden Tigers prevail. “And (Sutherland) is going to be the first person I look for at the office on Monday.”
Sutherland responded with a playfully dismissive smirk, as if to take the high road.
“It will be simple,” Sutherland shot back. “When Morehouse wins, I won’t rub it in too much. I’ll just walk by (Monday) and waive. I might pop my collar a little bit. At the end, we are friends first. And we respect each other. It’s all fun and games. There might be a little trash talk, but nothing major.”
MikeCheck HBCU Power Poll 4.0
1. North Carolina A&T (4-1):
Off the field, controversial sports journalist Jemele Hill recently made a speaker’s visit to N.C. A&T as one of the first stops in her post-ESPN career. On the field, the Aggies recovered from a humbling loss to Morgan State by scoring 28 unanswered points to rally past South Carolina State and reclaim the top spot in the power poll.
Last week’s ranking: 2
Up Next: Thursday vs Delaware State (0-4)
2. Tennessee State (2-1):
The Tigers fell just short in their upset bid, with a 31-27 loss at Vanderbilt despite 310 yards and three TDs from quarterback Demry Croft. But all thoughts and prayers at TSU are with linebacker Christion Abercrombie, who remains in critical condition after emergency surgery for a head injury he sustained in the first half of Saturday’s game.
Last week’s ranking: 1
Up Next: Saturday at Austin Peay (2-3)
3. Prairie View (3-3):
In front of nearly 48,000 fans at the State Fair Classic in Cotton Bowl Stadium, the Panthers took the early inside lane to a SWAC West Division title by knocking off three-time conference champ Grambling. Prairie View’s 22-16 victory snapped the Tigers’ 26-game conference win streak, which had been the second-longest in FCS.
Last week’s ranking: 4
Up Next: Bye
4. Morehouse (5-0):
The Maroon Tigers make an art of surviving nail-biters. Three of their five wins are by four or fewer points, including two in a row by the same 23-21 score. They’re the lone unbeaten squad in Black College football entering Saturday’s huge SIAC showdown. Beat Tuskegee to go 6-0, and there’s no way to hold Division II status against them in the power poll.
Last week’s ranking: 3
Up Next: Saturday vs Tuskegee (3-2)
5. Alcorn State (4-1):
It was foolish to leave the Braves unranked until now. A dominant win at Southern solidified them as a force again in the SWAC. Coached by Fred McNair, older brother of late NFL quarterback Steve McNair, the Braves have won four in a row since a season-opening loss at Georgia Tech. Since then, Alcorn State has allowed just 9.5 points a game.
Last week’s ranking: unranked
Up Next: Saturday vs Alabama State (1-3)
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