Southern Heritage Classic Founder’s Vision: Go Big

By Don Wade

It’s a funny question to him now, 26 years down the line and the Southern Heritage Classic an unquestionable success.

One of the highlights of the Southern Heritage Classic, which marks its 26th year Saturday, Sept. 12, is the performance of the schools’ bands.

(Steve Jones)

So founder Fred Jones Jr. laughs when asked if he had to bankroll the first game with mostly his own money.

“Not mostly,” he said, “not mostly.”

There are many ways to document the evolution of the Southern Heritage Classic Cultural Celebration, which is so much more than just one football game, and that begins on Thursday, Sept. 10 and continues through Saturday, Sept. 12.

But one way is by looking at the list of major sponsors. This year that list starts with presenting sponsor FedEx and includes AutoZone, Allstate Insurance, Nike, Carrier Corp. the Governor’s Highway Safety Office and Coors Light.

For the first game 26 years ago, Jones had but one sponsor: Coca-Cola, and the company didn’t come on board until plans for the game already were in motion.

“Today, I wouldn’t think about it if I didn’t have a sponsor,” Jones said, adding that he always wanted to prove such a game could make it in Memphis. “When I go into the community now, people are smiling – looking forward to this. I feel good about it. That’s what drives me.”

A Memphis native, Jones graduated then-Memphis State University in 1971. He’s made a career out of putting on shows and booking iconic singers and musicians in Memphis, including Ray Charles, Tina Turner and Lou Rawls.

The annual Southern Heritage Classic match-up between Tennessee State University (blue) and Jackson State University has grown into a three-day event encompassing much more than a football game. 

(Steve Jones)

His vision for the Southern Heritage Classic, even when he was losing his own money, was to go big. This year’s event starts with a business conference, college fair, VIP party and concert on Thursday. On Friday, there’s a live TV morning show broadcast from Tiger Lane at the Fairgrounds, a continuation of the college fair, a coaches luncheon at The Peabody, the “Greek Showdown,” and a music festival.

Saturday’s festivities start with tailgating at 8 a.m. at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium parking lot and also at 8, the Ed “Too Tall” Jones Golf Classic at Tunica National Gold & Tennis. At 10 a.m., Whitehaven High School’s stadium will be the site of the “Classic Battle of the Bands.” At 11 a.m., there’s a fashion show and brunch at the Holiday Inn University of Memphis.

And last, but certainly not least, at 6 p.m. at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium the football game featuring historically black schools Tennessee State University and Jackson State University. And of course both school’s bands will perform at halftime and TSU’s Aristocrat of Bands and JSU’s Sonic Boom of the South will engage in the traditional 5th Quarter battle of the bands.

Yet as much as Jones loves creating a huge production, he is also clear: the football game matters.

Tailgating for the 26th annual Southern Heritage Classic begins at 8 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 12, kicking off a full day of festivities leading up to the 6 p.m. game.

(Steve Jones)

“The harsh reality is, you take away the football game what would you have? It’s just like the Super Bowl – it’s first and foremost about that football game.”

Unless, that is, rain comes into play this season. Long-term, parking for football games at the Liberty Bowl is an issue as uses for the Fairgrounds continue to be debated. Short-term, Jones knows the bulk of on-site parking is on grass.

No rain, no problem this year. A little rain, still no major issues.

“If it rains really hard on or near game day, it becomes a nightmare,” Jones said. “Short-term, if it doesn’t rain, it works.”

More information about all of the SHC events can be found at Tickets for the game are priced at $50, $35 and $20, plus service charges. All seats are reserved; tickets may be purchased at Ticketmaster outlets or online at To charge by phone, call 800-745-3000.