VOL. 133 | NO. 177 | Thursday, September 6, 2018
By Pete Wickham, Special to The Daily News
While sitting at his desk, Fred Jones needs only to take a quick look up and to his right to see the strides made by him and his Southern Heritage Classic. But what does the 70-year-old Jones see when he looks up at the hopeful guy in his early 40s staring back from a newspaper photo accompanying a story prior to the inaugural game in 1990?
Fred Jones is founder of the Southern Heritage Classic. “At the time, we were still trying to convince people that (the event) was something that could work in Memphis. The pundits said it couldn’t and we’re still around 29 years later.” (Daily News/Jim Weber)
“Other than the fact he got older and lost most of his hair?” Jones said with a chuckle. “What strikes me is that he’s still basically doing the same thing he was 29 years ago, still trying to prove himself, still trying to improve the event.”
The tradition renews Saturday night at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, as Tennessee State meets Jackson State. Between 40,000 and 50,000 will attend the game after the parade, concert, fashion show and some serious tailgating. Annually, those fans produce a steady economic impact of $21 million for the city. Over the years, classic participants have taken home nearly $12 million in payouts.
Kevin Kane, president and CEO of Memphis Tourism, said the event “basically allows us to extend the summer tourism season a week past Labor Day. It’s crucially important where it is on the calendar and always a strong driver for tourism in this city.”
When the picture was taken, Jones admitted, “We didn’t know where we were going, or what it was going to be like.”
A longtime veteran of the music business before he ventured into the world of historically black colleges and universities football, Jones likened his original idea to being a songwriter. “You write a song you’re sure is going to be No. 1, you feel like you have something, but you don’t unless people respond and buy into it.
“At the time, we were still trying to convince people that this was something that could work in Memphis. The pundits said it couldn’t and we’re still around 29 years later.”
Jones’ first big boost came during a meeting with Dave Swearingen, then marketing director at The Commercial Appeal. “I took him a blank sheet of paper. We didn’t even have a name, just a concept. But that first day, he said to me ‘if you pull this off, you’ll have the biggest event in town.’ ”
Jones said Swearingen taught him how to deliver a strong presentation with the right promotional materials. “This brochure we use now is still a concept from Dave’s shop. He worked with us to develop the logos we’ve used over the years.”
29th SOUTHERN HERITAGE CLASSIC
Tennessee State vs. Jackson State
5 a.m. – Tom Joyner Show broadcast live from Tiger Lane at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium
9 a.m. – College & Career Fair, Pipken Building/Fairgrounds, free.
8 p.m. – Music Festival at Landers Center featuring Tank, K. Michelle, Ro James and Major. Tickets $55-$85 available at Landers Center box office or Ticketmaster.
9 a.m. – Nike Kids’ 3K at National Civil Rights Museum, run-walk for children ages 6-14. Register at classic website.
9 a.m. – Parade, along Park Ave. from Haynes to Airways, will feature local high school bands.
11 a.m. – Fashions and Brunch at Crowne Plaza East, 2625 Thousand Oaks Blvd., presented by Memphis Chapter-National Coalition of Black Women. For ticket information go to classic website.
6 p.m. – 29th Southern Heritage Classic football game. Tennessee State (1-0) vs. Jackson State (0-1), Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Tickets $23-$53 available through Ticketmaster or at Liberty Bowl box office.
From wooing executives like Nike’s Willie Gregory (his high school classmate) and Paul Harless at First Tennessee Bank, Jones learned that when considering events with which to partner “they were looking for situations where they could better communicate with their customers in a fun atmosphere.”
But the foundation of the game, and its success, he said, started with three athletic directors: W.C. Gordon at Jackson State, Bill Thomas at Tennessee State, and Dr. Vivian L. Fuller, who served as AD at both schools during her career.
“To her, it was always how do you handle the business end, what will it mean (in terms of gain) to the university,” Jones said. “Bill and W.C. wanted to keep the matchup going, and it was hard to do in a home-and-home format. They determined Memphis was the best place to put it,” Jones said
Consistency and continuity have been the cornerstones of Jones’ approach. Go with what works. Over the years the two best draws, outside of the game itself – tailgating and the parade.
“We’ve overrun the Liberty Bowl tailgate area,” he said. “We have 500 spots, and they sell out two weeks after they go on sale. We could sell 5,000 spots, but then you couldn’t park anyone else. … And the parade … we get letters from outfits across the country wanting to march in our parade.”
Ironically, both events found themselves ensnared in perhaps the two lowest moments of the event’s history.
Tailgating was all but squashed the year the SHC shared the same date with the University of Memphis. The U of M played its game in the afternoon, cleared out and the classic then hurriedly moved in.
“Neither of us could tailgate on the grounds, and we used satellite lots for our tailgaters,” said Jones, who remembers the fury that came from the African-American community at what some viewed was a snub to the classic.
“There were folks wanting me to file a lawsuit about it,” Jones said. “My mother, Lula Mae, was so angry. She kept telling me ‘Why can’t we just have one day …’ She was just furious. I had to grab her, hug her and tell her ‘Look, I’m going to work this out.’ And we did. Said we would do it one year but then we would have our own date. And it’s worked out since.”
The first parade in 2001 was set for Thursday, Sept. 13 – two days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“I was supposed to be in the parade, but I’m sitting in the office,” Jones said. “They called me asking where I was. I could hear the drums and music, but I’m trying to figure out what we were going to do (in the wake of 9/11). It was a real awkward position. The NFL and SEC announced they were not going to play. The OVC said you could play but the SWAC said they weren’t. Grambling had gone to Cincinnati for a classic and they had to come back home.”
The game was rescheduled to Thanksgiving weekend, and the new date drew fewer than 25,000 people – the lowest attendance for the contest.
Just having the game was paramount, Jones said. “You have to keep the continuity no matter what. You break that chain and it’s hard to put back together.”
Jones said he doesn’t worry about the fact that Tennessee State has won 13 of the last 15 matchups against Jackson State, including the last six in a row.
“Game last year was 17-15. Ended on a missed field goal. Jackson State makes that, and we’re having a different conversation,” he said. “But the fact that our game is early in the year … there’s still that sense of anticipation. And at JSU they’re excited about having Hal Mumme (the ex-Kentucky head coach with his Air Raid offense) as their offensive coordinator. It’s that anticipation – this could be the year.”
The game has reached a comfort zone with consistent 45,000-plus crowds the past few years, and a consistent economic impact of $21 million. What sustains it?
Jones said it’s the seniors who run this. “The grandmas and grandpas who tell the young ones ‘I’m buying the tickets, we’re going.’ ” Almost like parents or grandparents who insist their children go to church, he said.
More than statistics or attendance, Jones likes to focus on the individual stories he keeps hearing.
“The woman in a wheelchair or on a cane who said: ‘I had to come … may not be here next year but this year I had to come.’ And the family’s with her.”
Or the young people he’s heard over the years say that seeing the game, and everything around it “inspired me to want to go college.” Or the guy “who is a security officer now somewhere, but is there and telling me that he was in the band and got to march in the classic. It’s still the highlight of his life.”
He also credits a group of 200 volunteers, including several close friends, who work the events and keep them going. “From my years in the music business I’ve learned how to execute a plan, and these folks have been with us long enough that they know how things should run and how to deal with what I call the ‘What if’ situations.”
One of his six children, 50-year-old Nathaniel, takes time from his job to plug into the event's build-up and execution. He’s not the only one of Jones’ children and 19 grandchildren involved in some way, and 10 great-grandchildren are warming up in the bullpen.
He hasn’t considered how long he’ll stay atop his organization. “Right now, I’m taking care of myself and I feel good,” he said. “But to be honest, I never thought I’d be at this as long as I’ve been.”
Jones said he’s not worried about that day coming because there are “enough people who know what they’re doing. That’s the foundation. So often the community gets wedded to this personality called Fred Jones, but it’s so many people who have been part of this and understand what it takes. … And the biggest decision-makers will always be Tennessee State and Jackson State universities.”
Still, Jones hinted that as the 30th Southern Heritage Classic approaches next year, “you’ll start to see some elements of the future. A little like a chameleon starting to change colors.”