Historic first: Georgia Tech set for initial game against historically black college program

ATLANTA — The band’s booming brass bass was bumping.

The fans, caught in the deafening fever pitch of the sound, rocked and rolled to the furious-sounding rhythms that required them to get out of their seats just to clap along.

Meanwhile, the clock — a big, can’t-miss, high-hanging stadium fixture — charged curiously along, hastily counting off the halftime minutes until it reached all zeros.

Glancing at the clock’s light bulbs and its ever changing tick-tocks, Paul Griffin leaned over to the game’s operations manager.

“The clock’s getting ready to run out and the other band hasn’t even gotten on, are they going to get screwed?” Griffin asked, shouting above the band from the sidelines. “He said, ‘Nah, just watch.’ ”

At two minutes exactly, the clock stood still and remained that way until the other band took the field, finished its performance and the second half of the football game he came to see marched on.

“You can’t stop the clock,” Griffin, Georgia Tech’s senior associate athletic director said last week, chuckling from his office as he recounted a story from his first black college classic experience. “ ‘The (heck) we can’t!’ the guy said. Halftime took 40 minutes. That was an eye-opener for me.”

Yellow Jackets fans, prepare to have your eyes opened this week, too.

When Georgia Tech takes on South Carolina State on Saturday in its season opener at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the program will take a bold step into the record books.

No, the Yellow Jackets aren’t in line to have the longest halftime show in the history of college football; they’re headed for something much more monumental.

For the first time in Georgia Tech’s long and storied football tenure, the Yellow Jackets on Saturday will face an historically black university football program. In doing so, they will become the first of the two flagship, BCS-level programs in the state to accomplish the feat.

“Really?” a somewhat befuddled Yellow Jackets A-back Roddy Jones said. “Wow. For us to break barriers like that and do stuff that’s never been done is awesome, and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Saturday’s 1 p.m. kickoff will mark the 118th season start for the Yellow Jackets. But it will be only the first time that toe meets leather for a matchup that at one time may never have seemed destined to exist.

History or money?

While the novelty of a pairing between a longtime predominately white institution and an historically black university may seem unique, this is not the first time such schools have met on the gridiron.

On the FCS level, they meet all the time. But it is against larger BCS-contending programs where there is the most intrigue.

By unofficial estimates, previous to this season, there had only been 12 such meetings between ACC schools and historically black universities, with Florida A&M and Miami meeting eight of those times. The SEC — again, by unofficial checks of sometimes spotty past schedules — has only played six such contests.

In addition to Georgia Tech, Maryland will represent the ACC this season when it plays Morgan State on Sept. 11.

Aside from Florida A&M, as historically black universities go, South Carolina State has one of the most prolific experiences playing BCS-level teams. This game will now mark the Bulldogs’ fifth against that type of opponent in four seasons.

“Those were very good experiences for us,” South Carolina State athletics director Charlene Johnson said.

In 2007, her Bulldogs faced South Carolina, which won 38-3. The next year, they were shut out by Clemson before giving the Gamecocks a much stiffer battle last season. South Carolina State has also played Air Force in recent years, sending large groups of fans to Colorado for the game.

“When you play these games, they test your team’s playing level, and they work to help build your rapport in the state among all groups of football fans,” Johnson said.

For decades, many of the games were not scheduled because fo laws that pervaded much of the culture of the times. Particularly in the South, where Jim Crow “separate but equal” legislation ruled the land for more than a half-century, blacks and whites couldn’t share lunch counters, let alone football fields.

For example, Georgia Tech didn’t start its first black player until 1970 when the strong-armed Eddie McAshan quarterbacked the Yellow Jackets as a sophomore, leading them to a 9-3 season and a Sun Bowl win. The Florida native eventually was drafted by the New England Patriots.

While the rhetoric of yesteryear no longer impacts the world as it once did, these days, scheduling of games like Saturday’s remains difficult, Griffin said, because of traditions borne out of segregated times that likely may never fade.

“When I think of I-AA (FCS) schools — in fact, I still call them I-AA and not FCS — I just think of the schools as a collection of guys, schools,” said Griffin, who spent stints as the athletics director at Arkansas State and South Florida before arriving to Georgia Tech. “The fact of the matter is, the historically black colleges and universities that play football have their own rich tradition and have their own philosophies.”

Traditions, like hosting games dubbed classics.

For those unfamiliar with black college classics — like Griffin was before the day he stood on the sidelines watching two bands cheat Father Time — they are mega events that involve football, food, bands and unrivaled pageantry.

“It’s like a bowl game,” Griffin said. “It’s huge. It’s a great event. Imagine 50,000 people in the Citrus Bowl.”

For his first classic experience, Griffin, a New York native whose subtle, quick-talking accent still turns heads south of the Mason-Dixon Line, saw Florida A&M battle in-state rival Bethune-Cookman in Orlando, Fla., during the annual Florida Classic.

He believes some historically black colleges shy away from scheduling BCS teams like Georgia Tech simply because the revenue stream is only comparable, at best, to what the classics typically bring in.

“My experience with many schools like that is that rather than wanting to play I-A money games, guaranteed money games, you’ll see across the country the classics. The Florida Classic, the Circle City Classic in Indianapolis,” said Griffin, whose role at Georgia Tech includes scheduling operations. “So they play those games where they can do the same thing. Maybe come to Atlanta, recruit Atlanta, get their alumni involved and make the same or more money out of that kind of a game because they’ve all been pretty successful economically and otherwise.

“That probably contributes to the fact that we haven’t had any matchups against historically black colleges.”

Preparing for a showdown

An important point Griffin raised is that, at least for now, football fans in Georgia should not brace for any impending Georgia Tech-Morehouse matchups or Georgia-Fort Valley State games. Within current rules, they just can’t happen.

“A team in the Football Bowl Subdivision (like Georgia Tech or Georgia) may count one victory against a Football Championship opponent toward the definition of a deserving team — ‘deserving teams’ (Georgia Tech or Georgia) have to win six games — provided the opponent has averaged 90 percent of the maximum number of grants-in-aid for football during that two-year period,” Griffin said, quoting the NCAA’s 2010 Division-I all-sport manual.

In layspeak, that means an FBS or BCS program like Georgia Tech or Georgia can only count one of its wins per season against an FCS team if it wants to be bowl eligible. In order to be bowl eligible, such teams need only six wins. One single win per year against an FCS team can count in that six. South Carolina State offers enough scholarships to be considered FCS. Morehouse and Fort Valley State do not and therefore compete in Division-II status.

“In football, that limits who (Division-II and lower) teams can play,” Griffin said.

Those scholarship rules don’t, however, affect the scheduling of basketball and other sports. And as a result, although it hasn’t been announced yet, Georgia Tech will be playing an Atlanta-area, Division-II historically black university in a basketball exhibition this season, Griffin added.

While there are these sorts of rules and regulations school officials have to follow when scheduling such games, there are other things they have to pay attention to, as well — specifically, the logistical make-up of the game itself.

“I sent our logistics staff over a couple weeks ago to check out the facilities at Georgia Tech and to just make sure everything will meet our requirements for our band,” Johnson said. “We have a very large and active band and cheerleaders, and it’s not easy to always navigate new environments with them.”

South Carolina State is expected to have eight or nine buses for band, dancer, cheerleader, player and coach personnel alone, she said.

Of course, transportation of groups that size can cost steep prices. As part of its game contract, Georgia Tech enticed South Carolina State to play the game with the promise it would pay the university $225,000. Griffin estimated $20,000 of that would go to transportation, hotel and meal costs for the players and entertainers.

Speaking of the contract, how did this game get scheduled in the first place?

Those currently at Georgia Tech don’t really know, other than the fact that it began with simple friendships.

“Bobby Robinson, our former associate AD and the former AD at Clemson had scheduled this game,” Georgia Tech athletics director Dan Radakovich said.

Although Robinson’s name does not show up on the contract — only those of Radakovich and former Georgia Tech assistant athletics director Larry New do — others involved pointed to him as the initiator who simply believed this was a game both teams would want to play.

But even after Robinson’s departure more than six years ago, other connections between the schools eventually cropped up, as well.

Buddy Pough, South Carolina State’s head coach, was at South Carolina as an assistant under Lou Holtz 10 years ago. Also in Columbia, S.C., at the time was Radakovich.

“Buddy Pough, who I worked with at South Carolina is their head coach, so it just kind of all came together. Bobby knew Buddy as well during his time at Clemson,” Radakovich said. “Many times, these games come together because of relationships with either athletic departments or coaches and staff people. It’s probably less to do with any historical significance that may come as a result of playing a game.”

Be that as it may, history has landed on Georgia Tech’s doorstep.

‘Shouldn’t be the first’

News that the season opener held historical significance caught Radakovich, Griffin and others around Georgia Tech’s administrative offices off guard.

“I don’t know that we’ve thought about it,” Griffin said. “I didn’t know it was the first.

“It shouldn’t be the first, and it shouldn’t be the last.”

The Yellow Jackets are currently booked with their FCS opponents through the 2015 season. So at the earliest, it would be 2016 before Georgia Tech could schedule another game with a historically black program. So might South Carolina State be coming back to Atlanta that year?

“Sure,” Griffin said. “It’s about time that Tech provided that opportunity to an historically black college or university, and we’ll have to work harder to make sure it’s — like I said before — not the last.”

Yellow Jackets quarterback David Sims, a redshirt freshman backup, is from St. Matthews, S.C., a 15-minute drive from South Carolina State’s Orangeburg campus.

“I remember when the schedule first came out, I was expecting us to be playing Jacksonville State again, and then I saw South Carolina State — I thought it was a misprint,” Sims said.

The Yellow Jackets hosted Jacksonville State in their openers the past two seasons.

Sims, who used to go to Bulldogs games to watch a cousin play in the band, said he had several friends from high school all-star games on South Carolina State’s roster and he looks forward to seeing them on the field before the game. Better than any of his current teammates, he knows first-hand how stiff the challenge the Yellow Jackets will be facing can be.

“Like (quarterbacks) Coach (Brian) Bohannon was telling me earlier, I need to remind our guys that some of those guys, they had the offers, some of the same offers as us,” Sims said. “Maybe they were missing something else that kept them from going to a Georgia or a Georgia Tech.”

With game week now here, the trash talk between school officials, albeit that of a light variety, has already begun.

“It’s a test we have to prepare for, but at the end of the day, we expect our young men to go out and play and we expect our young men to work hard and not give up,” Johnson said, before adding. “We want to win this game.”

While Griffin is now well aware of the extra importance Saturday’s game holds, he also understands that when the teams step on Grant Field, there will be two numbers on the scoreboard he’ll be looking for by late afternoon. And neither has anything to do with the clock.

“So Georgia Tech’s significance in terms of bringing South Carolina State to this city is I assume it’s going to be good for them, I hope it’s good for them,” Griffin said, before grinning. “I hope they lose.”