Special to South Florida Times

The Florida Classic, which was played this past weekend in Orlando, brought together two powerhouse Florida black schools, Bethune-Cookman University (BCU) and its Wildcats and Florida A&M University (FAMU) and its Rattlers in a 33-year rivalry that has become a storied game in the annals of black college football.

BCU brought 2011 bragging rights home to Daytona Beach for the first time since 2007 with a 26-16 win.

But the Classic is more than just a much-anticipated college football game.

“The Classic is a social event and a cultural tradition,” said Trudie Kibbe Reed, BCU president.

According to FAMU President James Ammons, the Classic represents an “opportunity to expose young people in this community to the great academic programs at Florida A&M University… Alumni have a chance to have reunions and gatherings… a chance to show off our athletic and musical talents which are enormous. We have a lot to be proud of here.”

The Classic “gives us an opportunity to recruit the best and the brightest,” Ammons added.

The game, which relocated to Orlando in 1997, won a “Resort Holiday” designation from the Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau – and with good reason.

The Classsic has been having an economic impact of more than $30 million on the area. And that impact reaches the people whose backyards become locations from which to watch the game; it involves people who rent out their garage or driveway so a vendor can sell ribs; it also involves some of the hotels, which are booked solid.

This year, the Classic had a special target: to clock the one millionth ticket sold in the game’s history. Officially, it fell short by around 3,000 but if parking, vendor lines and tailgate participants are any indication of the body count, then the one millionth target visitor likely was surpassed.

This year also saw a new title sponsor, BlueCross BlueShield of Florida; past and continuing national support has come from McDonald’s, ESPN, the U.S. Army, Honda and Coors.

The Classic’s legacy harkens back to a period when segregation unified African Americans around cultural events, particularly historically black colleges and university (HBCU) sports. Although, BCU and FAMU first met in 1925, the first Classic was played in 1978. FAMU rallied from a 17-0 half-time deficit to win that first big match-up 27-17 FAMU went on to win an NCAA Division 1AA Title.

Classic participation grew so much over the years that the venue had to be changed, until the game finally moved in 1997 to its current home, the Citrus Bowl, in Orlando.

Indeed, as the Classic has evolved, it has included a weekend of ancillary events that showcase the two schools’ commitment to providing opportunities for economic development. FAMU Boosters Dr. Chuck Ways and Dr. Claude D-Charles, neither of whom attended FAMU, commit both time and resources to support the event. 

This year, a Career Expo featured a listing of job openings by employers in attendance, described by Roger Lear, president of OrlandoJobs.com and host of the expo, as “a brilliant idea” for giving current students and alumni of BCU and FAMU an opportunity to be noticed by prospective employers.

Reed says her legacy will not only be that within her first year Classic revenue climbed from $400,000 per school to $1.5 million but also that the game continues to contribute to both universities facilitating the business of recruiting, retaining, and graduating well-prepared citizens.

And then there is the game.

The Wildcats victory stunned a confident Rattler nation as the clock ticked down to the final minutes of the game Saturday night. With that victory, BCU snapped a three-year losing streak.

FAMU had early hope that they would continue their rivalry dominance and slip into the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) playoffs when a blocked punt yielded a field goal to make the score 3-0 in favor of the Rattlers. But that was FAMU’s only lead of the game.

By halftime BCU was up 10-3, thanks to a four-yard touchdown run by Anthony Jordan in the second quarter — he would scored two touchdowns in the game — and a successful field goal attempt.

The Rattlers were unable to capitalize on their halftime break, with  BCU running back Johnathan Moment scoring early with a 43-yard touchdown, giving the Wildcats a 17-3 lead.

Wildcat fans had a scare when FAMU quarterback and team MVP Damien Fleming and wide receiver Brian Tyms rallied for a 62-yard touchdown pass, cutting the lead to 17-10. But it would not be enough to overtake the Wildcats, especially with FAMU committing five turnovers and getting only 58 yards rushing.

FAMU leads the series, 48-16-1.