by Hal Lamar
Resumption of Pioneer Bowl comes on 80th anniversary of first HBCU Bowl
I wonder if those organizing the resumption of the Pioneer Bowl are aware of the historical significance of the scheduling.
For the benefit of those who don’t know and as a reminder for those who do, it was 80 years ago this year that toe met leather to kick off the Prairie View Bowl, believed the first ever post-season match organized for what then were referred to as “colored” colleges.
The game was played on New Year’s Day and featured the Prairie View Panthers (who hosted the game until its demise in 1961) against the Lions of Atlanta University. Yes, once upon a time, AU, which later dropped its undergraduate classes and became a total graduate college l ,fielded a not-to-shabby grid team. Over 10,000 fans crammed Houston Texas’s West End park January 1, 1929 to witness the Lions best the Panthers 7-0 thanks to an 11th hour 80 yard touchdown run by AU’s Red Jones.
The game was well publicized by the nation’s black press and the account likely stirred ideas for copycat games. One which went from planning to rather quick implementation occurred on December 2,1933 when the first Orange Blossom Classic kicked off. The OBC was the principal idea of Florida A&M business manager JRE Lee who made all the arrangements for the first mixing between the Bison of Howard University and FAMU who hung on to defeat their visitors 9-6 before a crowd of better than 6000 at Durkee Field in Jacksonville, Florida. The game remained in J-ville only four years, largely because of the refusal of city fathers to allow the game to be moved to the Gator Bowl which at the time frowned on the idea of “Negroes” using toilets and locker rooms reserved for whites. The game was moved to Miami where it domiciled until 1978 and enjoyed rousing success. Crowds approaching 50,000 were not uncommon. By 1979, the “classic” had to became part of FAMU’s regular season ( prior to 1965, the OBC nor any other HBCU post-season game was sanctioned because black colleges were barred from membership in the NCAA.). The OBC also became the first HBCU to appear on the silver screen. The 1940 game was filmed by Pathe News and was shown in movie houses across the country.
In 1941, Birmingham, Alabama became the venue for the first Steel Bowl which changed its name after five years to the Vulcan Bowl. The inaugural pairing featured the Morris Brown Wolverines of Atlanta against the Green Wave of Wilberforce University. Behind great broken field running from MBC franchise back John “Big Train” Moody, the Atlanta elevens coached by William “Billy” Nicks (who later coached at Prairie View) won the contest 19-3 and with the win came proclamation as the 1941 HBCU national Negro championship. Whether the Steel/Vulcan Bowl survived past 1946 is debatable since INSIDE could find no account of the game after that period.
From 1940 until 1946 ,a number of post-season games for black colleges were birthed. In 1942, Jacksonville, which lost the OBC via racism nine years earlier, got a second chance when it hosted the first Flower Bowl game between Johnson C. Smith University and Lane College. The Golden Bulls shut out the Dragons 13-0. Four years later, the Bulls defeated Allen University 18-6 in the first Cotton-Tobacco Bowl played before 5000 at Memorial Stadium in Greensboro North Carolina. In 1945, the “Big Blue” of Tennessee State University collided with soldiers from Godman Field in Louisville Kentucky to kick off the first Derby Bowl in Louisville. It was sponsored by the city’s black newspaper, the Louisville Defender. In 1946, the Angel Bowl game kicked off in Los Angeles pitting FAMU against Wiley College of Texas. The same year, the Azalea Bowl bowed in Orlando, Florida with Knoxville defeating Florida Normal 18-0 before 4000 spectators. Dallas, Texas was the forum for the launching of the first Yam Bowl contest in 1946 between Tuskegee and Southern University.
Only a handful of the aforementioned bowls survived into the 1960s. The granddaddy Prairie View Bowl closed its stores after the 1961 game. Many black colleges had joined the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) when the governing body opened its doors in 1953. The NCAA didn’t admit HBCUs until 1965. By then, most of the colleges were entangled in regulations from the governing bodies over bowl sanctioning which contributed to many of the heretofore non-sanctioned events closing their doors. On December 2, 1972, North Carolina Central University faced Grambling in the first Pelican Bowl in Durham, North Carolina. Grambling won the first meeting 56-6 . The Pelican Bowl was the first post-season game for HBCUs sanctioned by the NCAA. In 1974, the NCAA sanctioned a second such contest when Atlanta hosted the Gate City Football Classic. Co-sponsored by Atlanta radio station WIGO, the December 21 contest featured the Spartans of Norfolk State against the Golden Tigers of Tuskegee. The Goldens pulled out a 15-14 win with a field goal in the final 18 seconds of play.
6252 fans witnessed the first….. and last Gate City Bowl.
Another post-season contest for HBCU gridders didn’t emerge until 1979 when an All Star game was organized involving all four of the HBCU conferences and independent schools. The game lasted two years at the New Orleans Superdome before it died.
In 1984, the Freedom Bowl pitted all stars from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference. It was played in Atlanta at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium( since torn down) and stayed two seasons before it packed up and left. In 1990, the game breathed its last in Houston, Texas.
The following year, the Heritage Bowl kicked off from Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Florida. The first game generated good media attention and backing from a major car rental agency but drew only 7700 fans. By 1993, the game was moved to Atlanta and the Georgia Dome. It was played on New Year’s day and, despite detractors who said it would never work on that date, drew 36,000 fans. The date of the contest was moved to the weekend following Christmas Day to encourage TV exposure. Unfortunately, the game never reached the 36,000 it achieved in 1993 and a decision was made to suspend the contest for 2000 with promises to return.
It never did.
By 1989, and largely through the effort of the late Wallace
Jackson, the SIAC’s first full time Commissioner, the Pioneer Bowl became the fourth post season HBCU event sanctioned by the NCAA. The first contest pitting champs or reps from the SIAC and CIAA was played in December of 1997 with Kentucky State facing Livingstone College at Morris Brown’s Herndon Memorial Stadium. Before 8000 fans, the Thorobreds stopped an 11th hour drive by Livingstone at the one yard line and won the inaugural contest 30-26. The game was played each year until 2008 when it was suspended by the two conferences.
The Pioneer Bowl’s 11th edition December 5 at Charlie Johnson Stadium on the campus of Benedict College where it last played in 2007 has brought HBCU post-season bowls events full circle. Prairie View started it all in 1929. Now, 80 years later, the Pioneer is the only black college “bowl” still operating. Will HBCUs continue “bowling” or could this be the beginning of the end for “our” second season?.
The 11th playing of the Pioneer Bowl 2009 kicks off at 2pm, Saturday December 5 from Charlie Johnson Stadium on the campus of Benedict College. Tuskegee University takes on the Vikings of Elizabeth City State University. For ticket info, call the CIAA at 757-865-0071 or the SIAC at 770-908-0482.
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