Chuck Williams: Losing Tuskegee-Morehouse Classic would be a huge mistake

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 14, 2013 

RVs and tents are set up for game day tailgating before the start of the Tuskegee-Morehouse Classic.Darrell Roaden/Special to the Ledger-Enquirer

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The Tuskegee-Morehouse Classic is an important piece of the Columbus cultural and sports landscape.

It is far more than a football game that comes and goes each October. For 78 years it has been woven into the sports fabric of Columbus.

It truly is a classic.

Now, there is talk that organizers could move the game out of Columbus. Possibly to Phenix City. Maybe Montgomery, Ala. Classics involving historically black colleges and universities are big business. They generate revenue for cities large and small. They play them in Dallas and Orlando.

If the Tuskegee-Morehouse committee put the game on the auction block, it would be interesting to see what cities submitted a bid. It has been here so long, Columbus has probably reached the point where it is taken for granted.

That would be a huge mistake.

The Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates the game is worth $1.2 million to the local economy. It is far more than that. Last Saturday morning, people who would not go to A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium lined the streets of downtown Columbus for a glimpse of a parade that featured the Tuskegee and Morehouse bands, two of the best college show bands in the business.

That's culture. And it's rich.

And there is also history. Start with the schools. Tuskegee, located 45 minutes west of Columbus, and Morehouse, in downtown Atlanta, have given this community some of its finest leaders. Retiring Superior Court Judge John Allen and the late A.J. McClung were Tuskegee men. U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop is a Morehouse man.

Many bright students leave here and head to Tuskegee and Morehouse. We have doctors, dentists, judges and corporate executives who attended one of the two historically black private universities.

One of the things that makes this classic different is it has been played in Memorial Stadium since 1935. It was established when Auburn and Georgia played their annual rivalry in Columbus. Long after Auburn and Georgia left town, Tuskegee-Morehouse has remained.

Committee Chairman Howard Willis said in a Ledger-Enquirer story last week that "the future of the game is going to be up for grabs."

That is not good news for Columbus. The city and the Columbus Sports Council, which is responsible for recruiting and retaining athletic events that drive tax revenue for the city, must take this threat seriously.

Willis said the classic's expenses, which includes housing the teams, is about $80,000. That's a lot of money, but this game is important enough that the city and sports council need to find a way to make it work.

The city can't give away the farm in these tough financial times, but they can be creative in finding a deal that works for all.

There is only one possible hitch in opening the purse to the Tuskegee-Morehouse committee to keep the game here. Next month, the Fountain City Classic featuring Albany State and Fort Valley State will be played in Memorial Stadium, just as it has been every year since 1989.

So, whatever is done to protect the Tuskegee-Morehouse game is probably going to have to be done "times two." Fountain City Classic Chairman Calvin Smyre, a longtime state representative, will almost certainly look to the city and Sports Council for a similar arrangement.

Is it worth it? That is a question city leaders and Sports Council Executive Director Herbert Green are going to have to ask -- and answer.

But, they should probably ask the question in a different manner.

"Can we afford to lose these games and turn Memorial Stadium into a high school-only facility?"

If you lose these games, it will be difficult to get them back.

Chuck Williams, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com

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