The freshman walked into Tuskegee University football coach Willie Slater’s office and asked him a question about playing Morehouse College, “So, this is a big game, huh?”
Recalling the moment, Slater smiled and said when he first came to Tuskegee to coach in 2006 he didn’t realize the importance of the contest, either.
“I do now,” Slater said. “It’s a big one.”
He said it won’t take long for his young players to learn that.
From the beginning of the season, players at Morehouse know the score.
“You don’t want to look past any opponent, but people on campus keep reminding our players how important it is to beat Tuskegee,” Morehouse College football coach Rich Freeman said.
The two NCAA Division II teams first played each other in 1902 and the 76th annual Tuskegee-Morehouse Football Classic will be played Saturday at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium in Columbus.
Both coaches were in Columbus Wednesday to promote the game that is expected to attract 30,000 people and, according to city officials, bring more than $1 million into the local economy.
The coaches said playing the game on the neutral field in Columbus has helped to make the game a great tradition.
“The fans really love coming here,” said Slater, who is 52-10 since coming to Tuskegee in 2006. “This game represents history and it is a privilege to be part of it.”
Freeman called it “a special atmosphere.”
It’s not just the tradition of the game that Freeman likes to talk about but also the Tuskegee tradition, which includes 28 Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships, including four of the last five, and eight Historically Black College and University national championships, the last in 2007.
Tuskegee has won 19 of the last 25 meetings between the two teams and seven in a row.
Last season, Morehouse was 5-0 coming into the game and lost 31-15.
This season, Morehouse is 4-1 and Tuskegee is off to a uncharacteristically slow start at 1-3.
“We could be 4-1 or unbeaten and Tuskegee winless and we’d still be the underdog,” Freeman said, speaking about Tuskegee’s tradition. “I see what is unseen and that is the way their players handle themselves. Nobody has their head down. They do what they are told.”
The tradition of success means a lot, he said.
He doesn’t, however, think that it affects his players psychologically.
Freeman remarked that as a head coach and assistant coach he has lost all 10 times he has faced Tuskegee.
He is trying to build a similar tradition at Morehouse. He took over a program that had won a total of six games in the two previous seasons and has gone 28-13 in four winning seasons. He thinks the team can win the SIAC title this year and maybe much more.
“Everyone knows to win the title you have to come through Columbus,” Freeman said. “We’ve got to beat Tuskegee and that is a tremendous hurdle.”