On Saturday, Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman will meet on the football field as they do every year. They have played since 1925, but in 1978 the November contest earned its present moniker — the Florida Classic.
While most eyes are on Florida’s major colleges each week, these two FCS/Division II schools seek to earn the title of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. But the Florida Classic, played in Orlando one week before Rivalry Week among FBS/Division I schools, is arguably the most important rivalry game among Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).
Bethune-Cookman has won the last five games in the rivalry, beginning in 2011. On that November day, the Wildcats beat the Rattlers 26-16 in front of 60,218.
Precious few remember the score or the attendance. Millions know what happened after that game.
Following the game, criminal hazing took the life of FAMU’s Marching 100 Drum Major Robert Champion. The football program, as well as the entire university, is still trying to recover.
The ensuing furor saw band director Julian White retire after the suspension of the Marching 100. Not long afterward, FAMU President Dr. James Ammons stepped down. Dr. Larry Robinson, serving two stints as interim president, bookended the brief, polarizing tenure of Dr. Elmira Mangum.
While not openly campaigning, Robinson seems to be drawing support to be hired on a permanent basis. Hopefully, he will be strongly considered.
The athletic department has had a rough five years as well. Athletic Director Derek Horne was let go in 2013. NFL Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow lasted only eight months as AD.
Interim AD Nelson Townsend tragically passed away, replaced by Interim AD Earl D’Wayne Robinson. Milton Overton, Jr. has been on the job since June 2015 and appears to be making progress.
The football program also has been through a tumultuous period. Joe Taylor, the coach of the 2011 team, abruptly retired before the Florida Classic in 2012.
Winslow appointed Corey Fuller as interim coach before bringing in Earl Holmes for the 2013 season. After going 6-16, Winslow fired Holmes on Homecoming weekend, of all things.
Alex Wood was hired for the 2015 season and he took his lumps. The Rattlers finished 1-10 in his first year, bringing their record to 11-35 since that awful day in 2011.
Wood’s second season started with a 70-3 embarrassment at Miami on the way to an 0-4 start. After the fourth loss, Wood said his team was “not very good.”
The purpose here is not to lament the woes of Florida A&M football or the university itself. It merely serves as a baseline for what is happening now.
By that measure, there is reason to begin to feel good about the school, the athletic department, and the football program.
After Wood’s “not very good” comment, for which he earned criticism, his team has now won four of their last six games. Although the Wildcats will have something to say about it on Saturday, FAMU will be playing to finish at 5-6, which would be their best year since 2011.
Overton is earning praise for his leadership in the athletic department. Yes, he has stepped on some toes, but that goes with the job.
Robinson was already a known quantity and was expected to do a good job in the president’s role. He has not disappointed.
Saturday’s game is the most eagerly anticipated contest since the tragedy. Attendance has dropped off precipitously, falling to 20-year lows.
If a big crowd witnesses a good game, then the rivalry is back on in full. The Wildcats come in at 3-5, but have won their last three games. They have also had two weeks to prepare following a bye week.
May it be a Classic.