The state farm bayou classic wasn't the only sporting event in Louisiana, sportsman's paradise, over the Thanksgiving weekend. Last Friday night oyster-bar TVs showed the Ben Franklin-Sacred Heart schoolgirl volleyball game for the state title. In Baton Rouge on Friday afternoon LSU defeated Arkansas in football to earn a place in the SEC championship game. Lord knows there were Louisianans catching bass and killing deer. But there was nothing, anywhere in the state, that could match the Bayou Classic for soul and color, for funk.
The classic, held for the 30th time on Saturday, is the annual football meeting of two historically black Louisiana universities, Grambling State and Southern. The game is played on neutral turf, at the Superdome, the New Orleans football cathedral where six Super Bowls have been played. The house was packed, as it always is for this game: 70,000 people, nearly all of them African-American, many of them Bayou Classic regulars. They're onto something. Most every year, the game and the weekend around it are far more entertaining than any Super Bowl production.
The whole thing is a party, a three-day celebration of football, black culture, state pride and school loyalty. It seemed that whenever you tried to cross a street last week, a high school marching band was parading by, the majorettes black and beautiful. Street vendors sold Kangol hats and African Shea Butter skin moisturizer and knockoff Burberry handbags. The plush lobbies of the Canal Street hotels, ordinarily the province of white businessmen in starched shirts, were the weekend living rooms of scores of black families on holiday, looking comfy and deeply into the whole laissez les bon temps rouler thing.
The weekend had moments of solemnity, most notably around noon on Friday, during a benediction at a coaches luncheon for players, sponsors and boosters. Up on a dais, separated by a half-dozen administrators, were the two coaches, the bespectacled and trim Pete Richardson of the Southern Jaguars and the spacious Doug Williams of the Grambling Tigers. Richardson, an Ohioan, came to Southern, in Baton Rouge in brackish south Louisiana, in 1993. Since then the Jaguars have lost only once to Grambling. Williams, a native son of Louisiana, is a football hero across the state, particularly in the vicinity of Grambling, in the woodsy north. He played for Grambling (and famously in the NFL) and returned to his alma mater in December 1997 to succeed his coach, the iconic Eddie Robinson. Williams was 4-0 in the Bayou Classic as a player, but going into last week he was 1-4 coaching the game.
"Southern's a little haughty," Williams said on Friday, escaping the dais during the salad course. "They're down there in the capital city. We're just a country team."
At the lunch, which was held in a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, Richardson was hounded by well-wishers and waiters with cameras and state troopers with Sharpies. "You get used to it," the Southern coach said of his annual bout of celebrity.
The players sat at round tables, wearing suits and drinking Coke out of eight-ounce glass bottles, most of them ignoring the Marine Corps recruiting cards placed in souvenir coffee mugs. The weekend was a chance to reach a lot of well-educated black people, and State Farm and Coca-Cola and the U.S. Marines took advantage of it, along with scads of others. In a conference room near the ballroom, dozens of companies and universities had set up recruiting tables. You could have filled a shopping bag with brochures about Enterprise car rental, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, not to mention Kansas State, Penn State and Alcorn State.
Friday night at the Superdome there was the Battle of the Bands and Greek Step Show. At least 20,000 people were on hand but no footballers. The coaches had their players sequestered in suburban hotels. Smart move. The show was not intended to quiet the heart or any other part of the body.
The Greek component consisted of performances by dance teams representing each of the Divine Nine, the five fraternities and four sororities with chapters at many of the country's historically black colleges. The sisters, some of them impossibly luscious and wearing outfits that would have made J-Lo blush, lip-synched to lyrics that sounded like "It's a brand-new dance called the hooka-looka." Try going to sleep after that.
Nothing in a Michigan-Michigan State halftime show could rival what the Southern and Grambling band members and cheerleaders did on Friday night at the Superdome. It was beyond words, really, except to say it had something to do with percussion, with catching high notes and with shake-shake-shake, shake-shake-shake. Who knew that team fight songs could be so titillating? You had to hear it live to get it.