And now, Jackson State-Southern.
Realignment in college sports has fundamentally altered traditional rivalries. In some cases, a conference split has stopped teams from playing, relegated their matchups to at times rare out-of-conference games, or even made in conference, but cross-divisional games that were one annual a novelty. The most recent expansion of the SWAC and subsequent adjustment of the divisions put annual rivals Jackson State and Southern on opposite sides of the split, meaning they would miss one another on the conference schedule two out of ever six years. Thankfully, the two schools, with the help and support of the conference office, were able to find a solution with a little magic.
Magic City, that is.
Back in January, HBCU Gameday sat down with SWAC commissioner Dr. Charles McClelland to break down a move of the annual rivalry game, the BoomBox Classic, to Birmingham in 2023 and 2024. To be clear, the games aren't actually moving; the two schools would not have played in those years if they had not scheduled what is functionally a nonconference matchup. Still, why not a home-and-home in Baton Rouge and Jackson instead of a neutral site game that's at least 230 miles from the closest campus?
The SWAC's deal with Legion Field in Birmingham came from the offer of three rent-free events for the conference. The league, in turn, offered up the opportunity to members, and Jackson State and Southern, who were having difficulties scheduling for 2023 and 2024, saw this offer as a path forward (the third game will also feature Jackson State, who will face UAPB in Birmingham). These "SWAC Classic" games in Birmingham are part of a new foray into the steel city of the south, which hosted the SWAC football championship from 1999 to 2012. Southern and Jackson State last met in Birmingham in the 1999 championship. The games in Birmingham also provide significant winfall for both schools: Often, SWAC and other FCS schools are beholden to "money games" - lucrative but usually athletically demoralizing games against FBS and often Power 5 competition - to help fund the program. With Birmingham comping the operating costs for these games, each school stands to walk away with a substantial payout from each game.
Realignment has also moved Birmingham closer to the heart of the SWAC, as the addition of FAMU and BCU stretched the conference eastward. While Legion Field once again has a permanent tenant in the USFL's Birmingham Stallions, the Old Gray Lady is no stranger to college football either. In addition to annually hosting the SWAC's Magic City Classic between Alabama State and Alabama A&M, Legion Field was once home to the Iron Bowl, as well as a home-away-from-home for both Alabama and Auburn. The game will bring Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders into the veritable backyard of Alabama's Nick Saban; t he two traded words recently on the topic of NIL.
But Birmingham has more than college football in its past. The city is also an anchor of the civil rights era, central to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birmingham Campaign, and saw Dr. King imprisoned; firehoses and dogs turned on children at the behest of police commissioner Bull Connor; and the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church (among others) that killed four young girls. Birmingham is now hom to the National Park Service's Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. The population of the city itself is now nearly three-quarters Black.
The BoomBox Classic draws its name from the two schools' marching bands: Jackson State's Sonic Boom of the South, and Southern's Human Jukebox. If the SWAC classic games grow into a larger celebration of HBCU culture, it's not hard to see a battle of the bands popping off. Alabama is home to more HBCUs than any other state, and with the import of Jackson and Southern, the number will rise during that weekend. In addition to Bama State and AAM|U, Miles, Tuskegee, and Talladega all share the state, and Atlanta is only two hours away. While some of the Tiger and Jaguar faithful are not happy with the game leaving their respective campuses for these two years, there's a good chance the outcome could be something greater for the culture.