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Seizing ‘what if’ moments a way of life for The Classic’s founder, Fred Jones

A “what if” element punctuates the life of Fred Jones Jr., the founder of the Southern Heritage Classic. It’s a recurring component that serves to keep him alert for opportunity.

Now 73, Jones reflected on such moments during a conversation with The New Tri-State Defender a month out from this week’s Southern Heritage Classic (SHC) cultural celebration.

“How many things that I have been involved in. What if I had never gotten involved in them? What if he (Dave Swearingen, former advertising legend with The Commercial Appeal) hadn’t convinced (Lionel) Linder (the CA’s late editor), that (supporting the idea of the Classic) was the way to go? 

“What if there hadn’t been someone like Verties Sails (the legendary, Memphis-area basketball coach) and (former Memphis City Councilman and businessman) Fred Davis that were on the board at the (Memphis Park) Commission, at least fighting some battles for you.”

And if Jones had not altered his fast-food breakfast routine this very morning, he would not have come across a fresh opportunity that he envisions positively affecting the staging of The Classic going forward.

“In life, we have to recognize moments like this,” said Jones, at home in his office in Whitehaven. “It’s not all about us. … But it is something that you’ve to recognize and appreciate when something like that happens.”

SHC – No. 32

The pandemic notwithstanding, The Classic will go on. For that to come to pass, some familiar things have gotten their usual precision focus: the logistics of what happens at the stadium, what happens with parking, what happens with traffic, the logistics of how you can move all these people around.”

By Aug. 12, all the available suites at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium had been sold. Four hours after the 500 available tailgate spots went on sale June 4, all were sold. Both benchmarks were reached way ahead of schedule.

“A couple of reasons (for that),” said Jones. “One, you got two NFL stars coaching with Eddie George (Tennessee State University) and Deion Sanders (Jackson State University). I think the biggest thing that I’ve heard from people is that we didn’t play last year. 

“In 2020, everything was shut down. … You can’t discount the pandemic, but I think the fact that not playing last year has really driven everything up a notch.”

There is a lot of buzz about high-profile coaches George and Sanders. Jones and his team are taking the increased attention in stride. As CEO of Summitt Management Corporation, Jones has had plenty of experience handling arrangements for big-name stars.

“But it’s nothing that we would do different other than we’re trying to make the best presentation of the Southern Heritage Classic and with these two enhancements,” said Jones, matter-of-factly.

After a storm of game-canceling dimension in 2018 and the burgeoning of the pandemic in 2020, it was paramount to play the game this year, Jones said.

That has necessitated constant contact with the City of Memphis and the Shelby County Health Department to stay on top of a fluid situation. He echoes the message of local health officials: “taking the shot and wearing masks and those things have proven to work.”

The plan is to make opportunities available for the non-vaccinated to remedy that on stadium grounds.

SHC founder Fred Jones Jr. at the 2018 Coaches Luncheon. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku/TSD Archives)

Money and passion

Annually, The Classic brings in an estimated $25 million, which Jones considers a conservative figure. Big companies to mom-and-pop operations get in on the yield. Each university is guaranteed $350,000.

“You got to do the business, but people involvement is the key to making it happen,” said Jones. 

“People involvement is what drives the sponsor involvement. If there was nobody coming to The Classic, we probably wouldn’t be doing this interview. Or, we’d be having another interview … totally different from what we’re talking about.”

The Classic annually demonstrates that there is a passion on the part of participants that far transcends a football game, said Jones. It’s people – largely African-American people – doing things they love and taking in variety.

“We ain’t bashful, especially during The Classic,” said Jones, “because you’re going to have Tupac playing right here and BB King playing right next to you.”

Growing up in Memphis, Jones recalls the spirit of Beale Street and how tangible that feeling was when he was five or six. Replicating such a spirit is an ongoing drive of The Classic.

“I said this before, if we had the same kind of spirit and feeling that we have that weekend every weekend, every day, things would be a lot better,” he said.

“We’re in a world where things can go awry quickly and you don’t understand why. But to this point, people have a passion (about The Classic). And when people have a passion for something, they react to it. They react to it and act different.…

“And they do have passion. They’ve got passion for the Southern Heritage Classic. … The Classic is the pride and joy of Memphis. It’s no question about it. Talk to anybody. They will tell you that; maybe not in those words, but other words. 

“There’s a lot going on here, aside from the $25 million. All of that stuff is fine. But when your pride and your joy is tied up into something, that’s another moment.”

 

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