Southern Heritage Classic founder Fred Jones Jr., with WLOK President/CEO Art Gilliam alongside, addressed the Stone Soul Picnic crowd at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park this past weekend. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley/The New Tri-State Defender)

The 33rd Annual Southern Heritage Classic is once again embracing Memphis for several days this week with thousands expected to return to the hug.

And this year, with all the talk about it being the last pitting Tennessee State University and Jackson State University in The Classic, the need for a soothing hug feels literally true.

Short of a hug, a big positive huddle – or a whole lot of little ones – would seem in order. Such actually is part of The Classic’s tradition.

“You look around and you see families and little babies and grandparents, and everybody all huddling together during this Southern Heritage Classic,” said Fred Jones Jr., founder of the Southern Heritage Classic.

As has been the case for decades, this time of the year is go-time for Jones and the team of staffers and volunteers that make the Southern Heritage Class happen. Complicating matters is Jackson State University’s announced intentions to stop playing in the annual game pitting the rivalry of Tigers.

While he has been asked repeatedly about what will happen after this year’s week-long cultural celebration, Jones, a promoter, is sticking to his script.

“No comment on that. … Absolutely, no comment. … Only thing I can say, and not to deflect, our concentration and our focus and our discipline is on making this – as we do every year – the best Classic we can be.”

That, in part, involves leveraging the star power of Eddie George and Deion Sanders, the two high-profile, former NFL heroes who will coach The Classic clash of Tigers for the second consecutive year.

They, too, however, were fielding questions about the future of The Classic during their weekly media briefings.

Said George: “I understand the business side. Each party feels like they are not being compensated properly. You want to explore a new business structure. I get it. Last year, it was not a great deal of transparency on how the gate was divided. There is not a win-win. Where is the win-win? I don’t see (it) as a slight toward Tennessee State, but how (are) all benefiting from it.”

Sanders, whose reputation and presence at JSU has drawn a huge spotlight to HBCUs in general, said, “We’re going there (to the Southern Heritage Classic) for one reason and that’s to dominate. … We’re not going for nothing else. We aren’t going for the Classic. I’m not even going for my dear friend that I love, coach Eddie George.”

Sanders said he didn’t know if this would be the last Classic.

“I don’t call that shot. I make recommendations but I don’t call that shot.  Business-wise, I just want us to profit. I want us to benefit as well as Tennessee State. Coach George, I think he feels the same way. We have some of the same sentiments towards these classics. …

“I just hate giving up a home game when we could play that at home. We get at least 45,000 on a bad day. I would rather have that game at home.”

With that backdrop, is it going to be awkward in Memphis?

“How can it be awkward? We are coming to play football,” said Sanders. “The business aspect is not beneficial nor suitable for us.”

Meanwhile, as lawsuits are pending regarding assertions of broken contracts, Jones reiterates that he has no stated intention of focusing on “what happens after the Classic because after the Classic takes care of itself.”

Taking care of the Classic means making the rounds, such as the stop he made over the weekend at WLOK’s 47th Annual Stone Soul Picnic. As he does, he picks up on the vibes of the community, of the city. And from the Classic’s vantage point, he reports an “over-the-top feeling. … People really are into everything Southern Heritage Classic. …

“It has forced us to really concentrate on making sure that the little small things are taken care of because people are so excited. It is just a great feeling. But you get that feeling all the time with the Classic. 

“If we could get this feeling every week, every day, every weekend, every whatever, month, everything would be fine. It is just that kind of vibe that you get that comes with the Southern Heritage Classic.”

It’s a feeling that makes one want to hug another and/or huddle.

For a sense of where to go to experience that sensation, Jones points to SouthernHeritageClassic.com.

Then, he adds, “I would encourage people to participate. There’s something on this schedule that you can participate in (allowing for enthusiasm that has led to sellouts of events such as the annual tailgating.”

For Jones on this day, the next move was getting back with “the team,” several members of which were in the office working on details.

Thinking of them and the blanket of local support, Jones said, “You know that saying about it takes a village to raise a kid. Well, it’s taken this community to raise the Classic.”

(TSD Sports columnist Terry Davis contributed to this story.)

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