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This year’s ‘Classic’ yields another chapter about stepping up in crunch time

An organization’s readiness for a much-anticipated event tends to show when crunch time looms, especially when the unexpected pops up bearing its own deadlines.

“With the Classic, you’ve got a whole bunch of those stories,” said Fred Jones Jr., founder of the Southern Heritage Classic Cultural Celebration, which will reverberate in Memphis for the 34th time on Sept. 7-9.

“9-11, Katrina, weather-related stuff, the one we had to cancel because of the lightning, then we had to cancel because of COVID,” said Jones.

“I had to make a big decision two years ago to shut the Classic down. It wasn’t popular. Everybody was saying I was premature … that I had too much autonomy, that I needed to check with somebody. On the fourth day after it was over, they came back around because people around the world started shutting down. …”

When it comes to such decisions, Jones is the trigger man. However, he does not operate in a vacuum.

“You’ve got good, quality, dedicated people,” Jones said, sitting in the front room of his home and detailing the crew that is focused on delivering another top-notch event. “The Classic has been about integrity. We’ve haven’t been … fly-by-night.”

Integrity is an absolute necessity when the goal – as it was with the Classic – is to “create something that would have longevity, year after year,” he said. “We’ve accomplished that goal.”

Fred Jones Jr. and the team that annually delivers the Southern Heritage Classic have shown a commitment to sustainability throughout the life of the Classic. (Courtesy photo)

Tennessee State and Jackson State had been playing each other before the Classic took the root, Jones recalled.

“A coach had left Jackson State and took all the coaches to Tennessee State. There was a bitter rivalry between the schools. But then you didn’t have the structure to take it forward. … That structure became the Southern Heritage Classic. Because of that structure, we’ve been able to survive the turbulence, the headwinds we’ve run into.”

Getting to this point has involved a long view of preparation. Yes, the Southern Heritage Classic Cultural Celebration is anchored in September. Being ready for September means having put in as much work as possible well in advance.

“When it gets past the fourth of July, it’s downhill … rapid fire,” said Jones. “You try to get off to as much of a start early on. …”

Over the years, technology has affected the task at hand, with social media now a growing factor in spreading the word about the Classic, which has a mailing list of 70,000-plus.

This year’s Classic notably is distinguished by the addition of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff as TSU’s opponent.

“The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff is really into this Memphis market,” said Jones. “The energy level and what they are doing and how they are doing it … they are stepping up. This is a big deal for them and they are treating it like that.”

UAPB steps into a ready-made model.

“We’re not really having to start all over. It’s a new team, but the process is already there. … Every day it seems they are grabbing a hold to it. …There is a big connection with this (the Memphis) community – and a lot of other people around the country in general – with that school,” said Jones.

For Fred Fred Jones Jr., founder of the Southern Heritage Classic Cultural Celebration, the show goes on. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku/The New Tri-State Defender Archives)

JSU’s abrupt exit from the Classic spurred questions:

“What are they going to do since Jackson State left? … Will they (UAPB) draw like Jackson State?”

Most schools following JSU to the Classic would be challenged to match JSU’s footsteps given the school’s history and tradition,” said Jones.

Well, will Jackson State be back?

“The concentration is (on) this year. … The only conversation is 2023, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff – UAPB – and Tennessee State University – TSU,” said Jones, who found UAPB officials “very interested” when he made an initial call to gage the university’s interest in joining the Classic.

Now, there is a two-year contract with UAPB, two years remaining on the contract with TSU and two more years with the City of Memphis for the stadium.

“It’s very important for this year that we play, that we have a big level of support … that we lay out the red carpet, or the carpet period whether it’s red, black or blue or whatever. The Classic needs that.

“Beside from the schools, the Classic in Memphis needs to have a successful event this year behind all of the conversation and all of the gyrations and turbulence. … I’m throwing the kitchen sink at this one. There will be nothing held back in terms of advertising and promotion, fan engagement. …We’re out there right now.”

Jones said the beauty of the situation is that he hears people talking about the Classic wherever he goes.

“The city needs this … we need to have a Memphis celebration,” said Jones. “We can have this with the Classic. A successful event will have that kind of impact. That’s why I’m going at it as hard as I can.”


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