Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl teams set for a throw-back matchup
By Master Sgt. Chance Babin, Air Force Reserve Recruiting Service
/ Published December 12, 2016
ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- Now that all the dust has settled, the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl has the two top teams from the Southwestern Athletic Conference and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference set to battle for the crown of historically black college and university national champion.
The Grambling State University Tigers, led by Head Coach Broderick Fobbs, are set to take on the North Carolina Central University Eagles, led by Head Coach Jerry Mack.
This marks the second year for the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, which showcases the heritage, legacy, pageantry and tradition of HBCUs. The game will be televised live on ABC to open the bowl season. The postseason college football bowl game will kick off at noon ET on Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
This year’s matchup of Grambling and North Carolina Central is a case of history repeating itself in a sense as the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl is a reincarnation of the original SWAC vs. MEAC championship game that went by the name of the Pelican Bowl back in 1972, which only lasted three years. The Heritage Bowl brought back the series in the 1990s. The current game has the financial backing and support of ESPN.
Back when the Pelican Bowl was first envisioned, times were much different in the college football scene and the American landscape. Many of the social injustices that students at HBCUs were fighting against, were being resolved. Ironically these positive changes had a negative impact on HBCU athletic programs. The Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference had begun integrating their football teams, and the HBCU teams were competing for recruits with these larger programs.
From this environment it was determined that a holiday bowl game to determine the HBCU champion would bring some attention to these institutions.
The first Pelican Bowl featured the Grambling Tigers led by future Hall of Fame Head Coach Eddie Robinson against the Eagles of North Carolina Central.
From the onset, things did not go well with the Pelican Bowl. It was originally scheduled to be played at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but a shooting on campus caused the game to be moved to Durham, North Carolina.
The game, which drew 22,500 fans, turned out to be a lopsided victory for Grambling. The Tigers won 56-6, taking home the Black College Football national title.
The Pelican Bowl didn’t take place in 1973 for various reasons but was resumed in 1974-75, being played in New Orleans. However, sparse attendance and a lack of financial backers and television contract led to the fledgling bowl’s demise.
It also didn’t help that the newly founded Bayou Classic, which pitted Grambling against Southern University in the last game of the season, drew 70,000 fans, while the Pelican Bowl never drew more than 30,000 people. In the final Pelican Bowl between Southern and South Carolina State, fewer than 7,000 fans showed up.
Fast-forward 44 years and things have changed so much in both the country and the sports world. But one thing that is exactly the same is Grambling and North Carolina Central will once again be meeting on the field to determine the HBCU national champion.
With Air Force Reserve Command as the title sponsor and the game being aired on ABC as the first bowl game of the season, this second-year bowl has found the traction that its predecessors never achieved.
"It's such an honor for the Air Force Reserve to be the title sponsor of this game," said Chief Master Sgt. Darin Thomas, chief of advertising for the Air Force Reserve Command Recruiting Service.
"The organizers of the Pelican Bowl had a great idea in the early ’70s for a game that may have been before its time. I'm glad we can be part of the revival of this great matchup and have the opportunity to carry on the vision and legacy between the MEAC and SWAC to help determine the true HBCU champion. It’s special that this year's matchup has the original two teams from the first Pelican Bowl in 1972."