By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For the Birmingham Times
Donald Hill-Eley gets it.
The interim head football coach at Alabama State University is in his third year on the Montgomery campus and is just three weeks removed from having been handed the reins when now former head coach Brian Jenkins was let go on Oct. 6.
But Hill-Eley knows that the McDonald’s Magic City Classic presented by Coca-Cola is no mere football game. It’s even bigger than the biggest homecoming.
“It’s what I call a city-coming, or a state-coming,” he said. “You can have two teams come together and sell out a venue and overpopulate the city.”
The game may not be a sellout but there’s no doubt that Birmingham is painted maroon and white, and black and gold for the week of this contest. It is said to be the largest football classic of historically black colleges and universities.
Alabama Agriculture & Mechanical leads the series with 39 wins, 33 losses and three ties.
And no one who has experienced this clash of Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC) rivals would question it. Certainly not A&M coach James Spady.
“It’s my experience that the Magic City Classic takes a second place to nobody,” the Bulldogs coach said. “It’s one of the highest attended games every year in the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision).”
The 75th meeting in 2016 of the Hornets and Bulldogs drew an announced record attendance of 70,813. The previous high for the Classic was at another milestone as the 50th drew 70,200.
But the throngs who crowd into Legion Field for Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. kickoff is only part of the story. Another horde will line the streets as the annual Magic City Classic Parade winds through downtown on Saturday Oct. 28 at 8 a.m. on a new route, going east on Abraham Woods Boulevard from 17th Street, turning right onto 19th Street, turning right onto Fourth Avenue North, right again onto 16th Street and concluding at Sixth Avenue North.
The festivities began Monday as tailgaters began to fill the parking lots that surround the Old Gray Lady on Birmingham’s Graymont Avenue. It took about an hour and a half to sell the spots that were made available online.
The final spaces were sold as this week began.
“There’s so much interest in this event and being a part of it even just from a tailgating aspect,” said Birmingham Park and Recreation Director Kevin Moore. “And those days leading up to the Classic, you have the Tom Joyner Morning Show at the stadium.”
Thursday, Oct. 26 you’ve got the Classic Kickoff presented by The Marines at 7 p.m. in Bill Harris Arena at the Birmingham CrossPlex.
You’ve got the 2017 Taste of Music and Food festival at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26 at 1623 Second Avenue North featuring Dru Hill, Silk, Dani, Yung Vocalz, Clint Babers and others.
Tom Joyner and his crew descend on the Jefferson County Department of Health Friday morning, the Coors Lite Tailgate Party is at 10 a.m. Saturday, and rapper T.I. performs in the Coors Light post-game concert inside Legion Field.
“All that entertainment makes people want to be in that area,” Moore said.
Once again, a new neighborhood has mushroomed around Legion Field as tailgaters have taken up residence, some as early as Monday.
“I’ve heard reports of 30,000, 40,000 people out there,” said David Galbaugh, vice president of sports sales and marketing for the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau, referring to past Classics. He said the Classic’s economic impact is trending upward with $18.7 million in 2015 and $22.8 million in 2016.
“I don’t see that momentum shifting,” Galbaugh said. “It’s going to be the same kind of event, which is significant for our area.”
Hotel rooms become scarce as fans from far and wide make their way to the Magic City. Then there’s food at restaurants, gasoline for cars and the various entertainment events this week.
“It’s a pretty big deal for us,” Galbaugh said.
Erroll Reese is co-host and producer of The Sports Shop Radio show, an ESPN affiliate morning drive program in the Raleigh/Durham market in North Carolina. He’s also a Birmingham native who played football at Alabama A&M.
“I grew up in Birmingham, in Bush Hills,” Reese said. “I grew up with the rivalry and then when I went to A&M, I ended up being a part of the rivalry. I grew up with the Classic – going to parades, the whole nine. My family still is very much involved in the event.
“When you grow up in that environment, it’s all about that game,” the 2010 A&M Hall of Famer inductee said. “Homecoming is a big deal at most schools but that’s (like a) homecoming for both of those schools. You really want to win that game.”
Toss Out The Records
Roscoe Nance, former USA Today writer who now writes for BlackAmericaWeb.com, agreed that win-loss records are often discarded when it comes to the Classic.
Following an off week for each, Alabama State is 1-5 and Alabama A&M is 3-4.
“Come on, you know the routine,” Nance laughed. “If (former ASU coach Brian) Jenkins could have lasted to the Magic City Classic and won that, he’d still have a job. It matters. It matters. It’s a game that always matters.”
Jenkins was in the third year of a three-year contract. He was released not long after the Hornets opened the 2017 campaign with an 0-5 record.
Albert J. Benifield is president of the Alabama A&M Alumni Association. The Birmingham native and Pearland, Texas, resident adheres to the cliché theory that you can throw the record books out when State and A&M meet.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I don’t think the records make a difference. (Fans) come back for a variety of reasons. One, of course, is the game. The other is to meet with old classmates and friends. For some people, it’s an annual thing. Since I graduated in ’78, I’ve missed maybe four or five classics and those were with me being away.”
Jeffery McDaniel agreed. The Jefferson/Shelby ASU Alumni Association member said the Classic is more than wins and losses.
“It’s so much about fellowship, comradery, reflecting to the alma maters,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s so much more than just the game, so much more than just the game.”
The challenge for each coach is keeping his team focused while surrounded by distractions.
“When you’re playing in the game, you don’t get to participate in any of those events,” Hill-Eley said. “(We) have to continue to get them ready to play in a contest as big as that.”