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Magic City Classic 2021: ASU Powerhouse Recognized on 30th Anniversary

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Members of the 1991 Alabama State football team during homecoming earlier this month. That team captured the HBCU National Championship with an 11-0-1 record and is part of the recently announced 2021 ASU Hall of Fame. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., For The Birmingham Times)

By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.

For The Birmingham Times

Former Alabama State University football quarterback Rickey Jones remembers the Magic City Classic of his senior season as the one for which he predicted victory by two or three touchdowns.

And he remembers his coach was not happy about that brash statement during the 1991 season.

“Houston Markham got on me about that,” said Jones, who now lives in Jackson, MS, speaking of the then ASU coach. “He didn’t want me to predict that. He got on me and told me, ‘If you’re going to predict it, man, you’ve got to go out there and do it.’”

Jones and his fellow Hornets more than backed up the senior signal-caller’s prediction, beating the Alabama A&M Bulldogs 59-13.

The 1991 Alabama State football team went down in history as one of the best in school history. Markham, who passed away in July 2019, led the squad to an undefeated record, winning 11 games and tying one.

Members of the squad and assistant coach Roger Pritchard were honored during halftime of the 2021 ASU homecoming game on October 9 for the 30th anniversary of that magical season. That recognition included the team’s induction to the initial class of Alabama State University’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

This year’s Alabama State team will face rival Alabama Agriculture and Mechanical University at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday in the 80th McDonald’s Magic City Classic presented by Coca-Cola at Legion Field.

The ’91 Hornets outscored opponents 40.75 to 15.25. Only a 14-all outcome with Texas Southern kept ASU from achieving perfection that season, which began with tight wins before ending with explosive victories.

But that tie didn’t keep Bama State from raising eyebrows. It blanked Prairie View A&M 92-0, downed Grambling State 60-14 and blitzed Johnson C. Smith 62-6 before beating North Carolina A&T 36-13 in the Alamo Heritage Bowl.

Darren Hardy was a 1988 product of Birmingham’s West End High School and part of Markham’s first recruiting class. He says There is no way he could have realistically predicted the level of success he and his ASU teammates would experience in 1991, said Hardy, who played middle linebacker on the ’91 team.

“The only thing that I really was expecting was to get my degree, play some good football and then go on and live my life” Hardy said during recent homecoming festivities. “But fortunately, I was around a great group of guys. Through the process, guys developed the kinship and the spirit that over those years, it all just came together. And once it came together, man, we were almost unstoppable. I mean unstoppable.”

“Building A Legacy”

Emanuel Martin, who played free safety on the ’91 team, said Markham and his assistant coaches had the vision to make the ’91 team a reality.

“They felt like they were gonna be doing things. They were building a legacy,” said Martin, whose son Kimar Martin is a redshirt senior defensive back on this year’s team. “(Markham) always told us, ‘We’re planting the seeds, son. We planted this tree.’ He said, ‘We might not be able to enjoy the shade and the shadow, but I our offsprings will.’”

Markham was the winningest coach in ASU football history coaching the Hornets from 1987-1997 and amassing a 68-47-4 (.588) record.

Pritchard, the linebacker coach that season, remembers that recruiting played a major role in the program’s success.

“We knew we had a chance to if we could get some more kids on campus,” he said. “They had Proposition 48 and we signed a bunch of linemen, knowing that they weren’t going to be eligible and they qualified for federal grant money. Once that class stayed on campus for one year, we just had a surplus of linemen. That’s really what won for us.”

Proposition 48 is an NCAA regulation, enacted in 1986, that stipulates minimum high school grades and standardized test scores that student-athletes must meet to compete at the collegiate level.

“We just did a good job recruiting as a staff,” Pritchard said, “and got some players in here and, I guess, we coached them hard enough to win it.”

One member of the ’91 team was closer to the coach than others. Houston Markham III is the son of the coach and was a punter on the 1991 team. He initially came to Alabama State to play baseball and major in mathematics.

“In 1990, I saw some qualities in these young men as I watched them practice,” he said. “I asked my father could I just walk on just to be a part of what I thought was going to be special. And that it was.

“At first, it was a little tough because he was extra tough on me, ensuring that he didn’t give the perception that he was showing favoritism,” the younger Markham said. “But after about two or three weeks, what a magnificent ride it was, the most awesome years of my life.”

Robinson was drafted by the Houston Oilers in the second round of the 1992 NFL Draft. In 1999, he started for the Tennessee Titans as they made it to Super Bowl XXXIV, losing to the Kurt Warner-led St. Louis Rams. Robinson also  played for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills.

Jones was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams and played for the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. While they played professionally, it is that special senior season that inspires wistful recollections of days gone by.

“Unstoppable”

It was success that was born from a baptism by fire as freshmen in the 1988 season. Markham arrived in the Montgomery in 1987 and the senior class of 1991 comprised his first recruiting class.

That class established a standard that has gone unmatched.

“As a whole, we had some great athletes on that team,” Jones said. “You had between 12 and 15 guys, if they did not start as true freshmen, they got a lot of playing time as true freshmen. By the time we hit our junior and senior year, we gelled. It was good that we were in the same offense and also we were in the same defensive scheme.

“By the time we became juniors and seniors, we knew we would be unstoppable.”

Members of the ’91 ASU team were motivated after missing out on the SWAC championship the year before.

“We had a pretty good freshman and sophomore campaign but the junior year, we really were the best team in the conference,” recalled Robinson, a two-time SWAC Defensive Player of the Year, a Sheridan Black College All-American and the Black College Sports Defensive Player of the Year in 1991. “But we had a couple early season losses. Although we beat Jackson and Grambling, Jackson still won the conference.”

That left the Hornets desperate to achieve at the level they thought they should.

“That senior year, there was a lot of pressure on us, a lot that we put on ourselves,” Robinson said. “It was our last chance to try to win the SWAC.”

The Hornets tended to start slowly each season in those days. In ’91, the team opened with a 28-27 win over powerhouse Jackson State. A couple of close victories set the squad on its march to history.

“Once we kind of got our feet under us, the offense with Rickey Jones really took off,” Robinson said. “At that point, I felt like we probably could have played with anybody in the country.

“He was Michael Vick before Michael Vick,” the former linebacker said, comparing his teammate with the elusive quarterback best known for his play with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. “He (Jones) was the original No. 7. He did all of that stuff Michael Vick did and then some.”

Darrell Hudson wasn’t a member of the football team but the principal at A.H. Parker High School was a student at ASU in the fall of 1991. He could have been forgiven for being spoiled by the success of that squad.

“I won’t say it spoiled us,” said Hudson, now president of the ASU Board of Trustees. “It was a very magical and special season, especially being a student here, knowing so many players. They did raise the expectations and the bar to a new level.”

Carl “Lut” Williams, publisher and editor of The Black College Sports Page, said the 1991 Hornets were “as dominant a team as there has been in Black college football over the last 30 years, in terms of them going undefeated and the way that they beat teams.”

ASU’s MAGICAL 1991 SEASON (11-0-1)

Opponent                                        Score                    Outcome

Jackson State                                   28-27                    W

Southern                                          19-16                    W

Alcorn State                                     18-13                    W

Troy State                                        22-19                    W

Texas Southern                                 14-14                    T

Samford                                          31-28                    W

Prairie View A&M                              92-0                      W

Alabama A&M                                  59-13                    W

Grambling State                              60-14                    W

Mississippi Valley State                    48-20                    W

Johnson C. Smith                            62-6                      W

North Carolina A&T                          36-13                    W

Source: Alabama State University Football Media Guide

Updated at 8:53 a.m. on 10/26/2021 to correct team record. Updated at 11:40 a.m. on 10/26/2021 to correct where Jones lives.