Forty-years of back-and-forth in the football rivalry between Southern University and Grambling State University don’t mean much to one longtime member of Southern’s governing board, at least not when the money starts slowing down.
Tony Clayton, a Southern law school grad and member of Southern’s Board of Supervisors, didn’t wait more than two days after Southern beat Grambling 40-17 in this year’s Bayou Classic in New Orleans before deciding to rub some salt in the rival school’s wounds.
Clayton on Monday confirmed that he sent an email to Southern board members raising the possibility of kicking Grambling out of future Bayou Classic match-ups. The contract between the two schools is good for one more year.
The idea sparked a bunch of “no comments” and unreturned phone calls Monday from supporters of both universities. Of the few who did comment, there wasn’t much support for Clayton’s proposal.
Reached by phone late in the day, Clayton refused to back down, arguing that his reasoning was sound.
Both schools rely on the week’s worth of events as a recruiting showcase to attract students from around the country. And every year, after the Bayou Classic parade through downtown New Orleans is over and the marching bands have faced off, both schools count on a major revenue boost when the two teams meet in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in front of a national television audience.
But this year’s announced attendance of 47,000 fans is down significantly from the record 76,641 who showed up in 1994, or the average of roughly 70,000 who attended each of the games between 2000 and 2004.
“For the last several years, Southern has been doing 90 percent of the work and producing 70 to 80 percent of the fans, and we’re having to split the proceeds,” Clayton said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Clayton said he would like to see Southern study whether it would make financial sense to bring in schools such as Florida A&M University, Jackson State University or South Carolina State University, which he said has fans who are more than willing to travel to faraway games.
“I understand the historic nature of playing Grambling ... but having to split the proceeds after having the lion share of the fan base in the Superdome consistently coming from SU, just doesn’t make good economic sense,” Clayton wrote in his email. “The Bayou Classic is a numbers game, and our dear colleagues from north Louisiana just aren’t traveling down I-10 to watch the G-Men.”
Grambling President Frank Pogue dismissed the idea by saying ideas like Clayton’s are the by-product of back-to-back losing seasons for Grambling’s football team.
“Every now and then these things are said. We’ve talked about it too,” Pogue said. “You’re going to have up and down seasons with attendance. When Southern has losing seasons, as they’ve had frequently in the past, their fans don’t come out. It’s the same for Grambling.”
Southern board Chairwoman Bridget Dinvaut said she feels Clayton’s email was just another board member “thinking out loud” rather than the start of any movement to end the four-decade tradition.
“It’s a fundraising event that includes entertainment. The real purpose is to raise money for both schools,” she said. “And it was very obvious that the crowds were not there this year. We’re all very concerned. I think this is just thinking out loud about how to improve it.”
Southern President Ronald Mason said there’s more to the Bayou Classic than raising money.
“There’s a long tradition there. It’s an intrastate rivalry, and it’s a family event. There’s more to it than who’s buying tickets,” Mason said. “At this point, I would be opposed to making a change. It’ll be a quiet conversation if this ever comes up” in front of the board.
It remains to be seen, however, how quiet Clayton will let the issue become.
He hasn’t been shy about taking unpopular opinions. A little more than a year ago, he proposed folding Grambling into Southern’s network of campuses in what he called a cost-saving measure.
Clayton argued the move would give the country’s only historically black college and university system footholds in north and south Louisiana to serve its core constituents: minority students, many of whom come from low- to moderate-income families.
The suggestion prompted a strong rebuke from supporters of both schools.
In 2011, Clayton was on the receiving end of intense criticism from fellow Southern alums when he was photographed at Gov. Bobby Jindal’s side as the governor proposed studying the feasibility of merging Southern University at New Orleans with the University of New Orleans.
Jindal cited the proximity of the two schools and their low graduation rates, particularly at SUNO, as reasons for wanting to consider a merger.
In subsequent interviews, Clayton vehemently opposed the merger and said the photo with the governor was made out to be more than it really was.