"Annual celebration combines a parade with marching bands and one whale of a football game: Central State vs. Hampton

James Lewis of Fishers has a routine — almost a tradition — when it comes to the Circle City Classic. On Friday, the day before the football game, he gets a hotel room downtown for two nights and hooks up with some friends from Ft. Wayne, who are also staying downtown. They may go out or they may stay in. But they will joke around, eat some food, have some fun and generally just chill. On Saturday, they will go to the Fall Festival and later will attend some parties. And attending the Saturday afternoon game is always an option, he says.

“[The Classic] is not so much about the game,” says Lewis, who works as a systems analyst. “It’s about the entire weekend.”

Lewis is far from alone in thinking that the American Family Insurance Circle City Classic weekend is more than just the annual Circle City Classic football game. While the folks at Indiana Black Expo and the Indiana Sports Corp., joint sponsors of the Classic weekend, want people to see the game, which this year features nationally ranked powerhouse Hampton University against a decided underdog, Central State University, there will be numerous events and activities leading up to Saturday’s gridiron match-up.

“We have 125,000 to 175,000 people who come to enjoy the various events of the Circle City Classic,” says Classic Executive Director Tony Mason. “But we also know that 50 percent come for the entertainment value. They are in the hotels, the restaurants, at the parade, visiting the vendors. It’s not just the game. It’s all the auxiliary events as well.”

In the beginning

This is the 23rd year for the Circle City Classic. It started as a vision of the late Rev. Charles Williams to support educational achievement and cultural excellence, and to showcase the spirit and tradition of historically black colleges and universities — to give people a feeling for life on a black college campus. Events leading up to or following the game include football and cheerleading clinics, a college fair and educational workshops, a golf outing, a coaches luncheon, a gala, a cabaret, a comedy show, Greek step shows, a pep rally, a parade, the Fall Festival and a host of alumni parties.

“The Classic is a reunion of sorts. And it’s a very, very social event,” says Joyce Rogers, president of Indiana Black Expo.

Most of the events require the purchase of a ticket and have some level of corporate sponsorship. All the proceeds from official events go to support the youth initiatives of Black Expo and the Indiana Sports Corp. and college scholarships for students.

“Ticket sales [to the football game] alone are not enough to pay for the events,” Rogers says. But sponsorship “helps us pay for the game and support ongoing youth programs and scholarships.”

Mason adds, “We are proud to support educational achievement. We will award up to $100,000 in scholarships [during the Classic weekend]. We will have students who will receive as little as $500 up to as much as $1,500.” The scholarships will go to Indiana students with no restrictions on race or where they attend college. “It’s all about supporting educational achievement.”

The impact

Since its inception in 1984, organizers have been able to give out more than $1.5 million in scholarships, says Mason, who has been executive director of the event since 2000.

But the financial impact of the Circle City Classic weekend goes beyond the scholarships. According to a study conducted in 2002 by the Indianapolis-based Smithmark research firm, Classic weekend attendance reached roughly 155,500, with game attendance of 55,000 and parade attendance of 94,000. The remaining attendance was from other events, such as the coaches luncheon.

In all, 62 percent of the people who attend Classic weekend events come from outside of Indiana, approximately 87 percent have some college education, have a median household income of $58,000 and will spend an average of $762 per person, the Smithmark study showed. “The economic impact [to the city] ranges from $17 million to $20 million,” Mason says. “But as an organization, we think it is more than that.” He says the various activities and events are what set the Classic apart, and are why the Circle City Classic is one of the top classics for black colleges in the nation.

“This is the place to be,” Mason says.

“We are proud to be a part of the Circle City Classic,” agrees Hampton coach Joseph Taylor. “It’s one of the best-managed and best-regarded classics around.”

Pre-game events

The Black Alumni Council College Fair takes place Thursday evening at Crispus Attucks Middle School. Recruiters, officials and even students from as many as 50 historically black colleges and universities will be on hand to offer advice to prospective students. Representatives will also help students complete college entrance application and financial aid forms. “It is always well-attended,” Alpha Garrett, communications director for Black Expo, says of the fair.

Then the city gets to see the competing coaches at the Coaches Luncheon on Friday. The $30 per person event at the Indiana Convention Center will attract as many as 750 people.

“I like to come out and be a part of it,” Central State coach Al West says of the luncheon. “You get to see what it’s all about.”

Speed skater Shani Davis, the first black to win an individual gold medal in the Winter Olympics, is the recipient of this year’s Major Taylor Award, which is presented at the luncheon. The award is named after Marshall “Major” Taylor of Indianapolis, the first black world cycling champion in 1899. It goes to a black athlete, coach, athletic administrator or official for their contributions to youth sports. Previous winners include Muhammad Ali, former Indiana University basketball coach Mike Davis, former Grambling State University football coach Eddie Robinson and Olympic gold medalists Jackie Joyner-Kersee and the late Florence Griffith Joyner.

The parade

Though James Lewis says he never attends the parade (“For one thing, it’s too early. I’m already downtown but it comes after a late Friday night ...”), it is one of the most highly anticipated and heavily attended events of the weekend. Classic officials expect as many as 100,000 people to line the route before the parade steps off at 10 a.m. on Saturday. The two-hour parade will start at North and Pennsylvania streets and conclude at North and Meridian streets. It will be televised live locally on Channel 8.

Some 88 units, including high school marching bands, drill teams, floats, college Greek stepping units and service organizations, make up the parade. Actor Nick Cannon, recording artist Lyfe Jennings, gospel singer Mary Mary and speed skater Davis will participate.

Due to the popularity of the event, demand for marching in the parade is high. Between 300 and 400 applications are made each year but only one in three requests is granted when the parade committee makes its decisions in the spring. Officials consider pageantry and other factors. But they also consider the number of units that can fit within a two-hour parade timeframe. “We get a lot of participation from all over the country, requests from all over,” Rogers says. “But we can’t grant them all.” The high school bands, drill teams and Greek groups are judged along the parade route for pageantry and presentation. Winners can receive money, trophies or an invitation to participate the following year.

Starting 30 minutes after the start of the parade and continuing until 11 p.m. is the Fall Festival, a free outdoor event at Pan Am Plaza on South Capitol across from the Dome. There will be food, music and about 300 vendors from around the country selling souvenirs and items from various sports teams, including paraphernalia from Hampton and Central State. “It’s a great place to hang out and see people, particularly if you aren’t going to the game,” Lewis says. “I like the outdoor venues.”

The game

The Coca-Cola Circle City Classic football game ties all the weekend’s hoopla together.

Each year, the Circle City Classic brings together two historically black colleges or universities for a non-conference game that has everything to do with pride. Most of the nation’s major black schools have played in the Classic — Tennessee State, Jackson State, Alabama State, Florida A&M, Southern and many others.

The first game was in 1984 between Mississippi Valley State and Grambling State, and showcased future NFL superstar Jerry Rice at wide receiver before a national audience. His 27 touchdown receptions during the 1984 college football season set an NCAA record. The Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils beat the Grambling Tigers by a score of 48-36, with the Devils’ Rice getting 174 yards in receptions. It is the third highest total to date in the event, according to Jim Fletcher, who works in the Classic office.

Mason says skeptics doubted that that first weekend, which included the game, a parade and a battle of the bands, would draw more than 10,000 people. But the Classic immediately proved them wrong, drawing 40,000 people to the game alone. “We have been blessed with tremendous success,” says Black Expo’s Joyce Rogers. “We were a little down [in ticket sales] last year. It was 43,500. But I guess if we don’t pack the house we feel let down.” Attendance is generally in the 50,000 to 55,000 range.

Teams love to play the Classic to spotlight their schools, their players and their marching bands. “This is our Super Bowl,” coach West says of his young team’s opportunity in this year’s limelight.

This year’s two protagonists, Central State and Hampton, played in previous games in which records were set that remain to this day. Central State has played in the Classic three times — 1986, 1987 and 1992 — and won all three. Its 34-13 victory in 1992 over Alabama State was played before a crowd of 62,500 people.

“That match-up drew the largest crowd in the history of the Circle City Classic,” says the Classic’s Mason. Hampton has played in the Classic twice before, both times in losing efforts three years apart. In its first appearance in 1996, Hampton lost 59-58 to Florida A&M in a contest that required six overtime periods, an NCAA record at the time. It remains a Circle City Classic record. “Now that was a great game,” Mason says.

Nationally ranked among Division I-AA schools, Hampton looks to notch a win this year and is the overwhelming favorite. The Pirates were ranked No. 11 in the nation two weeks ago and are the two-time Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) defending champions. Coach Taylor has been at the helm of the Hampton Pirates for 15 years and was named MEAC Coach of the Year for the past two years. Earlier this season, Hampton earned its 500th victory.

Though statistically Central State is a much weaker team, coach Taylor says his players always come out focused and ready to play.

“We expect a tough game every weekend, including at the Circle City Classic. It’s an important game. We always hope to come out better than when we went in,“ Taylor says of his team. “That’s the way the boys are really focused.”

The Pirates have a balanced team and there are two players fans will particularly be watching for. Both are seniors.

Running back Alonzo Coleman, in the starting lineup for the third straight year, is the all-time leading rusher for Hampton, with more than 3,840 career yards. Though he was out briefly with a slight back injury after the second game of the season, he is averaging more than 122 yards per game this year. And two weeks prior to the Classic, he was roughly 300 yards short of breaking the MEAC’s career rushing record. That is why Coleman is a leading candidate for the Walter Payton Award, which is given annually to the top Division I-AA offensive player of the year. “There is no question about his ability,” Taylor says of Coleman. “He has good vision, good power and a good work ethic. He is a true leader.”

Hampton also has a top prospect for the Buck Buchanan Award, which is given annually to the top defensive player in Division I-AA. All-American inside linebacker, Justin Durant is a two-time MEAC Defensive Player of the Year and is averaging nearly nine tackles per game this season. Coach Taylor says all 32 teams in the NFL have visited Hampton this year because of Durant.

Although coach West is no stranger to Central State, this is his first season as coach of the Marauders. He is a 1977 grad and was on the football coaching staff from 1978 to 1985. Central State suspended its football program following the 1996 season and didn’t return to the field until last season, when the Marauders posted a 1-5 record under coach Theo Lemon, who resigned in the spring to take a coaching job in Georgia. West, who had been dean of students, took over in June. The next couple of years will be development years for Central State, where the most experienced players currently are only sophomores, with a few juniors tossed in.

One such junior is No. 21, running back Derrick Moss. West says Moss is a leader who can make things happen. “I think you will see an exciting game,” he says, adding that his team is not intimidated by Hampton. “If we play sound football and I coach them well and get them into a good position, then it will come down to our talent versus their talent.”

Central State of Wilberforce, Ohio, may appear overmatched by Hampton, located in Hampton, Va., but having two equal teams is not the top priority for the executive committee at the Circle City Classic. “What we look at is a combination of things, including a great team and a great [marching] band,” says Classic Director Mason. “And we attract a tremendous audience from people who live within three to six hours [in driving time] of Indianapolis.”

Not surprisingly, that is also where nearly 90 percent of Central State’s alumni live. “Central State has a lot of alumni in the Midwest. That made it a smart pick,” Mason says.

“It wasn’t until Central State started playing in the Circle City Classic that crowds really started to come out,“ coach West says with a certain pride. “I appreciate … that they even considered us,” he says, a"