The Southern Heritage Classic is September 10th – 12th in Memphis, TN. Each year, Tennessee State University and Jackson State University battle it out for bragging rights on all levels. Yet, the Classic is more than just a game. It’s a cultural celebration jam packed with over a dozen events that include the big game, tailgating, a battle of the bands, a college fair, a fashion show and brunch, a parade, two concerts with nationally recognized artists and more. Radio veteran Tom Joyner even comes each year to do a live broadcast of the “Tom Joyner Morning Show.” This year’s theme is “It’s All About Having Fun!” The founder, Fred Jones, is a native Memphian and has done a phenomenal job creating a three-day extravaganza that people can’t seem to get enough of. If you can’t make it to Memphis you can also catch it on FOX’s SportSouth (Saturday, 9/12 10 p.m. CT; Sunday, 9/13 9 p.m CT; Monday, 9/14 6 p.m. CT; and Tuesday, 9/15 9:30 p.m. CT.) and the American Forces Network, which broadcasts to men and women in the armed forces in 175 overseas locations. But I promise you, it won’t be the same. You can learn all about the fun it at www.southernheritageclassic.com.
JH: What’s the Fred Jones formula for success?
Fred: Research, preparation, a great team and a lots of hard work.
JH: What drive you to keep doing this?
Fred: One is the business but it’s long since been more. I know that people in this community love the Classic and look forward to it. They are very passionate about it. It motivates me to keep it fresh. To make sure the presentation is top-notch because that’s what people want. It is hard to keep from getting worn out with it when you’ve been doing something a long period of time, but it’s obvious that the people aren’t worn out with it.
JH: What is the most challenging part of producing the Classic?
Fred: Trying to get people to do what they say they are going to do on time.
JH: I’m going to assume that’s in every aspect.
Fred: Absolutely. You can’t put anybody out on front street or as my grandson would say put them on blast. It’s in every area. That’s the challenge and people don’t realize how big the Classic has become. How many moving parts there are and all these personalities you have to deal with just to get to the final product that is the Southern Heritage Classic. All these parts have to come together at a certain time. You don’t get a pass. You can’t say I don’t feel good today. Let’s do the Classic next week. You have to get all these things to work like you need them to work.
Fred: It’s the smile on people’s face. They’re having a good time. It’s the parents, the grandparents and the little babies. That’s the reward and as long as I can do that it makes the hard work easier to take. These long days just get longer as you get into it. That’s what drives me.
JH: At what point in putting this on did you realize that this wasn’t about you?
Fred: I always understood that it wasn’t about me. It’s probably gotten to be more of a focus on me in the last 10 years. It took me a long time to let people around me convince me to be up front. But it was something that happened the first year that let me know what this was about. I was coming from the bank the Monday after the game and this lady walked up behind me with tears in her eyes. She hugged me from behind and said you made me feel so happy last night. I just feel so good. I’m proud of you and keep up the good work. We knew right then where this was going. The people who it meant the most to already knew but it took a little while to the people in business to get on board.
JH: Is there anything that you haven’t done that you would like to incorporate into the Classic?
Fred: This is a national event and we have the parts needed to make it a national event. We have Memphis, known internationally. The two schools, JSU and TSU that people know because of their history. We have been able to incorporate top-name entertainment people know. We have the ingredients for this to be a national focus event but it still remains a challenge that in some circles it’s seen as a local event or a regional event. It’s a national event and getting others to see that is still a work in progress even in our 26th year.
Fred: Last year, Essence Magazine did a story about what’s going on in Memphis in September and they didn’t mention the Southern Heritage Classic. That lets you know you’ve still got work to do. Whoever was giving them the info did not mention the SHC in a publication that was geared toward African Americans. It makes you ask why.
Fred: It’s exposure. You can’t stop getting exposure but the landscape has changed in college sports. The networks are geared toward the big boys –the SEC, the Big 10, the Big 12. Whatever they want television wise they are going to get. Everybody else, especially us will be at the bottom. With the help of our sponsors we pay to have the game on. That’s how important I think it is. Being on TV gives us something to talk about, as well as our sponsors our schools and the city. It’s just a good thing. But we don’t know what the future holds. We hope if we continue doing what we do someone will come along and say let’s look at the Classic. When that day comes we’re ready to go! We will know exactly what we’re doing.
JH: On average, how much does it cost to produce the Classic?
Fred: From a dollar stand point, depending on what kind of shows we bring you’re talking about somewhere between 1 million to 1.2. The schools themselves earn $325,000 per school. We have a contract with the schools thru 2019. The have earned collectively over $ 10 million since we started the Classic. We are able to do something that continually supports the schools.
JH: Now, you did not attend a HBCU but I know you see the value in it because you also support LeMoyne Owen College? What is that value for you?
Fred: It’s just helping out where you can. I’m in a position where I can make those things happen. It may be a part of me that wanted to go to TSU when I graduated but I went to Memphis State. It only cost $65 a quarter, and I didn’t have money to do that. That was 1966.
JH: I read you worked two jobs to put yourself through school.
Fred: With the limited resources my parents had I did what I needed to do to make it happen.
JH: Why did you decide to do the Classic?
Fred: When the opportunity came about to discuss the idea of the Classic. The two athletic directors wanted to put it together but they didn’t have the money, the knowledge or the experience to put it on and grow it to the level where it is now. There was an opportunity to do it and to do it in my hometown. Everyone wants to be successful in their hometown. (laughs)
JH: So could the Classic be considered a fundraiser?
Fred: It’s not a fundraiser. It was always about the business. If it was going to survive it had to be about the business. It had to be able to generate enough money to pay the schools and all of the other aspects of it. If we had not done that, then we would not be able to celebrate 26 years. Some people get a little unnerved because they think that’s all you think about but in order to make this wheel turn we had to be able to conduct it in a way that doesn’t infringe on the tradition of HBCU’s but in a business context. The people that support the Classic have to be able to support everything that goes along with producing the product.
JH: Tailgating has become a big part of the Classic.
Fred: Yes. In our first year, we were lucky to get 400 or 500 people to tailgate. It was too hot or too that. Now we have more than 10,000 people tailgating. Those numbers are absolutely tremendous and it’s only getting stronger. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. It’s been a good 26 years.
JH: Now the coaches came to you to form the Classic because you were in entertainment. You had done several successful shows. How did you get into entertainment?
Fred: Luck and timing. I was working at Union Planters bank. I went to work there in 1968. They transferred me to the on Bellevue and McClemore branch as an assistant manager. It’s no longer there. That was the bank where STAX records did their banking. David Porter, Isaac Hayes, Soul Children, Jim Stewart all of them banked at that branch. I was at the right place at the right time. I started doing some weekend work for the Soul Children and David Porter. In June of ’71 I took a leave of absence from the bank to finish my degree at Memphis State. I was a finance major and the courses I needed to graduate were not available at night. It ended up being a really smart move. When I got my degree in August of ’71, I came back to the bank and they weren’t sure what I was going to be doing. Isaac offered me a job. The job was to count money. That’s when “Shaft” was breaking national and international records. My first day on the job, I went to Los Angeles and since then entertainment is mostly all I’ve done.
How old are you?
JH: Do you see yourself retiring anytime soon?
Fred: (laughs) To do what? I’ll be involved in The Classic for a while. I’m taking a less and lessor role. I’m incorporating my kids and grand kids. I have the honor of sharing this knowledge with my kids and other people’s as well. I have the health and the stamina to do so. That’s a blessing. I have six children and 19 grandchildren.
JH: Are all of your children involved in the business in some way?
Fred: No, but they are kind of finding their way into it. Nathaniel, the oldest. He’s the most involved.
SOUTHERN HERITAGE CLASSIC FACTS
Estimated total attendance for all ten years: 1,163,653
Average yearly attendance: 46,546
The Classic brings about $21 million to the local economy each year. This was determined by a survey SHC conducts. According to Jones, it’s been very consistent over the three times they have done the survey.
Testimony Time: After I did this interview, Fred offered me a job doing the PR for the Classic. Ain’t God Good!
I now blog for him. It’s called “SHC Inside Scoop.” Read it here, http://www.southernheritageclassic.com/blog/.