John Merritt Classic pits TSU against Mississippi Valley State

TSU football head coach Rod Reed (left) enjoys a laugh with players Dante’ Ferguson, Chris Rowland, and Christion Abercrombie at OVC Media Day.

The 21st Annual John Merritt Classic football game will be held on Saturday, August 31st at 6:00 pm at the Nissan Stadium. The 2019 JMC will see the Tigers of Tennessee State face the Delta Devils of Mississippi Valley State, who play in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision as a member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. The TSU-MVSU rivalry was intense for a decade from 1982 through 1991 featuring back-to-back campaigns in the Bluff City Classic in Memphis in 1982 and 1983, a matchup in the 1985 Circle City Classic, and back-to-back brawls in Memphis again in 1990 and 1991.

TSU is 2-3 all-time against Valley, with a 63-41 win in the snow in 1982, a 38-51 loss in baking heat in 1983, a 13-28 loss indoors in the old Indianapolis RCA Hoosier Dome in 1985, a 45- win in 1990 and a 7-10 loss in 1991. Those first two duels in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis were pre-Southern Heritage Classic. The game in Indianapolis at the Circle City Classic was the first of the 5 games against MVSU that John Merritt did not coach. Bill Thomas was head coach that year, and Joe Gilliam, Sr. was head coach for the two most recent matchups, in the Liberty Bowl.

The John A. Merritt Classic, first played in 1999, honors John Ayers Merritt, the legendary TSU football coach who led the Tigers from 1963 – 1983. During those twenty-one seasons, “Big John” won four undisputed national championships among historically black colleges ranked by the Sheridan Poll, compiled a lifetime record of 172-33-1, and built a powerful program that produced NFL stars like NFL Hall of Famers Richard Dent (Chicago Bears) and Claude Humphrey (Philadelphia Eagles), “Jefferson Street” Joe Gilliam (Pittsburgh Steelers), Ed “Too Tall” Jones (Dallas Cowboys),) and many others.

During twenty-one seasons, “Big John” won four undisputed national championships among historically black colleges ranked by the Sheridan Poll, compiled a lifetime record of 172-33-1, and built a powerful program that produced NFL stars like Richard Dent (Chicago Bears), “Jefferson Street” Joe Gilliam (Pittsburgh Steelers), Ed “Too Tall” Jones (Dallas Cowboys), Claude Humphrey (Philadelphia Eagles) and many others.

The John A. Merritt Classic, one of only two football Classics solely hosted by a single NCAA FCS institution, is intended to allow Tennessee State to raise funds for scholarships and other related needs for TSU students. The Classic also has a history of providing opportunities for community outreach with its weekend of activities. Leading up to this year’s classic, Fan Day will be held on Saturday, Aug. 24 at 11:00 a.m. Get details at tsutigers.com.

If you happen to be in Atlanta Sunday, Sept. 1 that weekend, and are an HBCU football fan, join me at the MEAC / SWAC Challenge as Bethune- Cookman plays Jackson State in the Georgia State Stadium at 3:00 pm EDT. Jackson State is TSU’s opponent for the Southern Heritage Classic Saturday, Sept. 14, at 6 PM CDT in Memphis. Between these two classics, TSU plays at MTSU on Saturday, Sept. 7, also at 6 pm CDT. TSU is back home on Sept. 21 to host Arkansas-Pine Bluff in Hale Stadium at 2 pm CDT.

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