Urban Invitational opens with classic rivalry

Mutual admiration prevails between Southern University and Grambling State

Urban Invitational opens with classic rivalry

NEW ORLEANS -- It's a rivalry that transcends sports and defines a region.

When you're young in Louisiana, you decide whether to root for Southern University or Grambling State. The schools have played each other in football since before World War II, and their annual gridiron collision in the Bayou Classic is one of the season's most hotly anticipated games.

Both Southern and Grambling State are in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, and their baseball teams have become an annual staple of the Urban Invitational. The two teams met again Friday on the first day of the Invitational at the New Orleans Urban Youth Academy, but the rivalry was friendly, collegial and constructive.

Darrell Miller, Major League Baseball's vice president of youth and facility development, said Friday that the rivalry between Southern and Grambling State has always loomed large. From the beginning, he said, MLB has hoped the Urban Invitational would someday resemble the Bayou Classic.

"That's the age-old rivalry where these two teams just like to beat up on each other," said Miller during Grambling's 6-1 win Friday. "This is a bragging-rights game. I know they're in the same league, but I like that we're able to do this in the preseason. You can see there's a pretty good crowd, and there's a lot of high school kids that come out to watch these guys play. They sit on the side they like the most, if you noticed. It's great to have these kids be a part of that rivalry. We're in Louisiana. ... When these guys start going against each other -- in any sport -- the people are here to support them."

The Bayou Classic routinely brings huge crowds to the Superdome. The baseball rivalry is a little more understated, largely because of all the success that Southern has had over the years. Roger Cador has been the coach at Southern for three decades, and he's brought the Jaguars an astounding 14 conference championships.

And because of that, said Cador, the Grambling State rivalry isn't always at the forefront of his mind. Southern has had an opportunity to bump up against many other conference foes in championship games, and everybody in the SWAC wants a piece of the Jaguars.

"We've had a lot of rivalries in our conference and Grambling is just one of them," said Cador. "Most of these kids know each other, and many of them played each other in high school. But so many other teams like Texas Southern and Prairie View have caught up to us. ... Jackson State is a huge rival. Teams got better and started competing. Against Southern, it seems like everyone is a rival, to be honest. A lot of teams see us as the team to beat."

Many New Orleans natives have already picked a side regardless of whether their school is winning in baseball. They end up rooting for Southern or Grambling State because it's in their family.

The Bayou Classic is always played the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Both schools' bands march in the city's Bayou Classic Thanksgiving Day Parade.

But they aren't the only game in town. Grambling, in fact, is based more than 300 miles from New Orleans. Southern has a local campus in New Orleans but is based in Baton Rouge, right near national powerhouse Louisiana State University. There's also a local fanbase for the University of New Orleans, but it hardly dents enthusiasm for either Grambling State or Southern.

"It's a big deal. Two rivalry schools going at it," said sophomore Rivers Frederick, a New Orleans native who played third base for Southern on Friday. "My mom -- actually, my whole family -- would always pull for Southern during the Bayou Classic. We never really had a hand for Grambling."

Perhaps the best-known figure in the rivalry is legendary football coach Eddie Robinson, who built Grambling State into one of the nation's most visible programs. Pete Richardson, one of Southern's most successful football coaches, led the Jaguars to five SWAC championships in 16 seasons.

Cador, now entering his 30th season at the helm of Southern, played his college ball at Southern and returned to his alma mater after a brief playing career in the Atlanta Braves' organization. Cador has led Southern to eight berths in the NCAA tournament and his team has led the nation in winning percentage at least four times.

But it's not just the wins that Cador remembers. He can recall a time when local sports were more colorful and more exciting, including one anecdote from a baseball game long forgotten.

"I remember one great moment in 1987," he said. "We were playing Grambling in a doubleheader, and there was a catcher I had recruited named Martin. He hit a grand slam against us, and the fans went wild. Grambling had a little catcher from East St. Louis [who] ran and pointed at home plate, and Martin did the Pee Wee Herman dance at home. The fans went wild. That was as great as it gets. I asked my players, 'What is he doing?' And they all said, 'Coach, it's the Pee Wee Herman!' Those things used to take place in our league and there would never be a problem. It was culturally accepted."

These schools, more than enmity, share a common respect and mutual admiration for each other's success. Grambling State coach James Cooper said that his school wouldn't even be involved in the Urban Invitational without Cador's help, and he said he equally valued their friendship and rivalry.

That is the difference between this game and the Bayou Classic. The football teams rarely speak about a mutual admiration. That's also important for the baseball teams, but Cooper tries to never lose sight of the big picture.

"You get a chance to beat your rival. May the best team win," said Cooper. "Grambling and Southern. Southern and Grambling. You're going to find two teams that will strap on the boxing gloves and try to fight all 12 rounds. ... When you think of these schools, you think of the Bayou Classic. You think of the battle of the bands, Coach Eddie Robinson and Coach Pete Richardson. Those guys did a lot to help the university with other athletic programs. If it weren't for those guys and some of the things they did -- and some of the people [who] helped them -- we wouldn't have the opportunity to be here."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.