This is the story of the start of the SWAC Championship game.
An important meeting took place on February 8, 1999 inside the Louisiana Superdome. The presidents of the Southwest Athletic Conference, made a bold move that remains controversial in some circles, two decades later.
The group voted to create a SWAC Championship Game, which came at the cost of its automatic bid to the Division I-AA (now FCS) Playoffs. The winner of the game, set to take place at Legion Field in Birmingham, AL, would represent the SWAC at the McDonald Heritage Bowl against the MEAC rep.
The game was the brainchild of commissioner Rudy Washington, who was excited that the presidents voted in the game’s favor.
“We envision this game being more than just a football game,” Washington said. “It’ll mirror the pageantry of the biggest classics we have, in addition to pumping much-needed dollars into the coffers of our institutions. We’re convinced that this game will be humongous.”
Despite the conference’s track record of producing extraordinary NFL talent, it hadn’t had ANY luck in the playoffs. The SWAC was 0-19 overall in the first two decades, led by Jackson State’s 0-12 record.
Despite the conference’s previous failures, and more specifically his own program JSU quarterback Mark Washington told the media in the preseason he was conflicted about taking the playoffs off the table in favor of a SWAC Championship game.
“But at the same time it would’ve been nice to have a chance to show what we have nationally,” Washington told the Clarion-Ledger. “I really felt like, with the team we’ve got coming back, that we could’ve won a couple playoff games. But that has been taken away from us. Now we’ll just have to focus on winning the SWAC title and the Heritage Bowl.”
Second-year head coach Doug Williams of Grambling didn’t have a problem with skipping the playoffs.
“The I-AA playoffs don’t mean anything to me,” Doug Williams said. “And most of the people I talked to feel the same way. We’ve got to focus on the league first.”
Williams’ chief rival, Southern’s Pete Richardson, stood on the other side. Heading into that season as the two-time defending conference champion, Richardson pointed out the economic toll it could take on fan bases, particularly his and Williams.
“I don’t know many people who have the money to go to New Orleans one week, Birmingham the next and Atlanta the next, especially right around Christmas,” Richardson said. “But I want it to work. Hopefully, it will work out for the league.