Harvard Not the First Boston-Area School To Play In An HBCU Classic

Many may think Harvard is not the 1st Boston Predominantly White Institution (PWI) to play in an HBCU classic. An old Yankee Conference program has that honor.

Boston University and Grambling played at Yankee Stadium in a much anticipated game in 1984
Source: Larry C. Morris/ The New York Times

On Saturday, Howard plays its second Ivy League school of the season as they welcome Harvard to Audi Field for the second-ever Truth and Service Classic. The Bison nearly pulled off the upset on the road against Yale but came up just short in a 34-26 loss on October 1st.

There was a great degree of surprise when Howard was announced that Harvard would be the opponent in their showcase classic, given that not only did the Bison have limited history against the Crimson, but Harvard is of course a Predominantly White Institution (PWI).

It is incredibly rare for PWIs to play in neutral-site HBCU classics, but surprisingly, it is not uncharted territory even for Boston-are schools. In 1984, after 13 straight years of playing Morgan State or Florida A&M in the Whitney Young Jr. Memorial Football Classic at Yankee Stadium, the Classic took a surprisingly different route.

Instead of inviting Morgan State, who had played in the classic 11 times from 1968-1983. The New York Urban League, the organizers of the Whitney Young Jr. Memorial Football Classic chose to take a chance on an emerging regional program in Boston University, which went 9-4 the year before and was one of only 12 teams to make the Division 1-AA Playoffs in 1982 and 1983.

Despite Boston University’s rise, they did not exactly have strong attendance numbers. The Terriers averaged only 3227 fans per home game at 25,000-seat Nickerson Field in 1983, with a low of 1,612 fans against Bucknell. 1984 would be no better as the Terriers ended the year with an average home attendance of 5,763 fans per game. Without the Holy Cross game which drew 14,750 fans, that average drops to 3,517 fans. The Terriers did boast an AP and Coaches’ All-America in Paul Lewis, who ran for 1603 yards and 23 touchdowns the prior year, and 1316 yards and 18 touchdowns in 1982, but he was far from a household name.

Scenes from the announcement press conference for Boston University and Grambling's clash in February 1984
Source: Pat Carroll/ New York Daily News

The results of the Whitney Young Jr. Memorial Football Classic were mixed as 31,979 fans filled Yankee Stadium, filling it to 56% of its 57,545 capacity. The fans did see a highly competitive game, with Boston University edging Grambling 16-9. The Tigers held All-American Paul Lewis to 6 yards on 17 carries, but it was not enough. The Terriers would finish the year 9-3 with a loss to Richmond in the first round of the Division 1-AA Playoffs.

Despite the minor setback against Grambling, Paul Lewis ran for 1316 yards, threw for two touchdowns, and once again earned Coaches’ and AP All-American honors. At the season’s end, Lewis played in the Blue-Gray Classic where he led the Blue team in rushing with six carries for 23 yards.

The following year, the Whitney Young Jr. Memorial Football Classic went back to pairing Grambling with an HBCU as they invited North Carolina Central for the next two years and Central State in 1987, before folding. Boston University, Harvard, or Boston College would not appear in another HBCU classic until 2022.

Harvard should draw better at Audi Field than Boston University, but most of this is due to Howard simply moving the game from on-campus to another location within their city. Having a time-tested brand like Harvard headline the Truth And Service Classic is a nearly unprecedented move by Howard, but it should provide for a unique experience for both fanbases, similar to when Grambling and Boston University faced off at “The House That Ruth Built” in 1984.