Tennessee State in the Truth & Service Classic is a No-Brainer

Howard’s opponent for the annual Truth & Service Classic is undetermined, but a Tennessee State appearance would bring intrigue to the classic.

Tennessee State and Howard have met just once before.
Source: Tennessee State Athletics

In 2022, Howard took a huge gamble when they invited Harvard to play in the Truth & Service Classic, the Bison's yearly showcase. Needing a placeholder for archrival Hampton, who hosted the two schools' rivalry that season, the Bison invited their fellow academic giant to Audi Field, home of MLS' DC United, the XFL's DC Defenders, and the longest beer snakes in the world.

The result was disastrous. Attendance dropped nearly 50%, falling from 14,752 for the inaugural Truth & Service Classic to 8,907 fans for the Harvard game. The novelty of one of the most academically revered HBCUs facing one of the world's most highly regarded universities did not bring fans to Audi Field. Instead, a cordial but apathetic environment characterized the matchup. The following year, attendance nearly doubled when Hampton returned to the Truth & Service Classic.

A look at the sparse attendance of the 2022 Truth & Service Classic
Source: Photo taken by author

This season, Hampton hosts Howard, leaving the Bison needing a substitute for its biggest rival. Luckily, an HBCU blueblood makes a perfect stand-in for Hampton. Though lacking the academic reputation of Howard, Tennessee State is one of the most tradition-rich programs in Black College Football and Division I. Over 100 NFL players played for Tennessee State, including Pro Football Hall of Famers Richard Dent and Claude Humphrey. The Tigers boast one of college football's greatest coaches, John Merrit, who accumulated a 172-33-7 mark in Nashville from 1963-1983. Tennesee State owns such a respected position in college football that it became the first FCS school to play Notre Dame since Division I split into two subdivisions in 1978.

While the Truth & Service Classic will not Hampton, Tennessee State is a worthy consolation. Adding even more allure to this matchup is its rarity. The Bison and Tigers have played just once before, with Tennessee State winning the sole meeting in 2001. Tennessee State's status as an HBCU would help them draw a better crowd than Harvard.

The constant debate over whether Howard's former MEAC foes North Carolina A&T and Hampton are in the right place in the CAA shows how difficult it is for HBCU fans to immerse themselves in rivalries with Predominantly White institutions. Harvard's 2022 Truth & Service Classic proves this truth. Arguably, the most famous college in America could not fill half of a 20,000-seat stadium playing Howard.

Aside from Hampton, Howard struggles to get HBCU brand names on the non-conference schedule. The Tennessee State game will be a special event for the Bison. If Tennessee State is not the Homecoming game, then the environment would arguably be better at Audi Field than Greene Stadium.

Howard's other options pale in comparison to Tennessee State. The draw of Howard's other home opposition, Delaware State and South Carolina State, pales compared to Tennessee State. Delaware State is near Washington D.C., but likely would not travel well, averaging a home attendance of 5,009 in 2023, the lowest of any FCS HBCU. South Carolina State is consistent but lacks the prestige of Tennessee State and is a seven-hour drive from the nation's capital.

Tennessee State-Howard is a game nearly two decades in the making. One of Black College Football's most iconic programs and college football at large's greatest talent producers deserves the red carpet treatment of Howard's yearly in-house classic. Unlike the Harvard experiment in 2022, a game against Tennessee State would bring much fanfare to the Truth & Service Classic. A rare game like this deserves the red carpet of Audi Field.