SWAC coaches, players embrace title game return to Alabama
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Alabama State coach Donald Hill-Eley found out the Southwestern Athletic Conference was bringing its once-endangered championship game back to the state of Alabama from a reliable source — his wife.
"I found out like everyone else when the official announcement came out," Hill-Eley said. "My wife called and said, 'Hey, they've got the championship in Birmingham.'"
It is big news for the SWAC, which a year ago was saying the 2017 league championship game would be the last due to financial reasons, citing dwindling attendance at Houston's NRG Stadium.
The league announced a one-year deal to play at Birmingham's Legion Field on the eve of Friday's media day, returning to the venue where it was held for the first 13 years starting in 1999. The SWAC, which is based in Birmingham, will also play its men's and women's conference tournaments in its home city next March.
The possibility of reviving the championship game gained traction after Commissioner Duer Sharp's resignation was announced on Dec. 31. The league looked at neutral sites and holding the game on-campus with a move from Houston, where the it drew fewer than 25,000 fans each of the past two years.
Interim Commissioner Edgar Gantt said the SWAC's Council of Presidents and Chancellors made the final decision. Gantt declined to discuss the game's future beyond the one scheduled for Dec. 1.
"This year is really looked at from a re-assessing standpoint, so I don't want to comment on anything outside of that," he said. "But the SWAC championship game does play a major part of who we are from a core standpoint and the fabric of our league. I can't speak to the future but I know that it's a major part of our plan."
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said the city is "100 percent" hoping to hold onto the game beyond this season.
"We believe this is a big deal, not just because of economic development but from a culture standpoint," Woodfin said Friday during a media day visit. "The SWAC's a big deal. As a graduate of an HBCU (Morehouse College), I'm happy to support the SWAC."
Sharp had said last year that the league would determine its champion and send that team to play in the Celebration Bowl against the winner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
Gantt said the SWAC remains committed to the Atlanta bowl game.
Coaches and players were happy about the championship game's survival.
"I think the reasons are tremendously in favor of having the game," said Grambling State coach Broderick Fobbs, whose team has played for the title each of the past three seasons. "I think the mayor and the city are doing a great job of trying to host the game and make things enjoyable for our conference.
"But it also gives us another opportunity to play on national television, and that's always important, especially in the house that Paul Bear Bryant built."
Grambling defensive back Percy Cargo Jr. says it gives players "a chance to experience an actual championship game and get guys more exposure."
First-year Prairie View A&M coach Eric Dooley was on the staff of Arkansas-Pine Bluff in 2012 for the last title game at Legion Field. He said the game brings exposure to players and schools.
"It was great for the players," Dooley said. "It's a great experience. When you don't get an opportunity to get to play in it, you miss out on a whole lot so it's something you want to fight for."
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