It’s not often that HBCU football teams make headline news in the offseason, but Tennessee State University has certainly done it with the announcement that they will be playing the vaunted Notre Dame Fighting Irish in 2023. The game will be in South Bend, Indiana, and televised nationally on NBC. It will open the season for both teams on September 2. It is the first time in Notre Dame history that they have faced an HBCU team, and also the first visit to South Bend for TSU.
The game has generated plenty of interest and some controversy, both among HBCU fans and some Notre Dame supporters. While many at TSU and around the HBCU world in general are supportive, there are those who question the wisdom of doing it. For this group, the talent gap between the two schools is so huge that it will result in a nationally televised disaster, one that will only more deeply cement the feeling that HBCU football is inferior.
For TSU head coach Eddie George and Athletic Director Dr. Mikki Allen, this is just the first step in elevating TSU football to the same level as any FBS or Power Five school. When asked directly at a press conference if he thought TSU could win, George’s response as reported by USA Today Nashville was immediate and optimistic, saying “Without a doubt. Without a shadow of a doubt.”
But George isn’t naive. He knows there’ a huge resources gap between FBS and most HBCU schools, and he and Dr. Allen see this as a first step towards bridging that gap. When we hired Eddie George I knew we had someone that was a high-character individual with a football mind, but also someone that was really going to change the trajectory of our program and get us back to a championship level,” Allen said. “This game is huge for our program.”
Interestingly, Notre Dame’s interest in playing the game dates back to Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s time as an official with the Circle City Classic, an Indianapolis event matching HBCU schools. TSU played in it seven times from 1985-2007, and Swarbrick was impressed with how TSU fans traveled and the event’s overall pagentry. He was also impressed by what he sees happening the Allen administration.
“The thing that struck me the most was the trajectory of this program; I mean, what they’re achieving,” Swarbrick said. “Whether it’s the evaluation of adding hockey in partnership with the (Predators) in the NHL or the investments they’re making into the football program. It just felt right that this was a program in the right position at the right time to do it.”
But not everyone is thrilled with this game. Former Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn, now a Fox Sports radio host, voiced his displeasure with the scheduling and also mouthed the talking points for those who revere the current system that only allows a limited number of bigtime programs to even compete for a national championship.
“You can’t schedule this and go, ‘Well, it’s historic for this reason.’ I get all that. I don’t care about that,” Quinn said, via Fox Sports Radio. “This isn’t about equity and all that stuff or trying to say hey, we’re helping out an HBCU school. It’s not about that. It’s about trying to win a National Championship…“This a no win scenario for Notre Dame, no matter what way you go about it. It does not help elevate their program. You’re not winning a recruit for this. You’re not winning in the eyes of the College Football Playoff Committee, or the AP, or whatever else want to talk about recruiting…“It’s just a dramatic departure from what it used to be and it it crushes me to see it. Notre Dame in this instance, when it’s always kind of been something of its own, is now really trying to almost blend in with everyone else. And that hasn’t been their MO.”
Those words also symbolize the general dismissive attitude that NCAA bigwigs have long had towards HBCUs specifically, and non Power 5/major predominantly white schools in particular. Hopefully TSU’s performance in this game can help change some minds and opinions about the viability and importance of HBCU football.