The Motherland Classic: Black College Football Heads To Africa

By Roscoe Nance
Updated: December 12, 2006

ATLANTA– Black college football coaching legend Eddie Robinson has often said that “A man’s only limitation is his imagination.”

Robinson’s imagination helped carry him to 408 victories, most ever in college football history when he retired nine years ago, and made Grambling State a household name worldwide.

His imagination is still at work through the Atlanta-based Eddie Robinson Foundation, which will sponsor the Motherland Classic All-Star football game in Abuja, Africa, this Saturday.

Foundation CEO Michael Watkins, Robinson’s grandson, says it is hoped that the contest will launch a nation-wide football program in Nigeria and evolve into a Black College football national championship game.

“We’re making history,” Watkins says, noting that this is the 30-year anniversary of Grambling and Morgan State meeting in Japan in the first college football game played outside the United States.

“Thirty years later look at what sails in the wake. The PGA is over there (Japan) . Major League Baseball is over there. The NBA is over there. We have the opportunity to do the same thing through the Robinson Foundation and my grandfather’s name in Africa that was done in Japan with respect to sports.

“Industries are built around sports. We’ve explained that to the Nigerian government, to the leadership, the marketing directors, and they get it. That’s what’s exciting about this venture. They get it. They realize we’re not trying to replace their game of soccer”.

“We’re merely providing an alternative sport that can possibly be turned into a professional league. By no means is this just an all-star game. The game in and of itself is the catalyst, the epicenter if you will, for all that will ripple from it.”

The Nigerian government will help underwrite the $5 million cost for the game, which will feature 80 seniors from the CIAA, SIAC, MEAC and SWAC, who will be split into two squads. They will go through four days of two-a-day practices in Atlanta which began last week before departing for Nigeria this past Tuesday.

Richard Cundiff, head coach at Texas A&M-Kingsville and a former graduate assistant on Robinson’s staff at Grambling will coach one squad. His staff will assist him. The Morehouse College staff will coach the other squad.

The National Television Authority of Africa will provide the satellite uplink. A television home for the game is still being sought.

The South DeKalb (Ga.) High School band, which was featured in the movie Drumline, will perform at halftime and during pregame activities.

Former Dallas Cowboys personnel executive Gil Brandt and Vince Dooley, a Hall of Fame coach at the University of Georgia, are on the game’s international advisory board. John Junker, CEO and chairman of the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl is also working with the game in an advisory capacity, as is former Tennessee State Joe Gilliam Sr., the grandfather of Watkins’ wife.

Baltimore Ravens fullback, Ovie Mughelli, one of 43 players from Africa playing in the NFL, is also supporting the game.

The Robinson Foundation previously sponsored the Eddie Robinson Classic, a preseason exempt contest involving Division IA schools, and was widely criticized for not helping black colleges.

Watkins says the foundation was reluctant to sponsor a black college classic game because of the high number already being played.

“Our premise was that we were going to do a black college event, but we wanted it to be something more than a ‘me too’”, Watkins added. “There are so many black college classics, many of which my grandfather started or played in”.

“Having grown up in that environment, I understand what it takes to put on an event of that magnitude. When you look at the number of games that exist already, by the time you come into a bowl scenario, that expendable dollar is not as available as we would want it to be.”

The idea to play in Africa came up during a meeting in Dallas of officials interested in staging a black college bowl game.

Watkins says he is in the process of presenting a plan for a national championship game to the commissioners of the CIAA, SIAC, MEAC and SWAC.

“Our goal is to see how to maneuver a system where the championship will be settled on the field,” Watkins says, acknowledging that he will have to navigate his way through “an extensive NCAA legislative process” to gain approval for a championship game.

“The first and foremost issue is multiple divisions. It would be considerably easier if it were SWAC and MEAC. There is more than enough opportunity for everybody to participate, and if we do it smartly, everyone can benefit.”

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