With its 27-10 victory over Prairie View A&M University last Saturday, Jackson State University became the football champions of the 2021 Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). This seemed not just ironic, but very fitting since it occurred 60 years after its first SWAC championship in the Fall of 1961. At that time, there were no eastern and western division championships and thus no championship game. That year, Jackson State was crowned SWAC champions based upon the fact that it won the most games among SWAC opponents. JSU had defeated Grambling (14-13), Prairie View (20-14), Arkansas AM&N – now University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff – (19-6), Texas Southern (12-7), and Texas College (78-0), losing only to Southern University (17-7). They had also defeated non-SWAC opponents Alcorn College – now Alcorn State University – (28-20), Mississippi Vocational College – now Mississippi Valley State University – (39-0), and Tennessee State (12-6).
That was a great accomplishment since Jackson was a relative newcomer to SWAC football, having been admitted in 1958. Nevertheless, the wily and wise Coach John Merritt, who had coached JSU for nine years and steadily won the respect of players and coaches alike, had by 1961 reached the pinnacle of success in the SWAC.
The 1961 team was coached by John Merritt. It featured such memorable players as Willie Richardson, Roy Curry, Albert Greer, Willie Marshall, Harold Cooley, Israel Rhoden, Percy Butler, T.B. Ellis, Gloster “Slick” Richardson, Wille Frank Molden, Vernon Biggs, Ben McGee, L.V. Donnell, James “Big Daddy” Carson, Edgar “Chico” Jordan, Leslie “Speedy” Duncan, Joe Cooley, Elbert Vaughn, Louis McRae, Wardell Leach, James “Lots-a-Papa” Hayes, and Robert Cowherd.
As quietly as it was kept, that team had eight players who were drafted into the National Football League, including three Richardson brothers and multiple Super Bowl winner Ben McGee. In 1961, JSU appeared in the Orange Blossom Classic, which was considered the national championship game for Black college football. They lost that game, 14-8. On their second trip to the bowl the next year, they won it 22-6.
With the added skills of players such as Harold Bishop, Thomas Richardson, Taft Reed, Johnnie Robinson, and Landers Bacon, they capped off the excellent 1962 season by winning the Claver Classic against Southern University, 26-13 and the Orange Blossom Classic against Florida A&M, 22-6.
The tremendous success of JSU for those two years in a row won John Merritt “Coach of the Year” honors which later helped get him into the College Football Coaches Hall of Fame and selected as one of the top 100 best coaches in all of college football for all times.
The success also led to him immediately being lured away from JSU to Tennessee State University. For the next several years, JSU football fell on hard times. Fortunately, it did not lose its commitment to the spirit of the game so well exemplified by the famous “Iron Thirteen” who preceded them. It has been preserved until this day by others who have worn the blue and white.
“The Iron Thirteen” was the team of 13 players – Henry Johnson (Right End); Earl Banks (Right Tackle); Horace Johnson (Right Guard); Edgar Stewart (Center); Luther Marshall (Left Guard); Theodore Ambrose (Left Tackle); Joe Boothe (Left End); Roy Bolton (Fullback), Percy Greene (Left Halfback), who would go on to found the Jackson Advocate; W. A. Scott (Quarterback); Horace Bolton (Right Halfback); Howard Courtney; and Aureleus Scott, who played in the beginning of the 1920s. For three years, following their beginning in 1920, they went undefeated. The wider world may not realize this, but many Jacksonians heard of them and find it exhilarating to see that spirit revived periodically.
Membership in SWAC has helped to set regular schedules and to publicize what was happening among the Black colleges. Conferences have also led to various iterations of Black college championship games, such as the upcoming Celebration Bowl, the Pelican Bowl, and the Heritage Bowl. Fortunately, JSU has been considered national Black college champions three times and will be participating in the December 2021 Celebration Bowl.
As the bowl game approaches, one of the things that many appreciate about the current coach is that “Coach Prime”, Deion Sanders, stresses the fact that players on his team must be smart and disciplined in addition to being in good physical condition and knowing their plays. This concern about the players’ mental development is reminiscent of the stress that used to be emphasized by Coach W.C. Gorden, JSU’s winningest football coach of all times. It is also reminiscent of the earlier days when Black colleges hired teacher/coaches in the same way that they recruited and nurtured student/athletes. It is a tradition/practice that should serve all parties well for a long time to come.
As Jacksonians celebrate the success of the 2021 SWAC champions, they will likely come to know and appreciate even more what history has delivered through its student/athletes and teacher/coaches in the forms of the “Iron Thirteen” of the 1920s, the 1957 Midwest Athletic Association champions, the 1961 and 15 other Southwestern Athletic Conference champions from Jackson State University.
Coach Prime and the team are certain to be congratulated for adding to this tradition. It is history that is worth repeating.