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Pelican Bowl

The creators of the Pelican Bowl had high hopes that the event would become a holiday season college football tradition, but poor attendance and the lack of a television broadcast deal led to its swift demise.

Pelican Bowl

The Pelican Bowl was a postseason collegiate football game designed to be an informal national historically black college/university (HBCU) championship between the regular-season winners of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). The Pelican Bowl was played three times in total and twice in New Orleans, once at Tulane Stadium and once at the Superdome. Each edition of the Pelican Bowl featured a Louisiana-based HBCU—Grambling in 1972 and 1974, and Southern in 1975.

However, while the creators of the Pelican Bowl had high hopes that the event would become a holiday-season college football tradition, poor attendance, a failure to secure a television broadcast deal, and general apathy led to its swift and barely noticed demise.

From the beginning, the Pelican Bowl was designed to be played at Ace W. Mumford Stadium on the Southern University campus in Baton Rouge. However, none of the three contests actually took place there. The 1972 inaugural contest was forced to move to Durham, North Carolina, after the Southern campus was rocked by a riot earlier that year. But a Louisiana team—Grambling, the regular season SWAC champion—was still invited to play. The Grambling Tigers’ opponent was Durham’s own North Carolina Central University (NCCU), which won the MEAC. The game drew roughly 22,500 fans, who witnessed a complete blowout in which Grambling obliterated NCCU 56-6 to claim the HBCU national championship.

The 1973 contest was summarily canceled after scheduling prevented the targeted site, Tulane Stadium, from being secured. It also didn’t help that the National Collegiate Athletic Association refused to officially sanction the event.

But the Pelican Bowl got back into the swing of the things in 1974 when Grambling represented the SWAC again, this time against the MEAC’s South Carolina State (SCS) at Tulane Stadium. The attendance for the game appeared at first glance to be substantive—more than 30,000 people showed up to watch Grambling, led by school legend Doug William at quarterback, pound SCS 28-7 for the Louisiana school’s second-straight Pelican Bowl crown.

However, compared with the hoopla created the week before by another contest at Tulane Stadium—the first Bayou Classic rivalry game between Grambling and Southern, which drew a remarkable attendance of nearly 77,000—the 1974 Pelican Bowl was a bad omen.

That omen proved true in 1975, when the Pelican Bowl again was scheduled in proximity to the Bayou Classic—and this time also less than a week before the vaunted Sugar Bowl—and was, as a result, simply swallowed up by the competition for attention and attendance. In addition, the sponsors of the Pelican failed to secure a broadcast deal, and the actual game was nothing short of a disaster—a sloppy, mistake-laden 15–12 victory by Southern over South Carolina State. But the attendance was the dagger to the heart of what had been dreamed up as a grand, annual tradition—fewer than 7,000 people showed up at the Superdome to watch the Pelican Bowl take place for the final time.