The debuts aren't over just yet for Alonzo Hampton and his University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff football team.
Hampton led UAPB is his first game as head coach a week ago against Tulsa, but today, the Golden Lions will be making their initial appearance in the historic Southern Heritage Classic when they play Tennessee State University at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium in Memphis.
Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. and a huge crowd is expected.
The event, which routinely features three days full of activities and concerts, is in its 34th installment, but the 2023 contest will be one of the few matchups that won't included UAPB's fellow Southwestern Athletic Conference mate, Jackson State.
The showcase was initially started in 1990 as a way to boost a regional rivalry between Jackson State and Tennessee State, which resulted in 29 head-to-head matchups. But there were two years where Jackson State wasn't able to appear in the classic, which resulted in SWAC teams Mississippi Valley State and Grambling State taking the Tigers' place. There were also two years where games weren't played at all, with lightning canceling the 2018 game and covid-19 shelving the 2020 contest.
However, when Jackson State decided to sever its contract with the event after last season, organizers reached out to UAPB to gauge its interest. It didn't take long for the Golden Lions to accept that invitation.
"Obviously for us, anytime you get picked in a classic, that's just a different feel all around," Hampton explained. "The Southern Heritage Classic has been around a long time, and for us as a fan base and for our administration, we're all excited. People have been talking about this game all summer.
"And let's be honest, I don't know if we had 200 fans at the Tulsa game, but I can guarantee you, we'll paint the town black and gold in Memphis."
There will be a lot of blue and white in the stands as well to represent a Tennessee State team led by third-year head coach and former NFL Pro Bowl running back Eddie George, who played for three teams during a nine-year professional career, with his final stop coming in Dallas during the 2004 season.
According to the 49-year-old, the excitement level for Tennessee State (0-1) to play UAPB (0-1) is just as high as it would've been to play Jackson State.
"It's a wonderful opportunity and is always about preserving the tradition of the Southern Heritage Classic," George said. "Although we changed our opponent, the idea is still the same for both teams, to compete and win the game. We say goodbye to an old tradition, which I'm not saying is long term.
"But for the near future, we will preserve it with another great institution."
Tennessee State and UAPB aren't exactly strangers to one another, either. The two last played in 2019 when the Golden Lions won 37-31 on a touchdown pass from Shannon Patrick with no time remaining in the game. Today, both will be looking to get on the positive side of the win column after suffering sizeable losses to Football Bowl Subdivision programs last week.
"Obviously, last week was a tough week for us," said Hampton, whose team lost 42-7 to the Golden Hurricane. "It was a tough week for Tennessee State, but they're excited about playing us, and we're excited about playing them. "
While the Golden Lions held their own for a large portion of their game against Tulsa, the Tigers were outmanned from the get-go against Notre Dame on Sept. 2. Tennessee State had just 156 yards of offense and 12 first downs in a 56-3 loss.
But despite both being beaten last week by bigger ball clubs, Hampton believes that his team, as well as Tennessee State, will be able to bounce back in the own right at an event that regularly draws 40,000-plus to Liberty Stadium.
"I told all our fans, get there early, get there on Friday, enjoy all the festivities," he said. "But I told my team on Sunday, the party is not for us. The game is for us. That's where we get our enjoyment from so let's go out there, concentrate, do what we're supposed to do, restore the pride. ... Let's get UAPB back on track."