The Chicago Football Classic has become one of the highlights and anticipated HBCU alumni events of the year. Leaders in business, public service, faith, education and the community come together for a weekend of activities—highlighting HBCU collegiate football.
For the past 20 years, Chicago businessmen Tim Rand, Everett Rand and Larry Huggins have produced the Chicago Football Classic (CFC) as the leading HBCU Classic football weekend in the North. The history of the football classic games goes as far back as 1922 between Bishop College and Southern University during the Louisiana State Fair, which is currently the Red River State Fair Classic. Unlike the traditional predominately White institutions’ football bowl games—Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) host classics during the football playing season.
Businessmen and brothers Tim and Everett Rand have built a successful business—MAC One Company– one of the leading food and beverage distributors in the Midwest. Their multi-million-dollar company has employed hundreds of people and their philanthropic efforts along with Riteway-Huggins CEO Larry Huggins has impacted many families throughout Chicagoland.
The idea for CFC came when Huggins accompanied Citizen Newspaper Publisher William Garth to the Circle City Classic held every year in Indianapolis. “I would go there and just see African-American people coming together, everybody enjoying themselves and having a good time,” he remembered. “I said, ‘Wow, why can’t we do that same thing here in Chicago?’ When I came back home, I had a conversation with Tim and Everett Rand, Ernest Sawyer and Dr. Robert Donaldson. We all had the idea that maybe let’s try and have an HBCU game here in the city of Chicago.”
In 1997, the first game was held in Chicago between Mississippi Valley State and Southern University.
“We had no idea what we were doing at the end of the day, and it turned out to be a disaster,” said Huggins.
The game drew 7,500 attendees and the group lost approximately $750,000. But, without losing a step, they were committed to hosting another game the following year—bringing together more businesses from industries where the men had built their reputations.
As the CFC gradually began to build steam, one of the vital components of moving it from an HBCU alumni weekend to engaging local youth began with the Chicago Public Schools.
“By year three, we realized that it was more than just a football game. We teamed up with CPS schools and it was about getting the young kids to come to the game and to see the pageantry of these HBCU teams and marching bands,” said Huggins.
Over the years, the Rand Brothers and Huggins had community and political alliances as long-time Chicagoans—the men realized they had created a special bridge which had traditionally been reserved for Southern-based organizations.
“At the time, Mayor Richard Daley really embraced the game. One of the things that he said is that he wanted us “to encourage more” of our students to look at HBCUs,” he said. “Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has been a big supporter of the game and Mayor Rahm Emanuel has continued working with us and the city.” Huggins says without the resources from the city “it would be hard for us to do it.”
The CFC has called Soldier Field home exclusively for all of its games since its inception. With the support of the city and the Chicago Park District—the production of the classic is a major undertaking. The approximate cost to produce and host the event runs in the ballpark of $1.5 million. A portion of the budget is allocated towards student scholarships provided by the support from corporate sponsors.
“When we first did this game in 1997, we really didn’t have corporate sponsors, we had people in construction and people in the food and beverage industry who supported our efforts. By the second year, ComEd came on board,” says Huggins.
Event Director for the CFC Donna Hodge recollects a special moment between co-founder Everett Rand and a student attending the college fair. Having driven from Ohio to Chicago to specifically meet recruiters from the college she was determined to attend, she didn’t make it in time.
“This was right before the game started and it was in between the college fair and the game. Everett stopped what he was doing and made sure the young lady was taken care of and met the people she wanted to see,” she recalled. “[He did this] amidst all of the things that are going on game day. Even though she missed the college fair, he recognized how important it was and he really wanted to make sure that she got what she needed.”
Hodge says the moment revealed a true testimony of what the CFC is really about—presenting a platform for students who are unable to have immediate access to important college bound resources.
Huggins says, “When you look at when our kids go to the schools, they usually stay and that has been one of the biggest challenges that we have; it is a culture that is in the South. You can travel 200 miles from each city and you can be either in Atlanta, in Mississippi, in Tennessee, or you can come up to Circle City Classic.”
Huggins says with “HBCUs it’s just a tradition for them.” With Black students in the South—most have matriculated to historical Black colleges— “it is a culture”.
Everett Rand agrees. “There’s a nurturing concept with the HBCUs, you’re not just a number on campus. You’re a part of the family and the important thing is the inspiration that after graduation, people speak so highly of their experience there. The friends that they’ve met, the conversations, and their teachers have been there,” he says. “Everyone has a tendency to stick together. I’m very happy that this spirit is coming to Chicago.”
Grambling State University Athletic Director Paul Bryant believes in the Chicago Football Classic brand as well. Traveling from Louisiana, the team has cultivated a brand over the last five decades thanks to the legendary football coach Eddie Robinson. Winning the HBCU National Football Championship, Bryant is excited for his players and the band to be a part of this year’s festivities in Chicago.
“For our young men, this will be like a ‘bowl-like’ experience. It helps our finances as well, but for us, we’re looking at more than just a game. We’re looking at exposing our brand, which will bring people here. The GSU brand is international and people want to see Grambling. It has become the legacy and it’s strong,” said Bryant.
In addition to Grambling’s precision tight marching band, they have been the only HBCU band that has played at two presidential inaugural ceremonies.
He says the CFC is produced very well—and it wouldn’t be around for 20 years if it weren’t.
The big weekend will kick-off on Thursday with the President’s reception, which will honor former U.S. Secretary of Education and former CPS President Arnie Duncan along with businesswoman and community leader Josephine Wade.
An avid admirer of both award recipients, Huggins said, “Arnie helped us in our infancy stage and CPS really played a major role in making sure that those kids went to the game. He was instrumental in helping us with the college fair,” he said. “Believe it or not, that’s what made corporate Chicago really truly embrace it. You have to honor people who have really been instrumental in making the game really what it is today.”
Josephine Wade and her husband have owned soul food restaurant Captain Hard Times on 79th Street for over 40 years. Her tirelessly efforts in helping many organizations and those in need has earned her numerous accolades and recently an honorary Chicago street sign on the busy business strip.
“You can’t say enough about Mother Wade,” comments Huggins. “Hey, listen that lady is just a person who truly loves people. Number one, she loves kids and she is always doing things to help people. She was instrumental in helping us bring the media to this game to promote it. There’s more word out now about the Chicago Football Classic because of Mother Wade.”
From the battle of the bands on Daley Plaza to the highly attended college fair drawing hundreds of students and parents to Soldier Field Saturday morning—the weekend will be filled with non-stop activities.
One of the hidden highlights of the CFC is the art of “suite hopping.” Whether you’re a host of the cushy Soldier Field suites or an invitee for Saturday afternoon—it has become one of the hottest passes during the Classic’s weekend.
The bi-level row of private suites during a Chicago Bears game will cost about $30,000. To secure a suite during the CFC, it is reduced to a rate of $3,000.
“We try to make this game affordable for everybody. So, when you get an opportunity to sit up in the corporate suites, you will see any and anybody who’s doing something in this town whether you’re a business person or whether you are an elected official or whether you’re an athlete,” Huggins explains. “It is truly an honor and a privilege when you have a suite or when you get invited. It has become one of the largest networking sessions that you can experience as well as a good time.”
Huggins admits it is a labor of love to keep the momentum of producing such a high-profile event. As they celebrate 20 years of CFC—they have invested nearly $30 million in producing the collegiate event.
“I would say for three businessmen to make that commitment, it’s something that we are very proud about because there’s only two events that our community can say we host annually—the Chicago Football Classic and Bud Billiken Day parade. But what’s important about this is that when these colleges come to Chicago, they make Chicago their number one recruiting city for their schools,” he said.
In a city where millions of Black families migrated from the South, the rich traditions of its historically Black colleges, Greek organizations and strong academic achievements—the next generation’s enthusiasm for CFC is hopeful.
“They understand the importance of higher education and they’ve seen the things that I have done over the years. It’s important to me they see how things are and the impact of what this game means on the city of Chicago. I can say the same thing for Tim and Everett. Their kids also have seen what they have done and it is about a legacy–when your kids see the enthusiasm that you have as an individual and the things that you love to do.”