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Bayou Classic makes return to Superdome
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Associated Press
Posted: 17 hours ago
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Overflow crowds in the Louisiana Superdome were long a given for the Bayou Classic.

It was rare if either Grambling State or Southern came into their annual regular-season finale without at least one of them being in contention for a Southwestern Athletic Conference championship.

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  • The part-athletic, part-musical, part-cultural event had become so popular in recent years, with hotel occupancy in the city surging as high as 95 percent, that fans began complaining about a perceived spike in room rates for the traditional Thanksgiving weekend event.

    Now, a year after Hurricane Katrina forced the relocation of the nationally televised spectacle to Houston, the Bayou Classic will be back in its longtime home - in downtown New Orleans, this Saturday.

    This one will be special for sentimental and economic reasons. But it also will be a bit different.

    That's because neither Grambling (3-6, 3-4 SWAC) nor Southern (4-6, 3-5) has a shot at the conference championship game this year. And the game still wasn't a sellout just before kickoff.

    There hasn't been the grumbling about hotel rates, which are down from the 2004 classic, said Darrius Gray, president of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association. They're lower than in years past, he said.

    Plus, there are plenty of vacancies, he said: Of the estimated 29,000 hotel rooms in the New Orleans area, just 80 percent to 85 percent are expected to be occupied this weekend.

    Not that anyone is complaining.

    If not for the game, this would be a slow time of year for the city's all-important hospitality industry, with hotel occupancy at around 40 percent to 50 percent, Gray said.

    "We're pleased being at 80 percent rather than 40 or 50, and we hope once this year's experience has gone well - when people come down and enjoy the city and see where we are and the progress we've made - subsequent years will be even better," Gray said.

    Members of the Grambling and Southern football programs do not expect their teams' struggles on the field this year to dampen enthusiasm for the game. Records matter little when the Bayou Classic comes around. Among historically black colleges, it is comparable to the Army-Navy or Harvard-Yale games.

    The tradition - which includes performances by the renowned Grambling and Southern marching bands, a fan festival, related concerts and VIP galas in downtown hotels - goes way beyond football.

    "The Bayou Classic is still one of the wonders of the world," Grambling Coach Melvin Spears said this week after visiting the Superdome, where the name of his legendary predecessor, longtime former Grambling coach Eddie Robinson, hangs on a large banner along the Wall of Fame. "It sent chills up my spine walking in this building."

    The Superdome hosted the game from 1975 through 2004 before Katrina heavily damaged the stadium and flooded most of the city in August 2005.

    Cydni Bickerstaff, whose company manages the Bayou Classic, said Houston was a gracious host.

    But playing there was different, because hotels and the stadium were more spread out, requiring more driving. Here, everything is in a downtown area, within walking distance, she said, giving fans the feel of constantly mingling in a festival-like atmosphere.

    Then there's the matter of playing in Louisiana.

    "Both schools are state schools, so this is home," she said. "It's a lot like a homecoming for them and something they annually do."

    Bickerstaff wanted a sellout. She said a challenge has been reassuring fans from elsewhere that the pictures of devastation they saw last year, on TV and in newspapers, are not nearly as prevalent now, especially not downtown.

    Organizers have made some changes to the event, hoping to improve it. The fan festival, where sponsors set up booths with interactive exhibits, will run Friday and Saturday and be moved from the outdoor plaza at the stadium to the New Orleans Arena.

    The food and clothing vendors that once set up outside of City Hall will move to the stadium plaza.

    Other traditions will endure. Prior to the always popular "Battle of the Bands" on Friday night in the dome, members of sororities and fraternities from both schools will take the field to compete in highly choreographed stepping contests featuring costumes, props and a little attitude.

    Southern coach Pete Richardson said he expects Saturday's return to the dome to be special for the players.

    "Regardless of our record, if it's 10-0 or 0-10, this is the game our players talk about all year," Richardson said. "A lot of our players made their selection to come to Southern or Grambling because of the Bayou Classic."

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