HBCUs meets West Coast football: Bruins open the door

The UCLA Bruins football team has found a pathway to the HBCU Experience. In a recent announcement, UCLA Athletics laid out plans for the Bruins to play two historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs) to their respective 2022 and 2023 schedules. The Bruins will host Alabama State in 2022 and North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in 2023.

The announcement came from UCLA Director of Athletics Martin Jarmond in a video posted to his Twitter account. Both games will be played at the historic Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

“It should be fun and exciting, they are both going to bring their bands also, something new for our fans and student-athletes,” Jarmond said.

This marks the first time UCLA takes on an opponent from an HBCU, while also being the first game against a team from the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).  This snaps a long history of the Bruins never scheduling an FCS opponent. 

Notre Dame and the Bruins’ crosstown rival USC are now the only two FBS schools to never schedule an FCS opponent in a football competition. These schedule additions come on the heels of Michigan terminating their home-and-home series with the Bruins in 2019.

Adding two HBCUs to our football schedule is special,” said Jarmond. “It’s exciting to give our student-athletes and fans a new experience and to bring a little bit of the South to Southern California.”

Alabama State has been playing football for the last 120 years, having spent almost the last four decades in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), an NCAA Division I subdivision conference made up of primarily historically black colleges and universities.

“This is an exciting time for Alabama State and our football program,” Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Jennifer Lynne Williams said in a released statement. “When we recruit student-athletes to come to Alabama State we let them know they will have the opportunity to showcase their talents against some of the best competition in the country.

“In doing so, we don’t just stop at the Southwestern Athletic Conference or FCS for that matter, we go nationwide to display ‘Hornet Pride!’ The pageantry of the Rose Bowl venue and everything that comes along with it is special,” Williams added. “This will be something our student-athletes will remember for a lifetime.”

Originally, UCLA had the date set for a home-and-home series with Michigan, but Alabama State now fills in the slot. The Alabama State Hornets will play a Power five opponent in back-to-back seasons. The Hornets face Auburn in their 2021 campaign before going up against the Bruins in 2022. 

“This is a great opportunity for our team and our university, we are bringing southern flavor to the West,” Williams said.

Head coach Donald Hill-Eley and the Alabama State Hornets will take on the Bruins on Sept. 10, 2022.

Meanwhile, North Carolina Central has played football for almost a century, fielding their first team in 1922. For the last decade, the Eagles have competed in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) whose conference members are all HBCU’s respectively.

“We are excited about the opportunity to play UCLA, a member of the Pac-12 conference,” said NCCU football head coach Trei Oliver. “For our young men to be able to play in the Rose Bowl, the most storied venue in all of college football is an experience of a lifetime.”

The Rose Bowl, erected in 1922, is a National Historic Landmark that has hosted five Super Bowls. The Bruins have called the stadium home since 1982. This will be Alabama State’s and NCCU’s first trip to Pasadena for their respective football teams. However, both universities have had their marching bands-The Mighty Marching Hornets and The Sound Machine Marching Band-perform in the annual Tournament of Roses Parade. 

The three-time MEAC champion Eagles will take on the Bruins on Sept. 16, 2023.

So, why does this matter? In the world of Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), it is quite rare to see HBCUs battle power five juggernauts such as the Bruins. It’s more common to see matchups with schools in the SEC such as Alabama or Florida or ACC institutions such as Miami or Florida State.

“Cupcake games” as they’re often referred to, typically pit FCS opponents against Power Five juggernauts that ultimately result in blowout victories and allow second-string players to get reps in the second half. Of course, the victimless FCS opponent gets a nice payday to take a beating in front of 90,000 fans. But, these matchups like the Bruins have staged have so much more meaning to them than what you think.

The opportunity for HBCUs to play in the Rose Bowl does not come around often. Being able to play at the Rose Bowl will give both universities great exposure to West Coast fans. Not only will their football teams be showcased but their famous marching bands as well.

It is hard to tell if this will become a trend for UCLA and other Power Five teams or if this is just a one-off that happened out of circumstance, either way, Jarmond deserves credit for taking a chance and creating history and opportunities that these athletes will remember for the rest of their lives.

Reporter Benjamin Gomez contributed to this report

The featured image appears courtesy of UCLA Athletics 

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