GARY — When football season returns in the fall, Valparaiso University won’t be the only college team taking the field in the Region.
West Side will host the inaugural Gary Football Classic on Sept. 21, featuring Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) and Kentucky State. The Lions and Thorobreds will face each other in a nonconference NCAA Division II matchup, but Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson made it clear that athletic competition was not the sole reason for the event.
Lincoln and Kentucky State are historically black colleges and universities, and Freeman-Wilson said the upcoming football game would be a great way for high school students in the Region to have a fun HBCU experience, network with individuals from both universities and begin mapping out a path to higher education.
“I thought it was great because it’s centered around sporting,” Freeman-Wilson said during a press conference Thursday at the Gary Public Library and Cultural Center. “But I thought it was even more important because it increased the exposure of our young people. We have always had a black college tour here in the city of Gary, but not everyone has the opportunity to go on that tour.”
By having two HBCUs come to Gary, Freeman-Wilson said that issue will be eliminated and added that she is thrilled to work with Black College Sports Group 360. The charitable organization, located in Chicago is, “the nation’s largest organization exclusively representing the Black College Community,” according to its website and is working hand-in-hand with the city to make this an annual event.
Prentiss Hill, the executive director of BCSG 360, said he presented the idea to Freeman-Wilson about three years ago and is excited to see it finally come to fruition in the fall. In addition to the game, there will also be various other events leading up to the Gary Football Classic including a battle of the bands, comedy show and most notably a college fair titled “The HBCU Experience," which will be held at West Side.
He also mentioned that BCSG chose Gary over other cities because he didn't want students to feel like they had to leave their hometown in order to find better educational opportunities. Instead, he wanted to bring several colleges and universities to them.
At the college fair, Hill anticipates that there will be roughly 25-50 college admission representatives in attendance, as well as financial aid advisers to help qualifying students get accepted onsite and figure out the most affordable way to pay for their education.
Hill cited Lane College, in Jackson, Tennessee, as a good fit for some students. Lane requires incoming students have two letters of recommendation and proof of having taken the ACT or SAT.
"That means that any student in the Gary school district, if they’re on track to graduate, they have an opportunity to get admitted into school,” Hill said.
Charlie Jackson is in his first season as the head coach at Kentucky State after spending the last two years as a defensive assistant and defensive backs coach for Atlanta Falcons. Jackson said he’s enjoyed taking what he’s learned with the Falcons and using it to build a new culture with the Thorobreds and expressed a lot of enthusiasm to be competing in this inaugural event.
But beyond facing the Lions on the field, Jackson also said he was thankful for the opportunity to share the stage with a university that has set the standard academically. Lincoln was founded in 1854 and was the first HBCU to grant degrees, and Jackson said Kentucky State upholds the same level of tradition and excellence.
“Everything about Kentucky State right now is high energy and high production,” Jackson said. “From our president and his vision, from our AD and her vision, to our entire athletic department and the vision we have moving forward. There’s tremendous energy, tremendous excitement and tremendous potential.”