As a kid raised in New Iberia in the 1970s, Verge Ausberry’s college football world consisted mostly of historically black colleges and universities.
“I came from an HBCU family, all my relatives went to Grambling or Southern,” said Ausberry, 56, a longtime LSU executive deputy athletic director and a former LSU starting middle linebacker who won SEC championship rings in 1986 and 1988. “My parents and grandparents went to Grambling. My uncle was president of the Southern alumni chapter in New Iberia.”
The regular season-ending Bayou Classic between the Southern and Grambling, highlighted by the battle of the school’s bands, was an annual event for Ausberry until he was 18 years old. He attended his first one in old Tulane Stadium as a 6-year-old in 1972.
But what about LSU?
“I didn’t go to LSU football games growing up as a kid,” Ausberry said. “I always saw LSU from afar.
“I remember being a little boy, returning from the Bayou Classic and riding with my grandparents across the Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge heading back to New Iberia.
“I saw these big lights. I said `What is that?’ My grandparents said, `That’s Tiger Stadium, that’s LSU, not many of us are there.’ I was surprised. I didn’t get what `many of us’ meant until later on. Many of us black people didn’t go to LSU. It wasn’t a place that had many African Americans and (wasn’t) a place African Americans necessarily wanted to go.
“I grew up with no affiliation to LSU, like most blacks in this state.”
That changed when Ausberry became a sought-after high school recruit. LSU was Ausberry’s choice, even though he received a home visit from legendary Grambling head coach Eddie Robinson.
“Coach Rob was a great guy, straight up,” Ausberry said. “I remember all the great Grambling players he put in the NFL. It was a great experience.”
Over the years in his professional life, one of Ausberry’s many LSU administrative duties is negotiating and scheduling non-conference football games. It can be a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t job.
“People criticize the schedule saying it’s either too hard or it’s too easy,” Ausberry said. “Nobody knows what a perfect schedule is. It’s not a perfect schedule. But we know who we are. We’re a flagship program.”
Ausberry hasn’t shied away from scheduling intersectional matchups in the past, present and future vs. UCLA, USC, Florida State, Clemson and Utah. But he’s also a staunch advocate of scheduling Louisiana-based schools.
Until last season, the Tigers had played every in-state school but Southern and Grambling. That changed in January 2022 and July 2022 when Ausberry signed contracts with Southern and then Grambling to become the first HBCU football teams to play LSU in Tiger Stadium as the 2022 and 2023 home openers respectively.
He felt the timing was right, hoping to disarm the rising national racial divide that exploded in May 2020. It’s when George Floyd, an unarmed African American, was killed by Minneapolis police who arrested him and kneeled on his neck for more than 8 minutes.
“There was so much going on in our country at that time, so much unrest,” Ausberry said. “I wanted to do something to bring communities together.
“We’d played every school in the state of Louisiana. When Grambling and Southern solved their APR (academic progress rate) problems and other things, I looked at the schedule and said it’s just time to do it.”
Grambling visits Tiger Stadium on Saturday for a 6:30 p.m. kickoff. It will be hard for the G-Men from North Louisiana to replicate the pomp and circumstance generated in last season’s LSU-Southern opener between schools separated by a 15-minute drive.
That the Tigers pummeled the Jags 65-17, scoring the most points ever by an SEC school vs. a SWAC member in then 16 games between seven SEC and seven SWAC programs, didn’t take the shine off the historic night.
The meeting of the two Baton Rouge-based institutions created the biggest-ever Tiger Stadium traffic jam, causing many late arrivals to miss the first half and the joint halftime show collaboration of the LSU and Southern bands.
“There was so much traffic and so many people on campus we couldn’t do a lot of things we normally do to get the traffic on and off the campus,” Ausberry said. “Despite that, it was a great day for the community. Everybody talked about how great it was.
“I also realized until that night most African Americans in this state and community had never been to an LSU game. Black elected officials had never stepped foot in Tiger Stadium.
“We finally broke the ice. It was time to bring both sides of the fence together, let them enjoy coming to an LSU game and see what it’s about.”
Last season, LSU paid Southern $700,000 plus $60,000 to the Southern Athletic Foundation. Southern also received 800 complimentary tickets.
Grambling’s payday this weekend is $760,000 plus $20,000 to the school’s foundation/football and 800 complimentary tickets.
All of LSU’s non-conference home games this season, including Army on Oct. 21 and Georgia State on Nov. 18, are first-time visitors to Tiger Stadium. Army and Georgia State will each receive $1.6 million and 400 complimentary tickets.
Ausberry hopes to schedule the Jaguars and the G-Men again in the future as part of LSU’s in-state non-conference scheduling rotation.
“We want to keep giving kids across the state a chance to play in Tiger Stadium,” said Ausberry, a proud dad who has sons playing football for Auburn and Notre Dame. “We want to keep the money in the state and help all in-state college programs.”
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