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Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the John Merritt Classic
Monday, July 16, 2018
Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the John Merritt Classic

NASHVILLE --- On Saturday, Sept. 1, Tennessee State University will host the 20th annual John Merritt Classic football game in Nissan Stadium.

Established in 1999, the John Merritt Classic pays homage to one of the greatest coaches in Tennessee State and college football history, John Ayers Merritt.

If ever there was a touch of greatness in a football coach, John Merritt possessed it. Thus, when Tennessee State University officials were trying to identify a name for an annual classic to be played at the former Adelphia Coliseum, the John Merritt Classic was a natural.

The highly motivated and truly successful coach dominated and revolutionized the game of football during his career.

In 1963, TSU hired Merritt to become the school’s 14th football head coach. He coached the Tigers for 20 years and amassed over 170 wins for TSU.

Over the course of his career, Merritt continued to enhance the university’s rich football tradition- completing four undefeated seasons, winning six national championships and four black college football titles. Along with an excellent staff of assistant coaches, including Joe Gilliam Sr. and Alvin Coleman who had accompanied Merritt to TSU from Jackson State in 1963, he implemented a wide open pro-type “T” offense with multiple sets.

In 1967, Merritt’s team achieved a national defensive record for allowing opponents a paltry average of 2.15 yards per carry and a year later, he was named Coach of the Year. Merritt’s team received the Associated Press and the United Press International small college championships in 1975, and by 1979 he had a record of 130-25-5. Merritt modestly downplayed his role in the team’s success and attributed the team’s winning record to “the Good Lord.”

The more games Merritt won and the more players he sent to the National Football League, the more attention Tennessee and Tennessee State University gained nationally. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter called to congratulate Merritt for his 200th victory.

The city of Nashville named John A. Merritt Boulevard (old Centennial Boulevard between Twenty-eighth and Forty-fourth Avenues) in his honor in 1982. By then, Merritt was in failing health. From 1963 until 1983, when he resigned, Merritt compiled a record of 172-33-7 at TSU and 232-65-11 overall. He was inducted posthumously into the National College Football Hall of Fame on December 6, 1994.

During his career, Merritt built a powerful program that produced NFL stars like “Jefferson Street” Joe Gilliam (Pittsburgh Steelers), Richard Dent (Chicago Bears), Ed “Too Tall” Jones (Dallas Cowboys), Claude Humphrey (Philadelphia Eagles) and many others.

Tennessee State football is 13-6 all-time in the John Merritt Classic and will face Bethune-Cookman for the second time in the annual event.

Season tickets and single game tickets for the John Merritt Classic are on sale now.

Call or visit the TSU Ticket Office, (615) 963-ROAR, for more information.

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