For Reggie Barlow, the MEAC/SWAC Challenge presented by Disney is something of a homecoming. The head football coach at Alabama State, Barlow served as the Hornets' quarterback coach at the first challenge in 2005. On Sept. 2, Alabama State will represent the SWAC at the annual HBCU game for the first time since that inaugural game, facing off against the MEAC's Bethune-Cookman at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
"It's a huge game," Barlow said. "It gives our student-athletes an opportunity to have a bowl-like atmosphere and experience. I'm excited about having the chance to be part of it. I remember the first one, when we lost to South Carolina State; it was my first year coaching. That was a fun game to be a part of."
The MEAC/SWAC Challenge -- the annual HBCU matchup between the two conferences -- isn't the only big game on the Hornets' schedule. Every year Alabama State faces archrival Alabama A&M in the Magic City Classic at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., the site of the MEAC/SWAC Challenge from 2005 to 2007. Barlow believes games of this magnitude will help his team prepare for the early-season game against Bethune-Cookman and beyond.
"It's a similar mindset," Barlow said. "For one thing, the Magic City Classic is on ESPN. Our guys are used to playing on television. Then there are about 65,000 people who come to the Magic City Classic. So that definitely helps."
Barlow speaks from experience, having played in the Magic City Classic. A native of Montgomery, Ala., he was recruited to Alabama State by legendary Hornets coach Houston Markham. A wide receiver, Barlow had 56 receptions for 1,267 yards during his senior year, finishing with 130 catches for 2,536 yards in his career.
"Coach Markham means everything to me," Barlow said. "I was blessed with athletic ability, but he stressed things like work ethic, discipline and things like that, which carry you a long way. These are the things he instilled in me and all my teammates. He was a top-notch coach."
In 1996, Barlow was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the fourth round of the NFL draft. In 1998, he was the league leader in punt return yardage, with 43 returns for 555 yards and a touchdown.
Barlow remains Jacksonville's career leader in punt returns (146) and punt return yards (1,581), and he is the single-season leader for punt returns (43), punt return yards (555) and average per return (12.9).
He spent five years in Jacksonville, then landed with the Oakland Raiders. In 2002, Barlow moved on to Tampa Bay, where Jon Gruden's Buccaneers spanked the Raiders to win Super Bowl XXXVII, 48-21.
"Having the opportunity to play for coach Jon Gruden was great," Barlow said. "It was a true blessing. I took a lot away from that game and how we got there. We started our season off that first year with a loss to the [New Orleans] Saints. It's a conference game. You wonder what kind of season it's going to be. We ended up winning the conference championship and the Super Bowl."
In 2003, Barlow concluded his NFL career and moved from the playing field to the sidelines. "I moved back home [to Montgomery] after I retired," said Barlow. "I wanted to coach. So I went back to my high school and worked under Coach [Richard] Moncrief, who is my quarterbacks coach now. Then I got a job at ASU. After that, things started to happen real fast for me. I was only an assistant coach for two years. Charlie Coe left to take an NFL job, and they made me the interim coach. Then I had the opportunity to become the head coach."
Barlow is entering his sixth year as head coach at Alabama State. He is one of four SWAC head coaches with Super Bowl rings. The others are Doug Williams (Grambling State), Monte Coleman (Arkansas-Pine Bluff) and Anthony Jones (Alabama A&M), who all earned rings with the Washington Redskins.
The Hornets finished with an 8-3 record (7-2 in conference) last year, the same record as rival Alabama A&M. But the Bulldogs defeated the Hornets 20-19 in the Magic City Classic. That win gave Alabama A&M the tiebreaker and the SWAC Eastern Division title. Alabama A&M lost to Grambling State for the SWAC championship.
"Kejuan made every All-American team," Barlow said. "The kid is an outstanding athlete. He's going to have a chance to get drafted. He had eight interceptions last year. Saeed Lee is a great defender. He does a nice job in the secondary. He's an all-conference player. Terren Jones is a big guy [6-7, 320 pounds]. He's an All-SWAC player as well."
Before Alabama State prepares to make a run in the SWAC, Barlow would like to see his alma mater get off to a good start in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge, especially considering the last time they were in this game, things didn't exactly go their way.
"It's definitely a big game," Barlow said. "Bethune-Cookman has a great team. They've played some good football in the MEAC over the last two years. With this being my sixth year, I'm looking to see how our guys measure up against a great team like Bethune-Cookman. I want to see if we can handle their speed. I'm also looking forward to our student-athletes getting to travel to a great city and get to experience playing in a great venue there."
And for Barlow? A win would be quite the homecoming gift.