McNeese State and Central Arkansas will play each other on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET. The winner takes the Red Beans and Rice Bowl, one of the country’s newest and quirkiest football rivalry trophies.
The Red Beans and Rice Bowl, established in 2008, has become a genuine thing for both McNeese and UCA, two relatively new conference foes separated by about a seven-hour drive on U.S. Route 167, between McNeese in Lake Charles, La., and UCA in Conway, Ark.
McNeese is a longtime Southland Conference power. Central Arkansas joined in 2006 and didn’t play a conference football schedule until 2007.
The league made McNeese and UCA designated rivals, due to play each other on the last weekend of every season. It quickly turned into a good series, and the teams have played to a 4-4 split since becoming conference foes. They’re no longer protected final-week rivals like they used to be, but they still play regularly.
"Where they’re located, it’s pretty much away from all the Southland schools, so I think one of the reasons the game was given a title was to help draw interest to and some excitement for Central Arkansas joining the league," McNeese sports information director Matthew Bonnette said. "And because McNeese is traditionally one of the powers in football in the Southland Conference, really what better way to get your name out there, known to the people around the Southland Conference, than to start something up like this with McNeese?"
In 2008, the second year of the new rivalry, the schools figured they’d add some oomph to the series, with a nod to regional food.
"Let’s do red beans and rice. We’re rice. They’re beans. They’re the Cajun cooking," UCA athletic director Brad Teague figured. "We thought it was a great idea, so we actually made the trophy. It’s a big, cast-iron stock pot on a board, on a nice frame, and then we can update the score each year. And so we started this rivalry."
It turns out a FOOD TROPHY is easy to get behind, as proven by the old Memphis-UAB ribs trophy.
"I think red beans and rice can go for both regions," Bonnette said. "Whereas down here, they cook rice with just about anything. You can have rice with gumbo. Gumbo’s not really an Arkansas-type food."
The thing about a trophy game is that people have to get into it.
Louisiana TV station KPLC probed fan interest in 2012, trying to figure out what the trophy meant to fans at the game, and didn’t find it to be an earth-shattering deal.
... Many fans didn't even know the significance.
"I didn't even know it was the Red Beans and Rice Bowl," Joey Polito, of Lake Charles, said.
For some, it didn't matter what game it was.
"For us? Good food, good game, good crowd ... everything," Julius Courville, of Lake Charles, said.
And while many foods were cooked at the various tailgates around the stadium, red beans and rice wasn't in abundance. Other favorites like brisket, hamburgers, chili, and jambalaya seemed to be the food for the tailgate.
But officials at both schools think the trophy has made progress.
"I think it's a big deal," Bonnette said. "I think our fans think it’s a big deal, and I think they enjoy it. I think when it got started, it was kind of like, ‘Uh, OK, what are we doing here? Why are we having a trophy game with somebody that’s nine hours away from us, as opposed to someone like Lamar who’s 45 minutes away from us?’
"But I think it’s turned into a really good deal, because in both of these teams, both of these programs are very competitive."
Teague said it’s been an easy sell because of McNeese’s stature in the Southland.
"When we first came to the league, everybody pointed toward McNeese as the game," he said. "So, our fans are well aware of it and, certainly now, the Red Beans and Rice Bowl has been engrained, and it’s something that our fans do look forward to."
The teams have played every year since 2007, except for 2014. The last two games have been played on UCA’s purple-and-gray-striped field in Conway, while this weekend is in Lake Charles.
UCA recruits in Louisiana and in nearby East Texas, so winning the game has become a pride point.
"It’s a real important game, and certainly with our demographics coming from Louisiana and Eastern Texas, South Texas, it’s extremely important," Teague said. "They’re already motivated, but it’s a little added motivation to get this Red Beans and Rice trophy."
(As always, And the Valley Shook has your regional cooking needs covered, with a red beans and rice recipe.)