The John A. Merritt Classic is an annual football event that began in 1999, dedicated to honoring the legacy of John Ayers Merritt, the renowned football coach who led Tennessee State University’s Tigers from 1963 to 1983.

During his tenure of twenty-one seasons, John Merritt achieved significant accomplishments. He guided the Tigers to four undisputed national championships among historically black colleges, as ranked by the Sheridan Poll. He amassed an impressive lifetime coaching record of 172-33-1 and established a dominant football program that produced numerous NFL stars, including Richard Dent (Chicago Bears), “Jefferson Street” Joe Gilliam (Pittsburgh Steelers), Ed “Too Tall” Jones (Dallas Cowboys), Claude Humphrey (Philadelphia Eagles), and many others.

The John A. Merritt Classic holds a special place among football events, as it is one of only two football Classics exclusively hosted by a single NCAA FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) institution. The primary purpose of the Classic is to generate funds for scholarships and other needs for Tennessee State University students. Additionally, the event has a history of fostering community outreach through a weekend of activities.

Overall, the John A. Merritt Classic serves as a tribute to John Merritt’s remarkable contributions to Tennessee State University and the sport of football, while also providing an opportunity to support the educational pursuits of TSU students and engage with the local community.

John Ayers Merritt

John Ayers Merritt


John A. Merritt was a highly successful football coach, known for his achievements at Tennessee State University (TSU) in Tennessee. He was born on January 26, 1926, in Falmouth, Kentucky, to Bradley Merritt, a stonemason, and his wife, Grace. After completing grade school, Merritt moved to Louisville to live with an aunt in order to attend Central High School, where he played football.

After graduating from high school, Merritt joined the U.S. Navy. Following his military service, he received a football scholarship to Kentucky State College. In 1947, he married Maxine Owens, and they had a daughter named Bonita (Bonnie) Merritt Traughber. After earning his college degree, Merritt pursued graduate studies in 1950. He began his coaching career at Versailles High School and later coached at Jackson State University before joining Tennessee State University.

Throughout his coaching tenure, Merritt had numerous notable players who went on to distinguish themselves in the NFL. Six of his players participated in the Super Bowl, and many of his assistants, head coaches, and athletic directors also had connections to his coaching staff.

Merritt’s teams at Tennessee State University achieved remarkable success, compiling thirty consecutive winning seasons. He had an exceptional group of assistant coaches, including Joe Gilliam Sr. and Alvin Coleman, who had followed Merritt from Jackson State in 1963. Merritt implemented a wide-open, pro-style T offense with multiple sets. In 1967, his team set a national defensive record by allowing opponents an average of just 2.15 yards per carry. Merritt was recognized as Coach of the Year in 1973. In 1975, his team won the small college championships as awarded by the Associated Press and the United Press International. By 1979, his coaching record stood at 130-25-5. Despite his achievements, Merritt remained humble and credited the team’s success to “the Good Lord.”

As Merritt’s winning streak continued and more of his players made it to the NFL, both Tennessee and Tennessee State University gained increasing national attention. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter personally called Merritt to congratulate him on his 200th victory, highlighting the significance of his coaching accomplishments.