WHEN it began six years ago, the Circle City Classic in Indianapolis may have looked like a failure waiting to happen. The list of particulars: a regular-season football game between two predominantly black Southern colleges, a neutral site far from home, and no national rankings or local bragging rights at stake. This week, however, one of the most paradoxical success stories in college sports is adding yet another chapter. ``The phones are ringing off the hook and there are no hotel rooms left,'' says Lavera Crowe of Executive Travel in Indianapolis, which is faced with the biggest demand yet during three years as the event's official travel agency.
About 40 downtown hotels are booked; game-related social and educational events are filling the civic calendar; the parade, which passes near Monument Circle in the heart of downtown and originally consisted of bands from the two competing schools, now has 100 participating groups; and Black Entertainment Television is poised to provide live, national coverage of Saturday evening's game between Jackson (Miss.) State University and Bethune-Cookman College of Daytona Beach, Fla. The crowd could come close to filling the 60,000-seat Hoosier Dome.
At a time when many black colleges are rebounding from a period of declining enrollments, the game marks an important triumph of exposure, too.
``The message is we're still here and we're still flourishing,'' says coach Ken Riley, whose Florida A&M Rattlers met Jackson State University in last year's classic.
Many students have applied to black schools after gathering information at ``College Night,'' a fair of 30-plus institutions. The Circle City Classic's educational outreach activities also include a scholarship program.
Newfound interest in historically black colleges has been one of the spinoff benefits for the Midwestern black community, says the Rev. Charles Williams, one of the event's founders. ``It has instilled a feeling of self-pride and self-dignity and made us understand and appreciate who we are and what our heritage is,'' he says, referring to the achievers associated with these schools.
The activities have also demonstrated the economic clout of the black community and shown the viability of hosting a showcase black event. By creating a week-long happening, featuring concerts and parties, the organizers have practically turned the city's flourishing downtown area into a vacation resort.
Geographically, Indianapolis may strike some people as an unlikely host, but several factors have allowed the game to prosper. A major boost comes from the joint sponsorship of two key civic ``players,'' the promotion-oriented Indiana Sports Corporation and Indiana Black Expo Inc., an organization over which Williams presides and that annually hosts one of the nation's largest black expositions. Then, too, there is a small, full-time staff working on arrangements, a sports-minded citizenry that gets behind volunteer-driven projects, and a black community of 125,000 upon which to build support.
Joe Slash, a senior executive of the classic and a former deputy mayor of Indianapolis, says the event is heightening awareness of the city among black Americans. ``People who have come for the game tell me that Indianapolis is one of the best kept secrets in the country,'' he says.
Indy is turning heads now, though, with its bold expansion and wide marketing of an idea - the black-college football ``road show'' - that has experienced various incarnations. The only other Northern version with any staying power is the no-frills Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Football Classic, played in the New York area.
W.C. Gorden, Jackson State's head coach, recalls efforts during the 1960s and 1970s to bring black-college football into the urban limelight. ``It was a novelty then, because people in places like Cleveland and Los Angeles hadn't seen historically black colleges,'' Gorden says. ``But the novelty wore off and the attendance dropped.''
To some degree, the event has been marketed as a Northern reunion for graduates of predominantly black schools. Central State near Dayton, Ohio, is the closest such institution to Indianapolis, but event organizers tap into alumni pipelines and call on black fraternities and sororities to spread the news. Ads are placed in black newspapers around the country, billboard space is purchased in many major Midwestern cities, and a mailing list is kept of every ticket purchaser from the event's inception.
``We get busloads of people who come from all over,'' says Steve Bassett, the event's full-time general coordinator. ``There's probably as much word-of-mouth advertising as anything else. People who have been before bring back six couples the next year, regardless of what teams are playing.''
Black professional associations, such as those of lawyers, doctors, and legislators, have begun to schedule meetings to coincide with the Circle City activities.
Organizers never intended to make this a ``blacks only'' event. Bassett is white, as are many of the hundreds of volunteers. The gala ball and coaches' luncheon are well-integrated, and the generous corporate support knows no racial bounds. The game itself, however, attracts few whites.
``From the vantage point of total community participation, the dream has not been fulfilled,'' says Sam Jones, president of the Indianapolis Urban League. ``The walls of fear or indifference that preclude white spectators from attending have to be knocked down.''
Mr. Williams feels this is an evolutionary process. ``Whites are not used to being in the minority,'' he says, ``It may take 20 years [to achieve significant integration gains], but we'll keep trying.''
In pursuing the best existing matchups available, the Circle City Classic has put seven schools on the field, all of which play a notch below major-college level.
Success spawns imitation. The Los Angeles Classic was unveiled earlier this month, when the curtain was also raised on a Cleveland-based game that carries the name of Camille and Bill Cosby. Other cities reportedly are preparing to jump on the bandwagon, too.
But if the folks in Indy are worried about competition from other game-and-reunion extravaganzas, they certainly aren't letting on.
In the words of Eugene Anderson, the Circle City parade organizer: ``It's like copying music from one cassette to another. The original is always the best.''