Grambling's stormy season comes to merciful end
A season like no other at Grambling State University comes to a merciful end Saturday when the Tigers face their biggest rival in the annual Bayou Classic at the Louisiana Superdome.
Three head coaches in less than two months. Players refusing to take the field over allegations of neglected facilities and shoddy treatment. A nasty dispute between the administration and many of the alumni who helped make the school famous.
Good thing Eddie Robinson isn’t around to see what has become of his beloved school.
Certainly, nothing has come easy to Grambling in this year of discontent, casting an ominous light on the historically black school that holds a special place in college football history. Robinson won 408 games at the rural outpost in northern Louisiana, building a nationally known powerhouse during the days of Jim Crow.
“For all the people like me who love the school, to see it in this situation is frustrating,” said James “Shack” Harris, who played for Robinson in the 1960s and went on to become the first African-American to start at quarterback in the NFL. “When you go around the country, everyone wants to know ‘What’s going on at Grambling?’ instead of talking about the respect we built up.”
When the Tigers forfeited a game at Jackson State, it stirred a national debate over whether the players had gone too far in their protest. More importantly, their actions exposed much deeper divisions in this once-proud program.
The Tigers went 1-10 last season, the worst mark in school history. If they lose to Southern on Saturday, they will finish 1-11.
“It’s been tough to watch,” said Kerry Briggs, the acting director of “Friends of Football,” a fundraising group that has sparred with university President Frank Pogue. “We just have to think there are better days ahead.”
Grambling’s troubles can be traced to a not-so-uncommon occurrence on college campuses — a power play between the president and influential alumni over the direction of the football program.
Friends of Football was launched a couple of years ago to work with Grambling Legends, a booster group tied to the legacy Robinson built over a coaching career that spanned 57 years. It’s a program that has sent more than 200 players to the NFL, including trailblazing quarterbacks Harris and Doug Williams, not to mention four members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Willie Davis, Buck Buchanan, Willie Brown and Charlie Joiner.
Briggs said his group has raised some $200,000 with the hope of addressing a specific need each year, such as a decrepit football practice field and an aging locker room floor. But he said Pogue wanted the money to go through the university foundation, which raised doubts it would be used as intended.
Angry words flew. The flow of donations slowed. A brand that should give Grambling a formidable fundraising edge over other historically black colleges and universities was squandered.
“The only reason why Grambling is in the news as big as it has been is because of those people who came before,” said Williams, the first of three coaches this season. “Now, somebody who had nothing to do with building that legacy has been tearing it down.”
The first black QB to win a Super Bowl title, Williams was fired two games into the season, despite a 61-34 record and four conference titles. He said he was given no reason for his dismissal. University spokesman Will Sutton said on Oct. 19 that Williams’ dismissal was not related to his “wins or losses, or Xs and Os.”
After five games under interim coach George Ragsdale left the Tigers 0-7, schools officials made another change, handing over the team to Dennis “Dirt” Winston.
At that point, the players revolted.
They refused to travel to Jackson State for their next game — perturbed at the revolving door of coaches, disgusted at what they saw as an uncaring administration, fed up at being subjected to appalling conditions. Some were disputed by school officials, such as mold in the locker room and improperly cleaned uniforms raising the risk of staph infections. Budget woes were blamed for other issues, most notably a brutal 17-hour bus trip — each way — to a game in Indianapolis.
The school was hit with a $20,000 penalty as a result of the forfeit and will be forced to play at Jackson State the next three years.
The players returned the following week and some of their issues have been addressed, including a new floor in the weight room. The Tigers also won their first game, beating Mississippi Valley State.
Pogue has referred all questions to Aaron James, a former Grambling basketball player who was appointed interim athletic director in June and took over the job permanently in August.
James said state budget cuts have hurt the entire university, with funding sliced by 57 percent since 2008 and a staggering $53 million in unmet needs cropping up around campus. The financial woes, he said, are felt even more at HBCUs, which have long said that chronic underfunding is a lingering vestige of segregation.
“I don’t think it’s just a Grambling thing,” James said. “It’s bigger than athletics. It’s all over the university, but we never hear about what academics is not getting.”
A survey by The Associated Press found Grambling’s athletic budget of $6.7 million for the current school year ranks sixth in the 10-team Southwestern Athletic Conference — significantly lower than the top school (Alabama State at $9.9 million) but nearly double the one at the bottom of the list (Mississippi Valley State at $3.6 million). In fact, the game the Tigers forfeited would have been against a school with a slightly lower budget, Jackson State at $6.5 million.
Pogue sent a letter to alumni and supporters, asking them to give $10 via text during a two-day fundraising campaign that will coincide with the nationally televised game against Southern.
Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, one of two former Grambling players currently in the NFL, intends to give back over the offseason.
“It’s very embarrassing to me,” Hatcher said. “I’m going to be down there as much as I can trying to build the program back up, do what I can to help my school get back to where it used to be. It’s a historical program — Eddie Robinson, Doug Williams, guys like that. We’ve got too much history in that school to let it go under like that.”
Even if Grambling does raise more money, Harris questions how it will be spent. For instance, Williams is still owed his $245,000 annual salary through 2014.
One thing is clear: The school must patch up the fractured relationship between the administration and its notable alumni base. Grambling is leaving a lot of money on the table, and it’s not clear if that will improve as long as Pogue is president.
“We need someone in there rallying everyone together,” Harris said. “Then we can hopefully get things back to where everybody is supporting one cause — and that cause is Grambling.”