The Grambling State football program is in disarray. A player protest led to the winless Tigers’ Southwestern Athletic Conference game at Jackson State Saturday being canceled and possibly jeopardizing the remainder of the season.
The Grambling players are upset with the school’s athletic facilities, travel arrangements for some games and Coach Doug Williams being fired two games into the season. They failed to show up Friday for the bus trip to Jackson, Miss., where they were scheduled to be Jackson State’s homecoming opponent. Their no-show culminated a tumultuous week during which several of them walked out of a meeting with President Frank Pogue and Athletic Director Aaron James on Tuesday and boycotted practice Wednesday and Thursday.
Grambling (0-8) forfeited Saturday’s game and will be fined $20,000, according to SWAC bylaws. Jackson State went on with most of its homecoming activities, and the football team played a 30-minute scrimmage instead of facing the G-Men.
“We’re disappointed there wasn’t a football game,’’ said SWAC Commissioner Duer Sharp. “I’m sure the president and athletic director will work together to see that it doesn’t happen again.’’
Grambling officials met Friday evening in an effort to resolve the differences between the administration and the players. Grambling spokesman Will Sutton said that university officials would have no comment and players will not be available for interviews.
Grambling players listed a number of complaints in a letter obtained by ESPN. The letter described the athletic complex as being in “horrible condition’’, filled with mold and mildew on the ceiling, walls and floors. It also said that team uniforms are poorly cleaned and that has led to players developing staph infections.
The players also complained about a 14-hour bus ride to Kansas City, where they played Lincoln (Mo.) University and a 17-hour trip to Indianapolis, where they played SWAC rival Alcorn State, which traveled by air. Lincoln, a Division II program, beat the G-Men 47-34, and hasn’t won since; Alcorn beat them 48-0.
“When you have your budget slashed by 57 percent, you have to make choices,” Sutton said in a recent AP article, adding that the school would “love” to fly the team to distant road games, but that Grambling was contractually obligated to take its band, cheerleaders and dance team on those two trips. He said those obligations led to the difficult choice to put everyone on buses.
Another complaint centered on Williams’ firing. The players said the administration didn’t have plans for a competent interim coach when it fired the former Grambling All-American quarterback and Super Bowl MVP. Running back coach George Ragsdale, an unpopular choice with the players, was named interim coach on Sept. 11 when Williams was fired. Ragsdale was fired Thursday, and defensive coordinator Dennis “Dirt’’ Winston, a former linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was elevated to head coach.
Williams has said he was never given an explanation why he was fired. He has a year remaining on his three-year, $250,000 a year contract, which will be honored.
“In black colleges, you don’t pay nobody to go home,’’ Williams said. “If you’re going to get rid of somebody, you’re going to try to find cause. There wasn’t a cause. All I can say is the guy (Pogue) wanted his own person in there.’’
Williams was 61-34 with a .642 winning percentage, and he led the G-Men to four SWAC championships, most recently in 2011. However, Grambling was 1-12 in Williams’ last 13 games on the sidelines, including a 1-10 mark in 2012 when the G-Men failed to win a conference game for the first time in school history.
“I was 0-2 when he let me go,’’ Williams said, “We were a year removed from winning the championship, and I have a 64 % winning percentage. In America (getting fired) don’t happen. If it was two years back to back, it’s a different ballgame.’’
A power struggle may well have been what led to Williams’ firing. Williams solicited an outside group to install a new floor in the football locker room at a cost of $30,000; he had also made arrangements for a new floor to be installed in the weight room, but Pogue declared that the university wouldn’t accept donations from outside groups unless they were made to the University’s foundation, according to Williams.
Also when Williams had reserved parking spaces installed for his assistant coaches, Pogue had them removed. A week later, Williams was fired.
In addition, Pogue sent a letter to the Grambling Legends – a group consisting of Williams, James Harris, Willis Reed, Everson Walls and other Grambling all-time greats – disavowing the school’s affiliation with them.
Grambling rose to prominence under Hall of Fame coach Eddie Robinson, who was the first college coach to win 400 games. It is one of the most storied programs in college football and easily the most recognizable name among HBCUs. For it to be in shambles has its alumni in a state of shock.
“I never thought it would be this way,’’ said Grambling alumnus and former baseball coach and Wilbert Ellis, who was one Robinson’s lieutenant’s during the G-Men’s glory years. “We’re Grambling. I’m down in a rut. The idea of not playing football…. That’s our pastime. Eddie Robinson and all of the great ones that he coached, I thought we’d be able to come to the table, get something done and move on. I know they’ve been trying to work something out. I thought they had something for this weekend. It’s a lot to lose.’’
Grambling has four games remaining, including the nationally televised Bayou Classic against arch-rival Southern University. Sharp, the SWAC commissioner says the situation has already been damaging to Grambling and the conference. If more games are canceled, the harm could be irreparable.
“This is beyond damaging,’’ he said. “I played football for a lot of years. I’ve been a fan for many years. I’ve seen this happen. We’ve had forfeitures based on ineligible players, but not like this. I’m hoping Dr. Pogue can get things rectified and this will be the only game that won’t be played.’’