Friday, October 18, 2013

What's Happening at Grambling? Tumultous Week Leaves J-State With No Homecoming Game and Plenty of Questions at Grambling


Safety Naquan Smith speaks during a "State of Emergency" rally on the Grambling campus Thursday.  Pic by The Associated Press

Buses that were supposed to take Grambling players to Jackson State for their game Saturday sat empty before leaving as players refused to show up.  Picture by Sean Isabella/News-Star

After one of the most bizarre weeks in not only HBCU football history, but college football history, Jackson State University's homecoming weekend will be highlighted only by a glorified scrimmage.

But it's hardly Jackson State's fault.

Their scheduled opponent, Grambling State, isn't coming to town.  In fact, the storied football program is in shambles right now as a player revolt against administrators this past week, ending with the players' refusal to play or practice, has forced the cancellation of the game.

Players have united in their frustration with having to bus from Grambling, La., to games in Kansas City, Mo., a nine-hour ride covering nearly 600 miles one way, and Indianapolis, Ind., another 12 hour ride of nearly 760 miles one way ( "It does something to your body, being on the bus that long," safety Naquan Smith told Sports Illustrated. "We were kinda upset [the] other team got a chance to fly there. It wasn't fair.."); not getting all the meals they were supposed to have gotten on trips; poor athletic facilities and what they see as Grambling administrators lack of support for the football program.

The capper this week was the firing of head coach Doug Williams, the Grambling and Super Bowl legend who led the Tigers to a Southwestern Athletic Conference title two years ago, but a 1-10 record last year and an 0-2 record this year with two blowout losses.

But school president Frank Pogue said during a Friday news conference that the firing of Williams was one he had pondered for awhile.

"It was a difficult decision that clearly was not made overnight or over a week but frankly over an extended period time," he said.

But reports cite a rift between the two men.  According to Sports Illustrated, Williams feuded with Pogue and athletic director Aaron James over everything from signs for coaches in a parking lot to Williams' pay and bonuses.  Williams sued Grambling and the University of Louisiana system after winning the SWAC title in 2011. He and his coaches weren't paid bonuses due to them in their contract.  His suit against the school said Grambling said they would only pay if Williams signed a contract that reduced his pay and dropped future bonuses.  The suit was settled when Williams signed a three-year contract.

But apparently, that destroyed any long-term good relationship between Williams and his president and athletic director. According to Sports Illustrated, Williams found money to have a floor replaced in the team's weight room, but Pogue and James didn't think Williams followed protocol in getting the money secured. Not long afterwards, Williams was fired and running backs coach George Ragsdale was named interim coach, though players preferred defensive coordinator Dennis "Dirt" Winston, a gritty former Pittsburgh Steeler.

The floor, badly needing repairs, still wasn't fixed.

Money has been a recurring theme in this situation.  In a time when nearly every higher education institution has had to deal with falling enrollments, fewer state and federal appropriations and shrinking budgets, HBCU's -- long underfunded -- have felt the brunt moreso than most other institutions.

Grambling is an prime example.

The school's overall budget this year is $13.8 million, down more than $18 million over the past five years, according to Sports Illustrated.   Football and other athletic programs have been directly affected during a time with the University has had to layoff employees and furlough others.

It's led to one of the other players' complaints, poor facilities, such as reported mold and mildew in their weight room. 

"We felt like we've been mistreated," said Smith in a USA Today story Thursday after he addressed a student rally. "The administration is finally addressing some of the facilities issues, but we felt like it should have been done a long time ago."

As the losses continued, player frustration mounted too.  Tuesday they met with Pogue, James and Ragsdale, though no assistant coaches were invited to the meeting.  The meeting turned sour after the players voiced their displeasure.  Then they walked out.

Not only did they walk out, they didnt show up for practice the next day or the day after.

Ragsdale, who reportedly was having problems with his assistant coaches as well as players, was relieved of his coaching duties and reassigned to an undetermined position.  Winston was named interim coach.

But by then it was too late.

Players' confidence in Pogue was zero at that point.

"We felt there is a lack of leadership with the administration," Smith told USA Today. "We had a personal issue with (Ragsdale) and demanded for him to go. We want (Pogue) to go."

Players were supposed to be at a team walk-through before heading to Jackson, Miss., Friday.  No players showed.  Players were to board buses to take them to Jackson, Miss., for Saturday's Jackson State game at 2:30 p.m. Friday. Only a few showed.

A meeting was held with players and administrators who were trying to broker some sort of agreement.  Buses rescheduled to take players to Jackson State at 4:30 p.m. sat idle and then left empty at 5 p.m.

By then, talks had broken down and the homecoming game at Jackson State, which would have attracted nearly 30,000 people and likely millions of dollars in revenue, was cancelled.

"It's very disappointing," SWAC Commissioner Duer Sharp told The Associated Press. "But without knowing all the facts it's hard for me to make a judgment."

So instead of a huge homecoming football game Saturday, Jackson State will have a football scrimmage and their band will perform and extended show.  Fans will get refunds on their tickets too.

"It's not ideal," Jackson State spokeswoman Jean Cook told ESPN. "But we're trying to make the best of things."

According to Sean Isabella, who has covered the saga extensively for The News-Star, SWAC bylaws say Grambling is on the hook for a $20,000 fine. Isabella also reported Friday night that James said no players would see their scholarships revoked because of the boycott, though James did mention scholarship agreements said revocation can happen if a player doesn't attend practice or games. 

Meanwhile, Friday night ended with a team without a game Saturday and a question mark on what happens next.

One person was proud of how the players handled everything.

"I'm proud of them boys," said Doug Williams in a text message to USA Today columnist Jarrett Bell. "They took a stance."

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