The routine has to be getting old for Doug Williams.
Each Monday, the Grambling coach dials into the Southwestern Athletic Conference coaches teleconference, makes a self-deprecating joke and then spends about 10 minutes trying to explain just what on Earth is going wrong.
This week, after losing to previously winless Prairie View 31-14 and falling to 0-5 (0-4 SWAC), it was more of the same.
First — after a standard greeting and being asked how he was doing — came the joke.
“Good, can’t complain. Well, I can complain, but I won’t,” Williams said with a laugh.
All credit to Williams for keeping his usual friendly demeanor, but this is not where he and the Tigers were supposed to be.
They entered the season as the defending champions and overwhelming preseason favorites in the SWAC West, a team expected to coolly fend off challenges from the likes of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Prairie View and Southern en route to another division title.
Instead, the Tigers find themselves behind all those teams — and every one else — as the only winless bunch in the league.
“We’ve been trying to rebound for about six weeks and just haven’t been able to do it,” he said. “I didn’t buy into them picking us to win it all, but I didn’t feel like I’d be where I am today. … I’m surprised to be sitting here 0-5, but not surprised to not be leading the conference on the West side.”
Indeed, Williams had tried to dampen the hype around his team during the preseason, citing the Tigers’ youth and the loss of stars like receiver Mario Louis and linebacker Cliff Exama.
But this dramatic fall came out of nowhere.
The first crack in the foundation was a season-opening loss to Alcorn State, but even after a one-point loss to Alabama State and another defeat to Alabama A&M, there was reason for optimism and a belief that GSU could engineer the same turnaround it pulled off last year, when it started 1-4 and won seven straight to take the league title.
While that may still be possible mathematically, the Tigers’ first challenge is something that couldn’t have been a major fear heading into the season: finding a way to beat Mississippi Valley State (1-4, 1-2 SWAC) on Saturday.
“Not a good situation to be going into,” Williams said. “Valley is coming off a shellacking from Alabama A&M, and they’re hungry. They realize everybody else has feasted on us, so I’m sure they feel the same way.
“They have an opportunity, especially with us traveling to them, but we have to figure out a way to get out of this funk that we’re in.”
That funk has been all-encompassing, with Grambling ranking in the SWAC’s bottom three of 10 statistical categories (the Tigers only lead in one: least penalties).
Running back Dawrence Roberts was expected to repeat as the league’s top rusher, but he has struggled on the field and with injuries, leading to a crowded and unremarkable backfield.
And then comes another staple of Williams’ weekly phone chat. When he’s told his favorite subject is on the way, he jumps right into the answer without hearing the question, saying that his son, D.J., will remain as the starting quarterback despite having a down year (46 percent completions, two TDs, four interceptions) and seeing a solid challenge from backup Frank Rivers in limited action (55 percent, two TDs, zero interceptions).
Between the questions about quarterbacks and losses, it might be easy to imagine Williams as a grumpy man.
But that’s not his style, and he said his team is following suit.
“The locker room is good,” he said. “As coaches, our job is to shield the players from the outside forces, which is almost unheard of because you have too much social media these days. It’s unfortunate that some of them buy into it, but it’s our job to make sure they don’t get too deep in it.”
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