NEW ORLEANS — For a guy who has had the weather of most of a lifetime in the public’s eye wash over him, Doug Williams doesn’t sigh easily.
But as he talked about both his team and the game that has meant so much to him over the years, there were sighs.
More studied than usual, but as insightful as ever, Williams talked about his beloved Bayou Classic. And for a man of Williams’ stature, physically and figuratively, there came big sighs.
“Last year was a very big shock to me,” said Williams of last year’s crowd of 40,175, breaking the previous low set the year before, at 43,494. “I am concerened.”
Williams played in the very first Bayou Classic in 1974, when 76,753 showed at Tulane Stadium, beginning a Louisiana tradition and a source of the two schools’ biggest shared pride.
“We let it get away,” Williams said. “We, as the universities. Both universities have to take some responsibility — how it was working, how they negotiated, who they have working for them. It’s a lot of things there. You can’t just blame it on the crowd, because I think we have to get out and sell this event.
“This event has to be sold. If you just think, it’s an event and people are just going to show up, that’s not going to happen.”
Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. matchup on NBC, in itself, pits a 1-9 Grambling team, which plummeted from last year’s Southwestern Athletic Conference title, against a 3-7 Southern team, which is led by an interim coach and will soon — officially — begin looking for a head coach.
These are the worst records combined for any Bayou Classic matchup.
Both teams share the tale of close losses. Southern has lost four games by 11 points, including its past two by one point each. Grambling has lost three games by five points and another by a touchdown.
“We’ve got a good football team,” Southern interim coach Dawson Odums said. “That record doesn’t tell us a lot about them. These guys play for 60 minutes, and I’m proud of that. I really think, going forward, this program is headed in the right direction.
“We’ve yet to play three phases — special teams, offense and defense — for 60 minutes, the right way it’s supposed to be played.”
A one-win season for Grambling is jarring, and historic. The last such came in 1941, which was the iconic Eddie Robinson’s first season, when the Tigers finished 1-5-1.
“To be honest with you, I think I’ve been unbelievably strong through this whole thing, because I understand it. … At Grambling, we’ve all been spoiled,” Williams said. “Grambling’s always been in a winning situation. We’ve never been here at Grambling. That’s probably the biggest shock of a lot of people.
“When I look at this situation, I look at my whole career as a whole and say I’ve been through some tougher situations and I’ve gotten through it.”
SU, meanwhile, is 9-23 in the past three seasons and hasn’t had three straight losing seasons since 1990-92 (13-20). The Jaguars have lost four in a row to Grambling.
So, much like the game itself, each program seeks a rebound.
The ultimate blueprint both teams crave is along the lines of the 2002 Bayou Classic, when Southern entered at 5-6 but came away with a 48-24 blowout of a Grambling team that went on to win the SWAC title game and claim the black college national title. SU went 12-1 the next season, winning the SWAC and black college national titles.
However, that Southern team finished the season 5-1 after a 1-5 start, so there was clearly momentum building that carried over to the next season. The Bayou Classic victory served as an exclamation point and a hint to the coming juggernaut that was the 2003 season.
Said Williams: “Ain’t no way in the world can I say this game is going to make our season. What this game can do for us is give us a little ray of hope for next season. When you’re 1-9, one game can’t make a season. We’ve had so many letdowns during the season that one game can’t do it.”
Said Odums: “It doesn’t make or break a season. What it does is create momentum. It’s the last game both of these teams are going to play. We’re not going to the SWAC championship. … Going into the offseason, going into recruiting, you’d like to be
coming off a win.”
So, much like the teams involved, perhaps Saturday’s attendance won’t make or break the Bayou Classic.
“If last year was a bottom, and we’ve got a core of 40,000, that’s not bad,” first-year Southern Athletic Director William Broussard said. “I know that’s a historical low, but that’s a pretty good base to build off of.”
Williams, who 10 years earlier was among many from both schools openly discussing moving the event to Houston, now calls New Orleans “the place that it should be.”
“If we’re not up to 50,000, I’ll be disappointed,” Williams said.
Still, both coaches were campaigning to get more fans to attend.
“We need everybody to be a part of it, so you can see that both of the universities are headed in the right direction,” Odums said. “Our young men need your support. Our schools need your support.”
Here comes Louisiana’s best family feud, once again.
“It’s not about the records,” Williams said. “It’s about the opportunity. You’ve got the family feud. At my momma’s house, I’ve got a sister who won’t be able to eat at the house this week, because she’s a big Jaguar fan. That’s the way it is. That’s Grambling. That’s Southern. That’s how important this game is.”
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