JACKSON, Miss. — Inside Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium early Friday evening, grounds crew members diligently painted Jackson State’s logo on the turf. Outside in a RV lot, tailgaters prepped cast iron grills for Homecoming. Three miles away, alums cruised through campus.
Two hours to the west, Grambling buses sat with empty seats, creating doubt about whether Southwestern Athletic Conference’s premier program would be there for kickoff Saturday after a week-long player mutiny and administrative strife.
The verdict came down during a hastily arranged news conference inside JSU’s administrative tower: Grambling forfeited, dealing a painful blow to the school and an embarrassing public relations hit to the conference. It was a stunning reversal from optimism earlier in the day when the Grambling administration took steps to avert the outcome.
“We’re going to Jackson, and we’re going to play Jackson State for their homecoming,” GSU President Frank G. Pogue said early Friday afternoon at a news conference, as reported by The (Shreveport) Times.
The Tigers (0-7, 0-4) were scheduled to leave at 2:30 p.m. Friday, but the charter buses rumbled idle and empty. Instead, more than 100 students assembled in front of Harris Auditorium on GSU’s campus, protesting that the football team was taking a stand to be heard by the school’s administration.
“We felt like we’ve been mistreated,” cornerback Naquan Smith told The Times. “The administration is finally addressing some of the facilities issues, but we felt like it should have been done a long time ago.”
SWAC Commissioner Duer Sharp said it will be deemed a forfeit under conference bylaws. JSU (6-2, 6-0) remains undefeated, and Grambling — mired in an 11-game losing streak — faces a fine of an undisclosed amount, he said.
“I’m on the road and I don’t have my bylaws in front of me, but the financial penalty is just the start,” Sharp said. “That’s just the beginning really.”
Sharp added that SWAC officials will sit down with Grambling administrators late Monday or early Tuesday on campus, and “we’ll go from there.”
The crisis had percolated since Tuesday, when players walked out on a meeting with Pogue, interim coach George Ragsdale and athletic director Aaron James. Since Wednesday, they have boycotted practice and aired grievances over travel to road games and the condition of the program’s facilities.
On Thursday, GSU’s administration took steps to quell dissent, reassigning Ragsdale within the athletic department. Defensive coordinator Dennis “Dirt” Winston was elevated to interim coach, and Pogue promised to look into facility upgrades.
“We want to know that the program is going to be run the right way,” Smith told The Times, adding that the administration threatened to revoke players’ scholarships — a move he said could trigger legal action.
Pogue insisted his authority had not been undercut by the protest.
“I don’t see the players as being in control,” Pogue said. “I have never lost control of an institution.”
Sharp said he spoke with Pogue “a couple of times but was not overly involved with what happened,” with their last conversation taking place around 11:45 a.m. Friday.
“Just from my talking with him, he was confident,” Sharp said. “He thought they were going to get on the bus and go play.”
Yet just after 4 p.m. Friday, Pogue placed a phone call to Jackson State officials, notifying them that the team would not be coming, JSU spokesman Eric Stringfellow said. Officials at both schools — from their respective presidents down to athletic department spokesmen — had been in contact throughout Friday.
“They had not been wavering in the fact of saying, ‘We’re going to play a game,’ ” Stringfellow said. “Up until they’re not coming.”
Sharp said it was communicated to him that the departure time of 3:30 p.m. came and went with nobody on the Grambling bus.
Asked to assess whether the lines of communication had been clear and Grambling forthright in its statements, Stringfellow said he would “jump over that question.”
“I’m not going to get into any internal operations of Grambling University,” Stringfellow said. “What’s happening hurts the conference. It clearly hurts Grambling and, in this case, hurts Jackson State. It hurts college football. There probably could some sort of ripple from this.”
Tom Cooper, the stadium’s event manager, said roughly 25,000 people were expected for Saturday’s game and that there was no open date on the facility’s calendar to reschedule. Until the announcement, which came down at 5:30 p.m., Cooper’s staff was still prepping the field in advance of a stadium sweep by law enforcement.
Jackson State will be granting refunds, but Stringfelow said no timetable has been set.
“In terms of just trying to pull a solution out of the sky, we’re not going to do it,” he said. “We’re going to work through it. We’re going to operate with good faith. We’re going to take care of our fans.”