JACKSON, Miss. — I’m glad Eddie Robinson isn’t alive to see this.
If that sounds callous or mean-spirited, my apologies. But the man who built the reputations of Grambling football and Grambling State University are now tearing down would have been heartbroken to see the depths to which his beloved institution has fallen.
A season of infighting, unrelenting defeats and the firing of popular Grambling legend Doug Williams boiled over into an open rebellion by Grambling’s players Friday.
Fed up with shoddy facilities, unconscionable travel arrangements — the team had to bus 750 miles overnight to Indianapolis for the right to be routed 48-0 last week by Alcorn State — and the appointment of a disliked interim coach (George Ragsdale), Grambling’s players refused to get on the buses to come here for Saturday’s game with Jackson State.
It is an unprecedented blow to not only Grambling but the Southwestern Athletic Conference at large. Despite Grambling’s recent struggles — the Tigers have lost 17 of their past 18 since last season — this is the one and only SWAC program with which people identify nationally. It’s the program with four Pro Football Hall of Famers (no non-BCS school has more), 14 black college national championships and a famous band.
For Grambling to play Jackson State on Saturday, the band would have to drop their brass and put on shoulder pads. Couldn’t do much worse than the 0-7 football team.
“It’s very disheartening,” said Calvin Nicholas, a former McKinley High standout who played under Robinson. “It makes you feel internally like something is boiling. We’ve never had a problem like this before because we’ve been such a tight knit group. One of things that always set Grambling apart was the way the school cared about and took care of its students.”
Obviously, the kids aren’t all right. Whether Grambling President Frank G. Pogue, athletic director Aaron James or Williams himself are most to blame is debatable.
Two things that aren’t: One, Robinson would have never let this happen. If he got on the bus, his players would not dare to defy him. And two, no one at that school has demonstrated anything close to Robinsonian leadership in 2013.
“Eddie Robinson, the president and the athletic director would’ve been on the bus if we were short of funds,” said Henry Dyer, a former Grambling and NFL running back. “With Coach Rob, the only right we had was to get an education.”
Outside Mississippi Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where apparently a Jackson State scrimmage will serve as replacement for an actual football game, fans milled about in the motor home lot trying to figure out how to make the best of a lost weekend.
Southern fan Jimmy Carter didn’t feel like following the Jaguars all the way to Arkansas-Pine Bluff, so he came here instead. Between parking for his RV and golf cart, gas, food and game tickets, Carter figures he’s out about $500.
“Going to have to stay here and drink beer. I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “It’s just going to be a Saturday party.”
J-State fan Artis Bolden wasn’t so sure. He’s part of an alumni group that plunked down $2,500 to park 25 RVs at the stadium for the game and a major fundraising event held every homecoming weekend.
Bolden worried that prominent boosters would stay away. Saturday, Bolden said, “is going to be a disaster.”
By Friday afternoon, there was little doubt of that. This is something Grambling and its conference will find hard to live down.
“It’s going to be difficult because it’s something you’ve never seen happen before,” SWAC Commissioner Duer Sharp said. “Maybe my office needs to be a little more involved in what’s going on on campus. We thought we were doing a good job … but obviously we were unaware of this.”
The Advocate’s Perryn Keys, Les East and Matthew Harris contributed to this report.