“We will continue to support our football team — our players. We will pay attention, obviously, as much as we can financially to enhance all the athletic facilities, including those in football. My concern now is we move forward together. The students have expressed themselves, their opinions.” Frank POgue, Grambling president
After a boycott that produced a forfeit game, Grambling ended its protest Monday and returned to practice, a move made after a Sunday night meeting overseen by Baton Rouge businessman Jim Bernhard, who promised to resolve health concerns with the team’s practice facility.
In a statement released Monday and later in a news conference outside the Eddie Robinson Museum on the school’s campus, senior cornerback Naquan Smith said the entire team voted to return to the field.
“The football team took a stance on what we thought was right,” Smith said. “There are many problems that exist, and if no one says anything, nothing will become of our institution.”
The stalemate was broken during a sitdown in Ruston with Bernhard, the founder of The Shaw Group Inc. The meeting was attended by five players and Grambling alumni and friends of the program Douglas Porter, Ezil Bibbs, Roy Jackson, Henry Dyer and Howard Davis.
For several hours, the players reiterated concerns with mold growing in the team’s showers and locker room, equipment issues, $11,000 worth of uninstalled replacement flooring for the weight room, long bus rides to games in Kansas City and Indianapolis and the September firing of coach Doug Williams.
“They stressed it was not just them but Grambling in general,” Bernhard said. “I told them, ‘Let’s go through the must-haves and the nice-to-haves.’ That’s been accomplished (Monday).”
Grambling President Frank Pogue said Monday night that players would not face any repercussions for the boycott, and the national attention would help publicize the funding plight for historically black colleges and universities like Grambling.
Pogue said work is already scheduled to be done to improve conditions in the football team’s weight room.
“We will continue to support our football team — our players,” Pogue said. “We will pay attention, obviously, as much as we can financially to enhance all the athletic facilities, including those in football. My concern now is we move forward together. The students have expressed themselves, their opinions.”
Bernhard has no formal ties to Grambling but said his interest was piqued by seeing television reports on the dispute and the feeling that players and Grambling administrators were “talking past each other.” After returning from a trip to Virginia late Saturday night, he reached out to contacts to arrange a meeting with Grambling players.
“I just picked up my phone and said, ‘Get these guys in a room,’ ” Bernhard said.
Smith said players decided to end the boycott after reaching out to several Grambling greats, including Williams, who advised them to, in Smith’s words, “Go out there and play football.”
USA Today reported Williams and several others met with the players Sunday night at a hotel room in Ruston.
The friction between Williams and the school’s administrative apparatus was well known, such as suing in April 2012 for performance bonuses he claimed were owed.
Additionally, he worked outside the athletic department’s command structure. For example, the funds raised to pay for the new weight room floor were not channeled through the school’s fundraising organization, according to a Sports Illustrated report last week.
Williams was fired Sept. 11 after the Tigers, who have gone 1-17 against NCAA Division I foes over the past two seasons, started the year with back-to-back losses.
Since the outset of the dispute, Williams has tried to remain in the background. His only public comments came last week when he texted a USA Today reporter with a terse response.
“I’m proud of them boys,” Williams wrote. “They took a stand.”
The dissent became public last Tuesday after players walked out of a meeting with Pogue, interim coach George Ragsdale and other university officials. They skipped practice the following two days, while Ragsdale was reassigned within the athletic department and defensive coordinator Dennis “Dirt” Winston promoted to head coach.
All the while, Pogue expressed continued confidence the team would travel to Jackson State for its games.
But on Friday, only 22 of 80 players reported for the team’s charter bus, and late Friday afternoon Jackson State officials were notified the Tigers would not be traveling.
On Friday, the Southwestern Athletic Conference announced the outcome as a forfeit along with a potential fine, but on Sunday said the punishment had not been levied as it works with the schools to resolve the matter.
In their statement, Grambling players said the former Tigers coach “put us in contact” with Bernhard, whose docket has been largely cleared after The Shaw Group was sold in July 2013 for a reported $3 billion. Yet Bernhard denied touching base with Williams about the matter.
“I never talked to Doug,” Bernhard said. “I never had any communication with him whatsoever. I know Doug Williams, and I’m sure like any coach he’s concerned about his players.”
Behind the scenes, however, a potential channel could have been used to exchange information.
A source familiar with the matter said Bernhard reached out to Cleo Fields, a former politician and Baton Rouge attorney, about what he could do to help broker a resolution. Fields represented Williams, and the source said the attorney contacted his client about what parties Bernhard needed to speak with in order to set up the meeting.
Bernhard and Fields have similar political leanings, and tthey’re also neighbors.
Grambling resumed practice on Monday. The Tigers host Texas Southern on Saturday.
“Everyone on the team wanted to play, but to get what we feel is right, we had to take a stand and make sure our voice was heard,” Smith said.
During his meeting with the players, Bernhard ensured facilities would be updated, while The (Monroe) News Star reported that Athletic Director Aaron James said $32,000 in renovations were in store for the weight room over the next couple weeks.
Pogue told the paper Monday that the flooring materials acquired through Williams’ fundraising efforts would be used, and added he spoke to University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley about putting together a package to upgrade facilities.
Over the past five years, funding has become increasingly lean for Grambling, with its state appropriations dipping to a projected $13.8 million this fiscal year from $31.6 million five years ago — a 57 percent decline — that spurred deep cost-cutting measures across campus.
The athletic department hasn’t been spared, either. University spokesman Will Sutton told The Associated Press the department endured a $335,000 cut this year from its overall department budget of $6.8 million. The football program’s budget was cut by $75,000 to about $2 million.
Bernhard said he spoke with Wayne Parker, who chairs the system’s Board of Supervisors, and received reassurances that issues within the facility were being addressed. As far as further improvements, Bernhard said he would take on a role in raising funds to put them in place.
“If there’s something down the road for those nice-to-haves, I think the funds can be raised,” Bernhard said. “There’s certainly Grambling alumni, and I’ll participate. We’re going to take care of the must haves in the next few days.”
Advocate reporter Mark Ballard and The Associated Press contributed to this report.