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October 22, 2013 Tuesday
SPORTS; Pg. 1C
|Grambling players end week of turmoil;
Football team gets back on field for first time since Tuesday
George Schroeder, @GeorgeSchroeder, USA TODAY Sports
Standing in a motel parking lot Sunday evening, Naquan Smith wasn't ready to talk.
He and several teammates had just finished a meeting with their former coach and several other men -- Grambling alumni and assorted friends of the program -- in hopes of determining their next step and potentially ending the turmoil that escalated last week to a boycott of the Tigers' football game at Jackson State.
In the early evening darkness, Smith told USA TODAY Sports a decision had been reached, and he hinted strongly, "We're going in a different direction."
A day later, the direction was clear.
"Everybody on the team wanted to play," Smith said at a news conference Monday afternoon.
With about 80 teammates as a backdrop, the senior defensive back from Atlanta stood in front of the Eddie Robinson Museum on campus. He read a statement that had been released a few hours earlier and said the players voted unanimously to end the boycott. Then the Tigers piled into cars and headed to Robinson Stadium, where they practiced for the first time since last Tuesday.
The trip to the other side of campus took less than five minutes. The journey to boycott and back was a lot longer. Among other things, it took a nudge from former head coach Doug Williams -- who was fired last month and who met with some players Sunday at a motel in nearby Ruston, La. According to Smith, Williams promised them he and others would work to get the facilities upgraded and encouraged the players to return: "Go out and play football."
It might be the one point of agreement for everyone after a dramatic protest that included two days of boycotts amid complaints about substandard facilities, unhealthy conditions and long bus rides, plus the removal of interim coach George Ragsdale.
School President Frank G. Pogue told USA TODAY Sports he was not angry with the players and promised no retaliation, saying "a healing period" is necessary. But he called the situation "totally regrettable, absolutely, that we have taken an institution like Grambling State University and put it through this. It's just been horrible."
Even so, Smith said the players "have no regrets."
"It was tough, but we had to take a stand to get our point across," Smith said. "If we didn't take a stand, things would have been the same. We felt like for our voice to be heard (it required) what's going on now."
Neglected and disrespected
The catalyst, according to several players, was a feeling they had been neglected and disrespected after the school fired Williams last month.
Saturday night, Smith and several teammates met a reporter in another parking lot. The park on the outskirts of Ruston was deserted except for nine young men who wanted to explain the boycott but did not want to be quoted. In general terms, they said long-simmering tensions reached critical mass after a meeting last Tuesday with Pogue, athletics director Aaron James and Ragsdale.
Several players told USA TODAY Sports they were given little notice of the meeting. Still in their practice gear, they listened to Pogue's message, one the president said was essentially intended to "make sure the men understood despite losing (games) ... they should understand the university supported them." It didn't go over well. Several players said Pogue "talked in circles." They said they were unhappy Pogue had fired Williams more than a month earlier and yet this was the first time he'd chosen to meet with them.
"I wanted to give the interim coach and the team time to jell," Pogue said. "I knew buying Doug Williams out of his contract would create some tension."
Pogue wouldn't discuss the reasons he fired Williams, the former Grambling quarterback, but it apparently had little to do with the Tigers' recent lack of on-field success. Including the forfeit to Jackson State, Grambling (0-8) has lost 12 consecutive games and 18 of its last 19.
But among other things, school officials confirmed that Williams regularly tangled with the administration over private fundraising.
The tipping point was apparently new flooring for the weight room. Williams raised the money and bought the flooring while bypassing official channels.
Grambling has seen its state funding cut 57% in the last several years, according to university spokesman Will Sutton. The athletics department budget for 2013-14 is $6.8 million, which reflects, according to Sutton, a $335,000 cut. Football was asked to trim about $75,000 from its $2 million budget.
If there's any silver lining, Pogue said, it's that "we've had a chance to tell the world that we are broke. Grambling has insufficient funds to do what Grambling needs to do."
And he added, "Every building here needs attention," saying the needed renovations to the football facility were "symptomatic" of larger issues.
Staying the course
Jordan Harvey, president of Grambling's student government association, was also at the meeting after practice last Tuesday. The senior from Forsyth, Ga., said the mood started tense and worsened. "It was just aggression built up," he said. "It's been a rough year, a rough season."
Pogue said one player stood up, asked, "Why are we here?" and challenged his teammates to leave. Over the next several minutes, they did.
But several teammates nodded when Smith said if the meeting had taken place a month earlier, "We wouldn't have walked out."
Once they did, the players said, their course was set.
Pogue reassigned Ragsdale to a position in the athletics department's compliance office, "trying to appease" the players, he said, "because the men said they did not want to work with the interim coach." But even after defensive coordinator Dennis Winston was elevated to replace Ragsdale, the Tigers did not practice last week.
Friday afternoon, they didn't show up for the bus ride to Jackson, Miss. Almost two hours after sending the buses away empty, James, the athletics director, said he got a text message indicating the players had changed their minds.
A few minutes later, they changed their minds again.
In the city park Saturday night, just a few hours after the Jackson State game would have kicked off, the group of players listed among their goals the ouster of Pogue and James. But it was clear they weren't sure what would come next or their next move. As a reporter returned to his car, the players huddled tightly and quietly chanted:
"Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name ..."
In that absence of certainty over the weekend, the Tigers' third head coach of the season stuck with routine.
Sunday afternoon, in a cramped office at the Stadium Support Facility, Winston watched video of Texas Southern, the scheduled opponent Saturday.
Winston, who played 10 seasons in the NFL from 1977 to 1986, wasn't sure the game would be played.
Regardless, he would be prepared.
"We'll get through this," he said.
October 22, 2013