PINE BLUFF, Ark. — Long after the final whistle of the game, long after Grambling State University’s football team trudged back to the visitor’s locker room following another defeat, and not so long after the marching band played its last amped-up R&B tune of the evening, Doug Williams was waiting outside of the stadium gates.
Darkness had already descended upon south central Arkansas, and there was a chill in the autumn air. In a thick maroon hoodie and jeans, Williams distractedly mingled with a few old friends and former classmates and teammates from better days as the football team — a team he coached as recently as two months prior — marched to the buses idling in the nearby parking lot.
Williams, the former Grambling football hero and the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, was almost certainly the most famous person in this dreary little town of 47,000 — if not the entire state and a couple of surrounding ones. He still cuts an imposing figure, at 6 feet 4 inches and broad-shouldered with hands the size of catcher’s mitts.
But here, from the outside looking in, Williams had the look of an estranged family member.
Williams made no attempt to alert anyone to his presence, never raising his voice. No university officials greeted him. Still, all but a handful of football players acknowledged him on their way off the field to the locker room or the buses.
Despite the figurative distance, Williams remains the symbol of both the school’s gilded legacy and its precipitous decline. His career has made Grambling and north Louisiana proud, but today he stands for the division and descent of one of the nation’s most storied football programs.
Three weeks before this Saturday in early November, the school had begrudgingly been thrust into the national spotlight when its football team refused to board buses for a game at Jackson State University. The player-led protest capped two turbulent months for the school’s program, which began with the surprising dismissal of Williams on Sept. 9.
“The kids did what the grown-ups couldn’t do,” said Henry Dyer, a former president of the Grambling Legends alumni group who played in the NFL in the late 1960s. “Somebody had to come forward.”
Probably the best way to get to Grambling State University is to catch a flight into Shreveport, take the ramp onto Interstate 20, drive about 65 miles east, and then exit onto Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones Drive. Take the two-lane highway for about two miles — just follow the curve of the road — and you will find yourself on the campus of a school founded in 1901 to educate blacks (many of them the children of farmers) in the rural northern part of the state.
Near the entrance to the campus, alongside the administration building, is the Eddie G. Robinson Museum. This is the palatial red-brick monument to the late Robinson, who retired in 1997 as the winningest football coach in NCAA Division I history and built Grambling State into a powerhouse during a time when black players were prohibited from playing for major college programs.
Robinson spent 56 years on the sideline, compiling a record of 408-165-15. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame immediately upon his retirement. When he died in April 2007, his funeral was the first event in the school’s 7,000-seat Assembly Center, which sits only a few dozen yards from the football stadium that also bears his name.
“He was all of ours’ coach,” Rev. Jesse Jackson told the audience of roughly 5,000 during Robinson’s funeral. “He made the world come to Grambling.”
The world hadn’t been back much since that day. Not until mid-October, when word first started to leak that the football team was considering a boycott of its upcoming game at Jackson State.
The players met with school administrators on Oct. 15, a meeting they’d sought since Williams’ termination on Sept. 9. Many on campus held the belief — repeated later in more than a dozen interviews with BuzzFeed — that Williams had been fired because of a power struggle with the school president, Frank Pogue.
At the meeting with Pogue and Athletic Director Aaron James, the players detailed their frustration with the state of the program: 17 straight losses, the poor condition of the athletic facilities, lengthy bus rides to places like Kansas City (1,200 miles round-trip) and Indianapolis (1,500). Increasingly dissatisfied with Pogue’s responses, the players stormed out of the meeting.
“Things are rough, and we understand our players’ frustration,” Grambling spokesman Will Sutton said in a statement following the walkout. “The president is frustrated, the AD is frustrated, the students are frustrated, the alumni are frustrated, so we fully understand our players’ frustration.”
Later that week, on the afternoon of Oct. 18, only 22 of Grambling’s 80 players reported to the two charter buses waiting in the athletic department’s parking lot. Soon enough, everyone would fully understand their frustration: Grambling was forced to forfeit, denying Jackson State what was supposed to be their homecoming game.
Williams, who had been previously silent about the protest, sent a text message to USA Today: “I’m proud of them boys. They took a stance.”
Suddenly, the world had a renewed interest in Grambling State. Lots had changed since their last visit.
“It ain’t all about the challenges,” Doug Williams told me, agitation evident in his voice. “Sometimes you’ve just got to manage what you’ve got.”
I had meekly approached him as he walked toward Golden Lions Stadium minutes before Grambling was set to face the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Williams had not made a public comment since that text to USA Today, and I hoped to engage him about the financial difficulties of his alma mater and former employer.
He wasn’t interested in elaborating on his comment. “I don’t want to get into all of that,” he said, walking briskly away. “I can’t help you.”
It wasn’t necessary. His former players covered a lot of this ground in a widely circulated letter to the school’s administration, writing, “As a team our goal is to build a solid foundation through team work, and to make progress during our time here at Grambling State University. Unfortunately, there are certain factors that are hindering us from reaching our goals.”
Their concerns made headlines across the nation: There was mold and mildew all over the athletic complex; there were water leaks that were compromising walls and ceilings, workout benches that were “tearing and ripping apart”; there were several cases of staph infections from improperly cleaned equipment and football gear; players were buying their own Gatorade; and there was a torn-up floor in the weight room that had become a safety concern.
It was a dispute over that floor — which might sound like a small detail until you remember that tripping when you’re holding 500 pounds of weight can cause severe injury — that reportedly led to Williams’ dismissal.
Before the start of the 2013 season, Williams arranged for the Grambling Legends to buy replacement rubber flooring for the weight room. Problem was, Williams had not consulted with Pogue and James about the purchase. It was another example of Williams’ sometimes contentious relationship with the school’s administrators; he had filed a lawsuit against the school in April 2012 to get performance bonuses that he said he was owed. Pogue and James refused to install the new floor and fired Williams soon after.
Pogue and James, via school spokesman Will Sutton, denied a request for an interview. “No time. Too little notice. Not enough time. Maybe later. Sorry,” Sutton said in an email.
Beyond the infighting, there are funding woes that reach far beyond the football program. Grambling’s yearly support from the state has shrunk from about $32 million to $14 million since Gov. Bobby Jindal and the state legislature cut higher education funding in 2009. That has led to cuts across the board, including academic staff, capital improvements and, finally this year, athletics.
Grambling’s athletic department cut $335,000 this year from its overall budget of $6.8 million. Sutton told ESPN that the football team’s budget was cut by $75,000 to about $2 million, problematic for a program that has run a deficit between $1.2 and $1.8 million in recent years. By comparison, LSU head football coach Les Miles — by himself — earns more than twice Grambling’s budget at $4.3 million per year.
“Schools like Grambling are being hurt disproportionately,” said Steven Jackson, who had been president of the school’s former Student Government Association and also served a one-year term as the student member on the state university system’s Board of Supervisors in 2009. “And if you keep cutting and cutting and don’t start putting more back into the school, the bottom is going to fall out at some point.”
It’s not just football players who are feeling the budget cuts.
Tyson Gardner and Kadijah Jacobs strolled across the mostly deserted campus on a Friday afternoon, headed nowhere in particular. They’re biology majors from Dallas. And instead of worrying about torn weight benches, they’re concerned staff cuts could mean it will take them longer to graduate.
“There’s only one organic chemistry professor,” said Jacobs, a 19-year-old junior. “So that means there’s fewer classes to take, which keeps you here longer.”
Because the headlines associated with the football team also shed some light on some of the other problems on campus, most students said, they were pleased to see the players speak up.
“I liked that they stood up for themselves,” Gardner said. “But they’re just now feeling the cuts. We’ve been feeling them for years.”
Students last year voted down a $100-per-semester fee that would have gone to the athletics department. More money for sports is a tough sell on a campus with a number of dilapidated facilities. That includes a few — the old athletic department building, for example — that have been vacant for years. The campus grounds have a noticeable number of bald spots. A number of vacant staff positions have gone unfilled, and classes have become more crowded.
University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley called Grambling’s financial woes the worst in the nine-campus system. “The financial system at Grambling is severe,” she said.
Students already know; they don’t have to go all that far to see the difference. Only five miles east on I-20 is Louisiana Tech, a school nearly double the size of Grambling and the only Tier I university in its nine-school University of Louisiana system. “Their campus looks like Harvard compared to ours,” said Tre’ Stephenson Jones, a 21-year-old criminal justice major from nearby Monroe.
Among some students, even those who philosophically supported the football team’s protest, that atmosphere of deprivation led to resentment. They noted that the forfeit cost Grambling a $20,000 fine from the Southwestern Athletic Conference and subjected the school to other penalties that could cost up to $300,000.
“I thought it was pointless,” said Arseneaux Robertson, a 22-year-old elementary education major from Pittsburgh. “It put us in the hole even more.”
By the time Grambling made the 150-mile bus trip to Pine Bluff on Nov. 9, things finally seemed to be on the upswing for the lowly football team.
In their second game under interim head coach Dennis “Dirt” Winston — himself a replacement for Williams’ replacement, George Ragsdale, who was relieved of duty the week of the boycott — the Tigers snapped their losing streak with a 47-40 victory over Mississippi Valley State before a home crowd of nearly 14,000, almost doubling the previous season-high attendance.
Next up were the Golden Lions, the preseason SWAC favorite and defending league champions. They had endured their own embarrassing headlines this fall: UAPB lost more than a dozen players to eligibility issues prior to the season opener.
Though this game would merely determine last place in the league standings, the worst finally seemed behind both programs. UAPB’s Rolling Lounge Club — a group of about 50 alumni and fans who bring their massive travel trailers to the pregame tailgate — declared themselves ready to party. The threatening rain clouds a few miles down the road weren’t going to keep them inside.
Large black meat smokers were out; burgers and hot dogs were on the grill; beers were on ice for whoever wanted them, and sodas were nearby for those who didn’t. Hip-hop and old-school R&B spilled out the speaker systems of the trailers. It was all so upbeat.
“These are both family-oriented universities,” said Johnny Wainwright, a 1970 graduate of what was then known as Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal (AM&N) College. “There’s so much love and fellowship out here. We appreciate these schools doing so much with as little as they have.”
It’s true that Grambling is not the only historically black college struggling financially. Grambling and UAPB ranked 224th and 216th, respectively, out of 227 NCAA Division I public schools in athletic department revenue from 2006–2011. Eleven of the bottom fifteen schools on that list are HBCUs.
The money troubles at these schools have some administrators and academics wondering whether a robust athletic program is worth the expense. “If [the athletic programs] are not profitable entities and they’re sucking huge amounts of resources from the institution, you’ve at least got to have conversations about it,” said Marybeth Gasman, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and one of the leading authorities in the country on historically black colleges.
Others have suggested that dropping a competitive level, from NCAA Division I to Division II, for example, would help cut back on expenses. More drastic measures were taken at Spelman College in Atlanta, where administrators eliminated the athletic department with a plan to reallocate $900,000 in savings toward a campus-wide health and fitness program.
“What happened with Grambling is like the canary in the coal mine,” said Aaron Taylor, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law who has written regularly about HBCU athletic programs. “The vast majority of [the HBCUs] are in some type of financial distress. We’re going to have to have real frank conversations about what’s important to us. I don’t think having a Division I football program will be part of that.”
That was a discussion for another day in Pine Bluff. It was almost time for the opening kickoff when the storm clouds passed over the stadium.
“Hit ‘em with that neck,” a Grambling defensive back yelled out to a tuba player in the marching band while ambling down the visitors’ ramp of the stadium. He pointed to his throat to punctuate the order.
The Tigers huddled near the edge of the field, waiting for their musical accompaniment. Then, as the band queued up a familiar tune, they stormed onto the turf for kickoff. Grambling football, even in its diminished version of itself, was back for the afternoon.
And in a game with no real stakes, Grambling and UAPB put on quite a show for the nearly 5,800 fans who filled the bleachers at Golden Lions Stadium. The teams combined for 87 points, 1,027 yards of offense, and six lead changes.
The star was UAPB quarterback Benjamin Anderson, who totaled nearly 500 yards of offense, scored five touchdowns, and led two scoring drives in the fourth quarter to clinch the Golden Lions’ first conference win of the season.
Doug Williams took it all in from the stands too, to the side of the larger cluster of Grambling fans. In the second half, he staked out a spot in the far west side of the bleachers and sat with Dyer and another friend. Even when the Tigers ostensibly gave him a reason to cheer, Williams watched on impassively. His son, D.J. Williams, a junior quarterback on the team, had gone from starter to backup this season. The Williams family had, inadvertently or not, been phased out of leadership positions within the program.
Coach Winston and Johnathan Williams (no relation), now the starter at QB, represented a fresh start. Accordingly, after the game, there was no direct talk about the past few weeks after the game.
“I’m starting to feel a little more comfortable,” Johnathan Williams said. “I think [the boycott] has helped us come together.”
Over in the winning locker room, UAPB coach Monte Coleman — who played 16 seasons for the Washington Redskins — was heartened that Grambling had so enthusiastically returned to action.
“You could tell that they were energized,” Coleman said. “I’m glad they’re back playing. And I’m glad they reconciled some of differences they have.”
By the time Coleman wrapped up his post-game remarks and the cleaning crews had swept through the bleachers, the Grambling buses were idling outside the stadium gates and the parking lot remained alive with UAPB fans, the Cupid Shuffle, food, and revelry.
The party was still going, for now.