Saturday, December 30, 2006

Remembering: Eddie Rob's right-hand men

Robinson's former Grambling assistants reminisce
April 18, 2005

Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Those who worked with Eddie Robinson are in an exclusive fraternity. Robinson retired in 1997 after nearly 60 seasons as head coach at Grambling State, yet throughout that time his staffs had remarkable stability.

"We enjoyed a great opportunity, to get to know and get to work with one of the game's great minds," said Doug Porter, whose 42 coaching seasons included eight with Robinson beginning in the late 1960s. "I realize now how lucky I was."

These coaches, friends and co-workers, will be honored on Friday night during a banquet at 6 p.m. at the Washington-Johnson Complex. For details, call the Grambling State football office at 274-6539 or the athletics department at 274-2374.

"We're sending out an open invitation to all of the former coaches that worked with Coach Robinson," said Melvin Spears, GSU's eighth head coach. "We hope to see the Melvin Lees, the Doug Porters, the Billy Mannings, the Ed Stevenses - all the guys. We want to say how much we appreciate them laying this foundation for us."

Rare was the Robinson staff turnover, long were the tenures. There was an old-school mix of ex-players and family.

For instance, Lee, the former center on Grambling's undefeated 1955 team, then spent 40 years under Robinson as an offensive coach. He put his own indelible stamp on the Wing-T scheme that would contribute to a record-breaking 408 wins at Grambling.

"He was the offensive coordinator after Coach Porter left. He was dedicated," said former receiver and current assistant Sammy White, who played for both Porter and Lee. "Before I left here, we were throwing the ball probably 60 percent of the time out of the Wing T. That was all because of Coach Lee."

Manning played for Robinson, then had a long tenure coaching the offensive line for him. The late defensive coordinator Fred Collins was alongside Robinson for more than 20 seasons.

Eddie Robinson Jr., now the coach at Grambling Lab, grew up around GSU football - and eventually worked as an assistant with his father.

"You can probably talk about it more in retrospect," said Robinson Jr., who worked with Grambling's offensive backfield and receivers for 15 seasons. "At the time, there wasn't much time to think about that. When it all boils down, it was like any other situation when you work for a guy. He could be very demanding, and that caused you to be that way too."

A cyclic, almost seasonal rhythm is found in the history of this group. Connections are made, and never broken. In the 1960s, Robinson was invited to speak at the awards banquet for Cocoran High in California by assistant coach "Convincer" Calloway, who had played at Grambling. Robinson met Ed Stevens, the head coach, and Jim Gregory, a talented quarterback.

Gregory - later famously dubbed "Grambling's White Tiger" - eventually played for Robinson and Stevens would work on his staff for years.

In fact, Robinson's first assistant, Jessie Applewhite, was a former football player then working as the school's night watchman.

Ernest Sterling, another ex-GSU gridiron great, later became known for his "Trees of Terror" as defensive line coach. He put in more than two decades as an assistant - then became one of just two coaches who stayed on when Doug Williams succeeded Robinson.

Even Porter, who had a relatively short term, has remained associated with the program. When he retired after 42 seasons in coaching, Porter returned to Grambling to work as an adviser to Williams and now Spears.

He's also remained friends with the coach who took over offensive duties when Porter left GSU.

"Melvin Lee lives three doors down from me, so our families are very close," said Porter, who was on the legendary Tigers' staff that had every senior drafted by the NFL in 1969. "We like to tell stories about the great games, and those ties we always wore, and the players. We'll try to tell the best tale, or the tallest tale."

By Robinson's own estimation in his 1999 autobiography "Never Before, Never Again," nine of the coaches in 1997 had fathers who had played for Grambling.

"Most of the guys on the staff had played for him," said Robinson Jr., "so they knew him as well as I did. They were guys who were there when I was playing, and they were still there when I got on the staff in 1984. Coach Lee had coached me. There was a tradition to uphold."

That tradition was one of endurance, of loyalty. Robinson once said that his six early-1990s assistants had been coaching with him for an amazing 102 seasons combined.

They each contributed something to Robinson's storied stay.

"I think we need to make certain that we recognize that legacy," said Spears. "What we want to do is continue to expose the young guys to the things that have gone on here before, to the great history we have."

What they say ...
Two of Eddie Robinson's assistants reminisce about working for him:

Favorite win
--Eddie Robinson Jr. (1984-97): We had a lot of them. (Laughs.) I always remember the games where we were behind, especially against Alcorn, and then came back and won. Anytime you get a victory like that, you remember it. The Bayou Classic in 1992, for instance, we were behind for most of the game. Then we came back and won it at the end.
--Doug Porter (1966-74): I don't think I have a favorite. I remember fondly our first trip to Hawaii, and our first trip to New York. It seems like most of my best memories, ironically, were away from Grambling.

Compare and contrast
--Porter: It's more of a business today among the coaches. There's not as much camaraderie. I was blessed to meet and get to know some of the giants - John Merritt (who coached at Jackson State and Tennessee State), Jake Gaither (of Florida A&M) and, of course, Eddie Robinson. I don't compare the players, either. With the way Division I programs are recruiting, there aren't the sleeper players you used to find.

Final thoughts
--Robinson Jr.: It was quite an experience for me because I had grown up around Grambling football. We got to go to a lot of places that I never dreamed I would go. And I got to go there with him.

What he said ...
The now-ailing Eddie Robinson mentioned several assistants in his 1999 autobiography, called "Never Before, Never Again":

· On Melvin Lee: It would be impossible to describe how much Melvin Lee meant to me over all these years. It was his genius that helped make out Wing-T offense so effective for so long.

· On Eddie Jr.: We never pushed Eddie Jr. to be involved in athletics. We hoped he would be a doctor or a lawyer. We wanted him to do whatever he wanted to do and be the best at it. But all he ever wanted to do was play and then coach. ... I loved coaching with him, each and every day.
· On Ernest Sterling: Ernest coached with me for 24 years. He had played for me and then in the NFL. He was like a rock and my foundation guy.

· On Doug Porter: I told Doug Porter, who was then (in the early 1970s) my 42-year-old chief assistant, that he should stay at Grambling because he would probably succeed me in a few years. Decades later, he joked with me - because he was smart enough to take the head coaching job at Howard.

The legacy continues ...
Former Grambling State assistant Doug Porter is just one of several coaches to find success after working with Eddie Robinson.

Porter - who had previously served as head coach at Mississippi Valley from 1961-65, a tenure that included a conference title in 1963 - left GSU for a stint at Howard University from 1974-78. He finished his coaching career in 1997, but not before leading Division II's Fort Valley State to a 106-61-3 record over 16 seasons.

Several former assistants continue to coach, ensuring the Robinson legacy will continue. For instance, SMU's current defensive tackle coach Joe Sawyer oversaw GSU's D-line from 1991-93. Dennis Winston, an assistant in 1992-94 then again in 1995-97, coached at Toledo for four seasons before accepting a position with the CFL's Edmonton franchise this offseason.

Lee Fobbs, a former player and graduate assistant, has had a long career in coaching - most recently as a fifth-year assistant to Dennis Franchione, first at Alabama and now at Texas A&M. He was a finalist to follow Robinson as head coach at Grambling, and then in the search for a replacement for Doug Williams.

Tennessee Tech's linebackers coach Marty Steward was on Robinson's staff during his final season. Williams Jones III, a defensive assistant in 1994-95, has been at Kentucky State and now Pearl River (Miss.) Community College.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Grambling's 2004 coaching search

GSU set to crank up bid for coach
Former Alabama St. coach among early applicants

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - New Grambling State athletics director Willie Jeffries arrives on campus this week, set to begin going through a growing stack of resumes for a head football coach.

The News-Star has confirmed several applicants, including interim GSU coach Melvin Spears.

"I did that on the first day (the job was posted)," said Spears - the former offensive coordinator who took over for Doug Williams in February, then led GSU to a 6-5 record during an injury-marred season. "I haven't heard from anybody. I guess they'll start when school gets back in (today)."

New school president Horace Judson has indicated that the interview process would begin in early January. GSU's timetable is tightened by the recruiting season, which culminates with National Signing Day on Feb. 2.

Another confirmed applicant is from outside the GSU family, former Alabama State coach L.C. Cole.

"I have applied, but I have not talked to anyone officially," said Cole, who was released by ASU amid accusations of NCAA violations - including improper contact with recruits, funding a strip show for recruits and knowingly practicing ineligible athletes.

Alabama State school president Joe Lee later cleared Cole of several of those allegations - but Cole had already gotten a job as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at Concordia University, a Division II program in St. Paul, Minn.

"I did a lot of good things in the (Southwestern Athletic Conference) and I wouldn't mind getting back into it," Cole said. "Grambling needs someone who could go in there and get going. That's why I think I would be a strong candidate."

Cole and Concordia head coach Mark Mauer played together at the University of Nebraska, a program which also has produced a possible applicant in longtime former assistant Turner Gill. Gill could not be reached on Tuesday.

Lee Fobbs, a finalist to replace Eddie Robinson in 1998 when Williams was hired, also confirmed on Tuesday that he has applied. But he has also not been contacted about an interview.

"I haven't talked to anyone as of yet," Fobbs said by phone during a recruiting trip for Texas A&M, where he is running backs coach. "I don't know what's going on."

Fobbs might also stay at Texas A&M. The school has announced that a contract extension for Aggies head coach Dennis Francione and his assistants is in the works, and could be completed as early as the end of the month.

Meanwhile, former GSU assistant Dennis "Dirt" Winston - whose name was among the first mentioned by fans as a possible applicant - has emerged as a finalist in the Tennessee State University search for a head coach.

"You make decisions based on who wants you," said Winston, who coached Toledo's defensive line in a 30-10 loss to Connecticut in last month's Motor City Bowl. "Tennessee State is a job similar to Grambling. They are also looking for a high-profile coach."

Several men have already applied for the head coaching job at Grambling State:
· Melvin Spears: Current interim coach at GSU.
·L.C. Cole: Former head coach at Alabama State, now assistant at Concordia Univ. (Minn.).
· Lee Fobbs: Running backs coach at Texas A&M; former LSU assistant.
Other possibles candidates: Turner Gill (former Nebraska assistant), Dennis Winston (defensive line coach at Toledo), Albert Lewis (assistant with San Diego Chargers) and Anthony Jones (Alabama A&M coach).

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National spotlight shines on GSU job

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Grambling State's search for a head coach has already attracted its share of attention - from interested alumni to football Web sites.

Nebraska assistant Turner Gill was mentioned as a possible applicant in a Wednesday update on, an Internet forum frequented by college coaches.

"I'm just now hearing about it," said Gill, who has already interviewed for the New Mexico State job.

He's never been a coordinator, but served as Nebraska's assistant head coach in 2003. Gill announced his resignation after 13 years with the Huskers earlier this month, saying he wanted to pursue head coaching positions full time.

"In praying about it, if they (GSU) were interested in me, I would be interested in them," said Gill, a former All-Big Eight quarterback at Nebraska. "But right now I am putting my full energy into getting the job at New Mexico State. I'm waiting to hear back from them."

Gill has been contacted about jobs over the years by programs as diverse as UCLA, the Miami Dolphins and the Green Bay Packers. He interviewed for the Missouri head coaching vacancy in 2000. Two years before that, Gill turned down coach Bob Stoops' offer to become the Oklahoma offensive coordinator.

Meanwhile, a group of ex-athletes has met with GSU president Horace Judson to encourage him to select a Grambling State graduate as the next head coach, if interim coach Melvin Spears is not retained. They recommended Lee Fobbs, a former All-American under Eddie Robinson who is now an assistant at Texas A&M.

Spears finished his interim tenure at 6-5, posting GSU's 51st non-losing season since 1945 - but only with a win in the finale over Southern.

Another GSU alum says this flurry of early attention, coupled with scrutiny over the selection process, is to be expected.

"I do think it's a tough position for a coach," said Kaycee Doyle Jr., a 1977 graduate. "But that just comes with the territory. As a GSU alum, we've grown accustomed to being at center stage more often than not. So, you live and die by the same hand. The bar is high and the expectations are great; that will never change at Grambling. No one is immune from scrutiny because of past achievements, as evidenced by the situation (late in the career of) Eddie Robinson. Consequently, losing seasons are not an option and flirting with mediocrity has an imminent outcome."

Judson posted the job last week, and said he intends to name a permanent replacement by mid-January.

"The thing the Grambling coach has to do is come in and have a presence," said former GSU assistant Dennis "Dirt" Winston, one of the first names mentioned as a possible applicant. "Grambling is a university that needs national attention, because it has always had that."

Winston said he has not applied for the Tigers' top spot - and he is now one of five finalists for the Tennessee State football coaching vacancy.

Winston - in his fourth season at Toledo, and second as the defensive line coach - earned his master's degree in sports administration from GSU in 1994. His daughter, Bianca Turquoise Winston, is also a senior at Grambling.

"I'm working for a very good coach here, but the one thing about (the Grambling job) is it gets me back home," said Winston - who is preparing for Toledo's upcoming meeting with Connecticut in the Motor City Bowl on Monday. This will be Toledo's third appearance in the Detroit, Mich., game in the last four seasons.

"Our offense is wide open, similar to Grambling's," said Winston. "If it did get that job, the thing I would bring is a new defensive mindset. I'm a defensive guy; that's what I know. You already have a good football team, but then people would fear you. They would know they can't hold on to the football long."

Winston played linebacker at the University of Arkansas from 1973-76, and was selected to the Razorbacks' All-Century Team in 1994. He was then selected by Pittsburgh in the fifth round of the 1977 NFL draft, and appeared in Super Bowl victories in 1978 and 1979.

Winston also played three seasons with the New Orleans Saints from 1982-84, and has had previous coaching stints at Arkansas (1997-98), Norfolk State (1994-95) and Arkansas State (1989-91). That experience is coupled with two stops as an assistant under Eddie Robinson in 1992-94 and then 1995-97.

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GSU search still ongoing; Nebraska's Gill official applicant

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - New Grambling State athletics director Willie Jeffries could start interviewing candidates for head coach as early as next week. But other business called school leaders away on Friday.

GSU president Horace Judson was in Baton Rouge for a regularly scheduled meeting of the University of Louisiana System Board - where several matters were under consideration, including a student-housing plan.

Interim coach Melvin Spears, who returned on Friday from a recruiting trip to Texas, has not yet heard from Jeffries or Judson about an interview, he said.

"I have just been going about the job they've hired me to do - build this program," said Spears, whose contract actually expired at the end of 2004. "That's all I can do."

The News-Star has confirmed that former longtime Nebraska assistant Turner Gill has applied by fax, though his credentials don't appear to match the school's stated job requirements.

The GSU position was posted on Dec. 14, and specifically mentions the need for "significant experience in athletic program management, at or above the level of coordinator."

Perhaps the last tie to the Tom Osborne era at Nebraska, Gill was an assistant head coach under Frank Solich, but has never run an offense or defense. He resigned in December after 25 seasons as a Huskers player or coach to pursue a head coaching position.

"I'm still interested," Gill said, when asked about the job at Grambling State. "But I don't wish to comment any further at this time."

Former GSU All-American Lee Fobbs - now running backs coach at Texas A&M - has also applied. A 29-year veteran, Fobbs has been a position coach on both sides of the ball over the years at Alabama, Baylor, Minnesota, Southern Miss, LSU, Tulane and Louisiana-Monroe.

His most pertinent experience came at the high school level: Fobbs was head coach and athletics director at Carroll, after serving as offensive coordinator at Wossman.

"I have been around some great minds and some guys that have been very, very successful," said Fobbs, a Monroe native. "I have been blessed to be a part of these things. All of those lessons have made me better."

L.C. Cole, who built a successful program at Alabama State, is another applicant. ASU has advanced to two consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference championship games since Cole left as head coach, winning once.

"If you look at Alabama State, there was a gold mine for the next coach," said Cole, now defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at Division II Concordia University in St. Paul, Minn. "It would be very interesting to face my old school. I would take a great pleasure in getting the opportunity."

Cole was dismissed by ASU officials but was eventually cleared of several alleged NCAA violations.

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GSU to make it permanent with Spears

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Grambling State University will name interim coach Melvin Spears as the permanent replacement for Doug Williams at an 8 a.m. news conference today on campus.

"I'm humbled by the opportunity," said Spears, who served on Williams' staff as offensive coordinator and assistant head coach. "Just to be able to coach at such a historically significant institution is an honor in itself. To be head coach, well, it's something even more special."

Williams resigned in February after six seasons as head coach at GSU to take a job as a personnel executive with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Terms of Spears' contract have yet to be finalized, he said.

Spears finished 6-5 over the course of an injury-marred interim season, but finished with a flourish - beating in-state rival Southern in the nationally televised Bayou Classic.

"I think everyone is excited," said Carroll High product Brandon Landers, who took over for the injured Bruce Eugene and earned conference freshman of the year honors. "He deserves a chance to see this thing through."

Spears was one of three finalists interviewed since Friday by a four-person committee headed by new GSU president Horace Judson.

The other finalists were Texas A&M running backs coach Lee Fobbs, a Monroe native who was an All-American under former GSU coach Eddie Robinson; and Alabama A&M head coach Anthony Jones, who played for and later coached with GSU athletics director Willie Jeffries at Wichita State and South Carolina State respectively.

Other applicants included Jerry Glanville, a former coach at the NFL's Houston and Atlanta franchises; Lucious Selmon, an All-American at Oklahoma in the early 1970s; and Ramon Flanigan, offensive coordinator at North Texas.

"There were some impressive candidates," Spears said. "I feel blessed to be able to carry on the legacy."

After Jones withdrew Tuesday night, Spears met again with GSU officials on Wednesday afternoon. The original interviewing committee included Judson and Jeffries, along with Robert Dixon, GSU's vice president of academic affairs; and Joyce Montgomery, the faculty athletic representative.

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Second bid just as close for Fobbs

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Former Grambling State All-American Lee Fobbs, now a running backs coach at Texas A&M, has apparently finished second for his alma mater's head coaching position again.

GSU is expected to name interim head coach Melvin Spears as the permanent replacement for Doug Williams at an 8 a.m. news conference on campus today. Fobbs was runner-up to Williams in the 1997 search to replace former GSU coach Eddie Robinson, a mentor to both.

Former athletics director Albert Dennis III also contacted Fobbs before GSU decided to grant an interim season to Spears after Williams' sudden resignation last February.

"I thought the interview went well," said Fobbs, who was leaving for a regularly scheduled recruiting trip on Wednesday night for the Aggies. "But they have not contacted me again."

The Monroe native has developed a close working relationship recently with head coach Dennis Franchione, who kept him on staff after leaving Alabama for A&M. They coached the Aggies to the Cotton Bowl last season, Texas A&M's first New Year's Day game in six years.

As a collegiate football player at Grambling State from 1968-72, Fobbs earned all-conference and All-America honors as a senior under legendary coach Eddie Robinson. He was an eighth-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills, and went on to play professionally in the Canadian and World football leagues.

A 29-year veteran in the coaching ranks, Fobbs has also had three local stops. He coached the defensive line at Louisiana-Monroe, was head coach at his alma mater Carroll High School and offensive coordinator at Wossman High.

While Fobbs was at Alabama, the offense ranked second in the SEC in 2002, and led the conference in rushing in 2001. The Crimson Tide advanced to the 2001 Independence Bowl and posted the best record in the SEC West in 2002 with Fobbs on staff.

GSU's coaching search
Here are a few previously unconfirmed applicants from the approximately 30 who sought the GSU head coach position:

· Ramon Flanigan, offensive coordinator at North Texas. While he is the youngest offensive coordinator in Division I-A, the Mean Green has reached the New Orleans Bowl for four consecutive seasons.

· Jerry Glanville, a football analyst for CBS and HBO who previously coached both the Atlanta Falcons and the Houston Oilers - where he led the former NFL franchise to the playoffs for three consecutive years.

· Harold Johnson, who was fired at Hampton University in early December after two consecutive 2-8 seasons.

· Lucious Selmon, a two-time All American at Oklahoma who finished seventh in the Heisman voting in 1973. Selmon served as an assistant coach for the Sooners from 1976 to 1994.

The News-Star also previously confirmed applications by finalists Lee Fobbs, a running backs coach at Texas A&M; and Alabama A&M head coach Anthony Jones; as well as former Alabama State coach L.C. Cole, Toledo linebackers coach Dennis Winston and longtime Nebraska assistant Turner Gill.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Remembering: 'Grambling's White Tiger'

TV spotlight was on change
Issue of integration in college football hit the small screen 25 years ago with 'Grambling's White Tiger'

September 24, 2006

By Nick Deriso
Twenty-five years ago, a film crew descended on the town of Grambling to retell a turning-point moment in the history of its football team.

Coach Eddie Robinson's decision to integrate his then-all black college football team — and a book detailing the transition — had come in the turbulence of the late 1960s.

But the story had always struck former Olympian Bruce Jenner as one that would connect with a mainstream audience — and, more than a decade later, Jenner turned it into his first movie project.

"This was a true story of integration," Jenner said, "but it was going in the opposite direction."

Standing at the center of the book — "My Little Brother is Coming Tomorrow" by Bruce Behrenberg — and subsequent film was Jim Gregory. He became known forever by the 1981 TV movie's title: "Grambling's White Tiger."

"The experience itself was something that I would never want to do away with," said Gregory, who has since worked for 30 years as a teacher and coach at California's Reedley High. "It was a great experience. I would do it again in a heartbeat."

Parts of it, anyway.

Gregory's memories of his time at Grambling — he warmly describes the towering leadership of Robinson, and an enduring friendship with teammates like Monroe's Charles "Tank" Smith — have been forever changed by the media maelstrom that surrounded his presence.

He unwittingly contributed to that whirlwind when, as youngster, he signed the deal that led to Behrenberg's book.

But in the end, Gregory says that publication and the subsequent, more widely seen film stand as testament to the times more so than to his own story.

"It's not my life," Gregory likes to say. "It was only a semester."


Robinson had met Gregory when he spoke at the high schooler's football banquet.

Two of Cocoran High's coaches had Grambling connections: Its head coach played for Robinson and an assistant, Ed Stevens (pictured above), later joined his staff.

Robinson, who is in failing health today, once said the times dictated his decision to integrate the team. He insisted that Grambling's players would have to live their lives around white people, and that segregation in school only prolonged that acclimation process.

In the end, he felt that no other player could have handled the adversity as well as Gregory did.

"I knew that I had learned something from 'Greg,' and he from us," Robinson said. "We all taught others some things in the process."

Gregory didn't see much playing time, beginning his career as a freshman on a team led by James "Shack" Harris and ending it behind Matt Reed, another Monroe native. But Robinson always stressed that football was just one small part of the journey.

"Eddie was looking for someone who would make it through and graduate; that was one of Eddie's goals all along — whether you became a star player or not," Gregory said. "He wanted us to go out into society and contribute."

Though he says he endured his share of curious looks as the only white person on the team, Gregory said he was greeted on campus with open arms.

"That was one thing about Eddie Robinson, he was going to make sure that anybody who came here was going to be treated equally," said Douglas Porter, then the offensive coordinator. "That was almost like a religion. It was going to be the same for everybody."

Players like Harris, then fighting to become the first black quarterback to be drafted at his true position, saw in Gregory a kindred spirit.

"It took a unique guy to go through that," said Harris, now an NFL personnel executive. "He had to accept some critical circumstances. But I think during that time, it may have been easier for Jim than it was to do it in the reverse."

Gregory, for his part, was introduced to a whole new world of Southern hospitality, soul food surprises and funky good times.

"I was put into the dorm with guys like James Harris and Charlie Joiner, and they had a lot of questions," Gregory said. "I can remember guys who didn't like me, because they had never been around a white guy before. Those people became some of my better friends as time went on."


The novelty of the situation soon drew nationwide attention. Grambling, becoming known as the cradle of the pros, suddenly had a sideshow.

"There was too much hype surrounding it," Gregory said. "It (the color barrier) was being broken, whether I did it or not. I just wanted to play football."

Still, Gregory signed the book deal that eventually became the basis for Jenner's movie while he was still enrolled at Grambling.

"I was a young kid and we jumped into it," Gregory said. "There were times I wished it had never come about. I was having trouble with the fact that I was stabbing my buddies in the back, as the white kid getting all the notoriety. It was really a tough time."

Grambling, through the brilliance of Robinson and sports information director Collie J. Nicholson, was coming into its own as a national presence.

The founding of the Urban League Classic, played at a sold-out Yankee Stadium in 1968, coincided with Gregory's arrival. Hundreds of Grambling products were flooding into the NFL.

Yet a cluster of reporters greeted the white quarterback at every GSU stop — cruelly ironic to the others in that he wasn't a starter.

"They were always trying to pull things from you that didn't have anything to do with what was going on, or put me at a higher standing than I was," Gregory said. "I was a freshman, after all. I was only traveling with the team because I could kick."

Through it all, Porter said Gregory deftly avoided becoming a disruptive force.

"We used to go a lot of places and reporters would try to draw him into making a remark about not getting a chance to play," Porter said. "He wouldn't do it. He never let them make that an issue."

Gregory earned his teammates' respect with that fair-minded attitude — not to mention gutty practice-yard play, even if that never transferred to all-conference stats.

"Jim Gregory was a real tough competitor," Harris said. "He just didn't have the ability that (former Grambling passers) Frank Holmes and Matthew Reed had. He won over some guys because when he practiced on the freshman team, he competed and took his hits."

He also learned a lot in those times of dramatic change in America.

Gregory said a scene from "Grambling's White Tiger" where a black co-ed is reluctant to go on a shopping trip with him accurately depicts the struggles between races at the time.

"Just my walking downtown in Ruston or Monroe with 'Tank,' we'd get dirty looks," Gregory said. "There were some tough times, but we hung through it. Over the five years I was there, I saw great change. There were still people who didn't like each other, but the overall relationship had become a lot better."


While Gregory was toiling away in graduate school when work on Jenner's film began, his teammates and coach had become national figures.

Robinson was within sight of Paul "Bear" Bryant's once-thought unassailable all-time record for wins. Harris and Joiner were playing for the San Diego Chargers, while Smith was a member of the Philadelphia Eagles' roster.

So, the project — boosted, too, perhaps Jenner's involvement — drew some notable talents.

Harry Belafonte made his television acting debut as a tribute to his regard for Robinson. Harris would be played by Dennis Haysbert, who has since starred as President David Palmer in TV's "24" and in a series of Allstate commercials.

Smith was portrayed by LeVar Burton, best known for the ground-breaking miniseries "Roots" and later for his work on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

The film was directed by Georg Stanford Brown, who worked on TV's "Hill Street Blues" and won an Emmy for an episode of "Cagney and Lacey."

Yet, despite getting largely good notices for "Grambling's White Tiger" — the only quibble was, in fact, with the star's sometimes-wooden delivery as Gregory — Jenner's fledgling production company didn't take off.

He has worked on various television and movie projects since, but devotes most of his time now to a corporate coaching company that works on staff development, leadership programs and crafting sales programs.

"It was certainly the high point of my acting career," Jenner said. "It was very well received and it was an important movie, I thought."

As time passed, Gregory's perspective on the book and the movie subtly changed.

He eventually integrated them into his classroom curriculum. Both are on file in his school library.

"It's a great history lesson on segregation and desegregation," he said. "I eventually had a better feeling about the movie, because I'd come to think of it as a learning tool."

Seeing his life story through the eyes of successive generations of young people continues to teach Gregory new things about those times.

"Whether I like it or not, my coming to Grambling had an effect on society," Gregory said. "As I finished up, other schools were just starting to beginning to integrate. We were part of something."

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Lights, camera, Grambling!
September 24, 2006

By Nick Deriso
Bruce Jenner's 1981 film stands as historical artifact not just because of its dramatic portrayal of the integration of Eddie Robinson's football team but also because it was shot on location in Grambling.

Jenner and his crew spent a month on campus that summer shooting "Grambling's White Tiger," using members of the current GSU football team as extras to portray events from 12 years before.

"We had to do it at Grambling, just because it was such a unique place and had such a rich history," said Jenner. "To give the storyline any credibility, it had to be done there."

Of course, that meant the whole town got to share in the experience.

Jenner, a former Olympic decathlon champion, shot a football game actually held in Marshall, Texas, against Wiley College at GSU's old Memorial Stadium.

As always, locals filled the background for crowd shots.

"They painted the press box on the visitors side purple and white," said Grambling alum Kenn Rashad, then a 13-year-old. "At the top of that press box was a sign that read 'Wylie College.' The movie producers misspelled the name of the school."

Pretty soon, everyone was angling for their big Hollywood moment.

"I begged the crew a number of times to get me into the movie," said John Barabin, who grew up in Baton Rouge but used to spend summers in Grambling with relatives. "They finally obliged by having me run down Grambling's Main Street sidewalk and do a double take at Bruce Jenner. I hung out with stars, ate from their catering truck — and, best of all, I received a paycheck for it!"

The television film originally aired Oct. 4, 1981, and has been rerun countless times since. Highlights include now-poignant glimpses into former coach Eddie Robinson's office and inside the Memorial Stadium locker rooms — neither of which are still used by the GSU football team.

There was at least one interruption of filming, after a student government representative objected to something in the script. But Jenner said even that turned into a moment of discovery.

"They thought it put the school in a bad light," Jenner said. "Coach Robinson said: 'Let's meet with the students and hear what they have to say, but let the process play out. Let them learn from the experience.' We made some minor changes, and kept going."

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Spears and 'resume-gate'

This series, produced early in the summer before Grambling coach Melvin Spears' initial season as interim, quickly became known as "resume-gate":

Grambling coach faces review
Judson asks Spears to prove master's degree
July 9, 2004

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - New Grambling State University President Horace Judson isn't finished evaluating the athletics program.

On Thursday, he gave interim football coach Melvin Spears seven days to prove the validity of a master's degree on his resume.

That request comes after University of Louisiana System officials informed Judson that they could not confirm the credential - listed on media materials as an administrative leadership degree from Northern Arizona University.

"Mr. Spears indicated to me that he has been working with officials at Northern Arizona University for the past six months to clear up this matter," Judson said. "I have given Mr. Spears one week to produce documentation which verifies that he in fact has earned a master's degree."

Repeated calls to Spears' cell phone on Thursday night were unanswered.

Were Spears to step down, he would be the second member of the athletic staff to do so in the first days of Judson's new administration at Grambling State. Spears' supervisor, athletics director Al Dennis III, was fired on the first day Judson was in office - a move that angered some students and supporters.

Not GSU alum James "Shack" Harris, who said he has full faith in the school's new leader.

"All of us Grambling people are in full support of Dr. Judson and know that he's a Grambling person now," said Harris, a Monroe native who is now vice president of player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars. "We are all better off working together, whatever he decides. All of us are going to be willing to do that with him. I think everybody should go into this with a positive frame of mind. We all need to rally around and support the president, not get into corners and criticize. He's one of us now."

Former coach Doug Williams hired Spears, a first cousin, to run the offense at Grambling State in 1997. His explosive units helped GSU to three consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference titles in 2000-02, and Spears earned Division I-AA Offensive Coordinator of the Year honors in 2002 from American Football Monthly magazine.

Spears took over as interim when Williams left Grambling for a job with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers in February.

Williams said he never checked Spears' resume and doesn't know if Spears earned the degree or not.

"I take a guy at face value," Williams said. "The most important thing was I trusted him with the offense. (Current offensive coordinator) Sammy (White) still has work to do on his degree. But I knew he could get it done on the field. I've never asked for verification of anyone's resume."

A transcription specialist with Northern Arizona University confirmed Thursday that Spears went to the school but failed to graduate.

"Mr. Spears attended classes in the master's degree program from January of 1994 until August of 1997 - but did not receive a degree, according to our records," NAU transcription specialist Jackie Riley said.

Spears, who holds a bachelor of science degree from Alcorn State University, also lists an Arizona teacher's certificate, but Carmen Chavez, spokeswoman with that state's Department of Education, said he only earned a substitute teaching certificate.

A native of Clinton, Spears began his coaching career in 1992 as the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator at Casa Grande Union High School in Casa Grande, Ariz. Spears also served as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator at Morgan State University in 1995-96.

The decision to promote Spears to interim coach came after an emotional vote of confidence from the GSU players, who presented a petition to former acting president Neari Warner. That group was led by senior quarterback Bruce Eugene, who told Warner: "He has everything to do with our success. He's had a hand in everything we do. Who else would be better for the job? Why mess up what's going on around here?"

News about the resume flap quickly spread through GSU's fan base.

"On the one hand, I feel bad for Grambling - because this will bring the wrong kind of attention," said Donavan Simmons, a 1997 graduate who played as a red shirt freshman for former coach Eddie Robinson. "But if there is even the hint of falsification, then that has to be looked into."

Judson confirmed that Spears was going to Arizona to try to clear up the matter.

"While a master's degree is not a requirement to coach here at Grambling State University," Judson said, "it is essential that all information submitted on official employment applications be accurate and certifiable. It is vital that we maintain in every respect the integrity of this institution."

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Spears to clear air on degree issue
July 15, 2004

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Interim Grambling State University football coach Melvin Spears says he will return today with documentation that clears up questions about his credentials.

Spears has been in Arizona since Saturday, seeking answers for an official inquiry into the validity of a degree listed on his resume from Northern Arizona University. NAU found no record of him receiving it.

Spears has called a 1 p.m. news conference today on campus - just ahead of a seven-day deadline that President Horace Judson gave him to verify the credential. Spears said Wednesday that he would have no comment until that time.

"While a master's degree is not a requirement to coach here ..., it is essential that all information submitted on official employment applications be accurate and certifiable," Judson said last week. "It is vital that we maintain ... the integrity of this institution."

The chairman of NAU's department of research, foundations and leadership confirmed to The News-Star on Friday that Spears finished his master's coursework in administrative leadership - but not the final paperwork needed to get a diploma.

"Really, it's a question of having a degree posted - not having completed the degree requirements," Dr. William Wright said. "Melvin has done that."

Spears said that the paperwork has now been completed.

Former GSU coach Doug Williams hired Spears as assistant head coach and offensive coordinator in 1997. His master's degree has been included on his published resume since then.

The credential inquiry began with an anonymous tip to the University of Louisiana System board offices.

"The system office was tipped off that he did not have a valid master's degree," said Mike Woods, chairman of the ULM board - who has said all along that he thought the issue turned on missing paperwork, not deception. "We are giving him the benefit of the doubt by giving him the chance to verify the degree."

A native of Clinton, Spears began his coaching career in 1992 as the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator at Casa Grande Union High School in Casa Grande, Ariz. He also worked at Motorola.

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Spears on job, diploma in hand
July 16, 2004

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Interim Grambling State University coach Melvin Spears returned to the school on Thursday with an updated transcript - putting an end to a week of questions about his credentials.

"The issue has been resolved," said GSU president Horace Judson. "This is behind him now, and we can go forward."

Spears had a degree listed on his resume from Northern Arizona University, but last week NAU found no record of it. A dean later confirmed to The News-Star that Spears had completed the coursework but never filled out the final paperwork needed to receive his degree.

Spears traveled to Arizona over the weekend to complete the necessary forms, then met with Judson on Thursday morning. A master's of education in educational leadership is now listed as having been conferred to Spears on May 7, 2004.

"I appreciate the president for letting me go out and get this straight," Spears said. "His message to me was to take it as a lesson learned - to make sure I dot every 'i' and cross every 't.' "

Spears said a family illness and the sudden opportunity to coach alongside Doug Williams at GSU contributed to his failure to finish the paperwork needed to get his degree.

"I knew I was finished," Spears said of his coursework. "I thought whether I filled out this information or not, they would still send me a diploma."

Spears canceled a 1 p.m. news conference, instead meeting with the team at the Robinson Support Facility.

"I'm glad to be back home," Spears told the players. "We always stress the educational process, and nothing is going to change. I take full responsibility for not completing that piece of paper. That's my fault.

"But that business is behind us now. ... Come Aug. 8th (the beginning of practice), we're going to tee it up - and I'm going to be your coach. "

Williams hired Spears as assistant head coach and offensive coordinator in 1997. Spears' master's degree has been included on his resume and on media publications since then.

Spears took over as interim coach when Williams left for the NFL's Tampa Bay franchise in February.

The inquiry began with an anonymous fax to the offices of the University of Louisiana System board, which oversees GSU.

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Spears has one season
GSU will open up football coach search after '04
July 17, 2004

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Questions about interim Grambling State coach Melvin Spears' resume have been resolved.

But questions about his contract? Not so much.

"There remains the issue of filling the position on a permanent basis," said GSU president Horace Judson.

Judson confirms that he will keep Spears on through the end of the season, but will then begin a far-reaching search for a permanent head coach. He's quick to add that Spears would be a top consideration in that process.

"I've shared with Coach Spears that I will open the search at the end of the season," Judson said. "I expect him to be a candidate when that occurs. From what I've seen, he's done a good job with the program. From all indications, he's got a good football team. He's just got to forget about all this and get out there and coach football."

Spears has just returned from verifying a master's degree from Northern Arizona that came into question after an anonymous tip to the University of Louisiana System board of supervisors.

Spears had completed the necessary coursework but never filled out minor paperwork needed to actually receive the degree and update his transcript.

"He gave me a vote of confidence with respect to our team," Spears said, but added he had not spoken to Judson about his contract. "I know I'm going to be here through the season, and that's what matters to me right now. He told me to do my job - and make sure that we uphold the standards Grambling has set."

Not that Judson had all that much opportunity to make a change, anyway.

Grambling State, with the support of the University of Louisiana System, put off naming a permanent replacement in February for sixth-year coach Doug Williams - who had taken a job with the NFL's Tampa Bay franchise.

"The interim stage is a courtesy given the next president so that he can interview and evaluate everybody," said ULS president Sally Clausen.

But that delay in naming a new coach - done while acting GSU president Neari Warner was still in office - was in effect a commitment to the status quo.

Spears' original contact was reportedly through June 30, a day before Judson officially took over on July 1. There was no way that the university would begin looking for a new coach at that late date.

That is, short of a scandal - which nearly happened when questions about Spears' credentials popped up.

"We'll go through the football season, then we'll open it up," Judson said. "I expect Coach Spears to be a very strong candidate. I talked to him and said I realized that he might like it a lot better if I just made the decision to appoint him. But he's got an advantage. He's here. He knows the program. He's got a full season to show what he can do."

Spears and his assistants seem to have a firm grasp on what's at stake.

"Thank you, God, for letting us come together," GSU defensive line coach Luther Palmer said, as he led a prayer before Spears spoke to the team about the resume flap. "Please help us do great things."

There are whispers of dominance, even of an undefeated season, amongst the players on Thursday.

"We can do this," said senior quarterback Bruce Eugene. "We just need to get started."

Even under such adversity, the team has a sense that it can return to play on the level of those Southwestern Athletic Conference championship teams of 2000-02.

"I'm just glad to be back home," Spears said. "I'm ready to put our guys up against their guys and find out where the chips lay over 12 weeks."

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Focus now on football
GSU is hopeful distractions this off-season done
July 18, 2004

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Interim Grambling State coach Melvin Spears' message was upbeat. But the audience seemed edgy, ready to get past a week of confusion over Spears' future with the team.

"We're going to remain positive," Spears told the players. "We're just going to keep preparing for 2004."

After finishing some minor paperwork, Spears returned on Thursday with a master's degree - putting an end to questions about the validity of his credentials. An inquiry into his resume was prompted by an anonymous fax to the University of Louisiana System, which oversees Grambling State.

The players, confident in their coach, just wanted to get back to worry-free routine.

"It's good to have everything back to normal," said former Bastrop standout Marcus Yanez, a weakside linebacker at GSU. "The staff is pretty stable now and we can concentrate on getting ready to go 13-0."

As Spears traveled to Flagstaff, Ariz., where Northern Arizona University is located, to clear up the matter, the situation became talked-out.

"I'm looking forward to playing," said senior quarterback Bruce Eugene. "This has been a long off-season, with all of this drama going on. I'm ready to do anything besides talk about all this."

The team was united in its belief that the situation would be resolved once Spears returned.

"We knew he had a master's and we continued to work and concentrate and get ready for the season," Eugene said. "Now that that's out of the way, we can move on and get ready for Alcorn State."

GSU opens its season against ASU, where Spears played quarterback and receiver in the early 1980s.

"We were confident that everything would work out," said GSU offensive line coach Carl Roberts. "This is the time of year, in mid-July, when football should be in the air. In three weeks, those kids will be back practicing again. That will be a relief."

Despite the departure of its former head coach, the release of both a defensive coordinator and an athletics director, then a resume flap with its interim coach, Grambling State's approach to this summer has been steady and rigorous.

"One day, one game, one week at a time," said former player Vyron Brown, the Tigers' running backs coach. "That's all it is."

Spears said having the entire team involved with the voluntary off-season program helped the players stick together through a tough situation.

"We've had an opportunity to have our whole football team in for summer school, so that helped them get through this," Spears said. "They still saw each other every day in our strength and conditioning program. They understand the kind of commitment it's going to take. I don't think anything from the outside can disrupt that."

Mark Hall - another former player who now serves as GSU's strength and conditioning coach - has continued to lead the team through daily workouts.

"Guys are working real, real hard," said Hall, a two-time All-Southwestern Athletic Conference defensive end for GSU. "I played here in 2000 and I don't think cats have ever worked this hard: We had 78 kids here for voluntary workouts this summer. We've had people jump up 50 pounds with their bench press."

That attention to detail bodes well for the season, said Eugene, a Walter Payton Award finalist in both his sophomore and junior years.

"Even with the drama, we still continued to work," he said. "We still continued to better ourselves and get ready for the season. When this first came down, all it did was make us work harder - knowing that so many people, even people on our own campus, were out to get us. We have the mindset that there's nothing else but those of us here on the team."

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Bayou Classics That Mattered Most

By Nick Deriso
More than three decades in, which Bayou Classic games mattered the most? I'm talking turning-point moments. Not just because that particular day was (or wasn't) a big win, but because it had a lasting impact. Leading up to Saturday's Bayou Classic, I'll make my six points:

1980 Bayou Classic
November 19, 2006

SIX: When Mike Williams walked off the Superdome carpet with the most valuable player award after the 1980 Bayou Classic, it marked the end of an era.

The Williams' era.

A quarterback named Williams, either Mike or older brother Doug, had started for Grambling in every Classic until that point - and had won four of the seven MVPs ever given.

GSU had also gone 6-1 against Southern with a Williams under center, falling only in 1979. Five of the Top 6 best-attended games, including Nos. 1-4, occurred during this span, as well.

Doug Williams remembered the very first game, played at Tulane in 1974 while construction of the Superdome was completed:

"I looked around and said: 'What am I doing here?'" he told The News-Star in 2003. "We had 75,000 at a historically black college football game. I was a redshirt freshman, and scared to death. I was blessed to have some veterans around me and Coach Robinson ran a conservative offense that didn't put too much pressure on me."

Doug Williams would, of course, be named MVP in that game, as well as the third Bayou Classic in 1976. Mike Williams took over in 1978, and won the Classic MVP that season and in 1980.

(Grambling wingback Sammy White, now the program's offensive coordinator, was MVP in 1975, followed by GSU wingback Robert Woods in 1977. Southern quarterback Wilfred Charles was the 1979 honoree.)

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1993 Bayou Classic
November 20, 2006

FIVE: In 1993, rookie Southern coach Pete Richardson stormed into the SWAC - beating his first six league opponents by an average of 30 points. In fact, he'd only stumble once coming into the season-ending Bayou Classic, and that was against out-of-conference foe Nicholls State.

"I voted for him for Coach of the Year," former GSU line coach Billy Manning told The News-Star in 1993. "It's hard to come in and turn a team around like that. ... It all boils down to execution, motivation, technique and preparation. The talent has been there."

Southern had already punched its ticket to the Heritage Bowl, after GSU fell to Alabama State three weeks before. Richardson then topped Eddie Robinson in the 1993 Bayou Classic 31-13 with sophomore quarterback Eric Randall as MVP.

A subsequent bowl win over South Carolina State meant the first-year coach had led Southern to the school's second 11-win season ever, its first SWAC title in 18 years and its first outright championship since 1959.

What followed was a stunning run of dominance for Southern, as Pete eventually took eight straight Classics -- six from Robinson and two from Doug Williams, Rob's eventual successor. He beat Grambling by an average of two touchdowns over that span.

Before Pete, Grambling actually held a 13-6 Classic series lead, and Southern had never won more than two in a row (1981-82 and 1987-88). By 2000, the Richardson had already won four SWAC titles (1993, then 1997-99) -- and pulled ahead in the Classic series, 14-13.

It all started with that 1993 victory.

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1990 Bayou Classic
November 21, 2006

FOUR: In many ways, the 1990 Bayou Classic was somewhat routine, as Grambling won 25-13 - Eddie Robinson's second in a row over Southern coach Gerald Kimble. GSU had, at that point, won 12 of the initial 17 editions.

Only this time, 200 million people had the opportunity to experience the game - not to mention the halftime pageantry - through a new partnership deal with NBC TV.

Former Grambling sports information director Collie J. Nicholson's dream - 12 years after his celebrated 30-year run at GSU ended - had finally been completely realized.

"When Eddie Robinson came to Grambling, people in Lincoln Parish didn't even know where Grambling was," Nicholson told The News-Star in 2003. "It took a long time to build name recognition for the school, during the time of segregation."

This was a guy who used to type up the game stories, then drive 70 miles to Shreveport to wire them all over the country. Now, Nicholson's game was being beamed into every home in America.

GSU quarterback Shawn Burras was the 1990 Classic's MVP, leading a unit that included SWAC offensive player of the year Walter Dean and future NFL receiver Jake Reed. Still, I think my favorite guy from this period is Raymond Smith, the 6-7, 435-pound offensive tackle who so richly earned the nickname: "World."

Oddly enough, despite the addition of television coverage, the 1990 edition turned out to be the highest attended Classic since Southern beat Grambling 22-17 in 1982. The announced crowd of 70,600 was then No. 7 all time.

Nicholson, who was recognized with the Bayou Classic Founder's Award two seasons later, passed earlier this year after experiencing a series of health problems. The press box at Robinson Stadium is named in his honor.

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1992 Bayou Classic
November 22, 2006

THREE: Coaching legends Eddie Robinson and Marino Casem - winners between them of 568 college contests - faced off again, producing another remarkable rivalry game.

And another razor-thin margin.

Three times, they roamed the sidelines at the Bayou Classic. The average margin of victory: 6 points.

This time, GSU won 30-27 before a sold-out crowd of 71,283, the year before Casem moved up to become Southern's athletics director. It was the last time these two Southwestern Athletic Conference legends met on the field.

The Classic's most valuable player was Grambling quarterback Alex Perkins, who would then help craft a 45-15 win over Florida A&M in the Heritage Bowl to win the '92 black college national championship - the final under Robinson. (Current GSU running backs coach Darius Matthews was also on that team.)

This would be the only time Robinson got the better of Casem in New Orleans. Southern beat Grambling by a touchdown in both 1987 and '88. (Southern's Daryl Garner and Chris Scott, respectively, were named MVPs.)

In all, 182,516 people saw these titanic struggles, which led to one of the most famous descriptions of this game from Casem - who called it "the biggest and best thing in all of blackdom."

Known as The Godfather of the SWAC, Casem served as coach and athletics director at both Southern, Alcorn and, for one season early in his coaching career, at Alabama State.

That run included seven football titles at Alcorn, where he set a school record for wins. (Though the two played to a virtual draw over Casem's first decade at Alcorn, Rob eventually established a 13-8 advantage). Casem oversaw another four SWAC championships as AD at Southern, then had another brief tenure in the same position at Alcorn before retiring.

Both Robinson and Casem, who finished with a coaching record of 160-91-8, are now members of the College Football Hall of Fame.

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1975 Bayou Classic
November 23, 2006

TWO: It's not just that this game was the first to be played in the Superdome, which is reason enough.

This one boasted more eventual NFL talent from Grambling than any Bayou Classic ever: Eight starters went on to play three or more years in the pros, and at least 15 were eventually invited to NFL camps.

"Grambling's football tradition is second to none," former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue told The News-Star in 1992. "Under Eddie Robinson's leadership, Grambling contributed an unusually large number of players to the NFL."

Wingback Sammy White (Vikings, 1976-86) took handoffs from quarterback Doug Williams (Buccaneers, 1978-83; and Redskins, 1986-89). Now GSU's offensive coordinator, White was named the game's most valuable player.

Williams also had Dwight Scales (Rams, 1976-79; Chargers, 1981-83; and Seahawks, 1984) as a top target. Big Ron Singleton (Chargers, 1976; and Niners, 1977-80) would play both tight end and offensive tackle. The group scored 33 points that year on Charlie Bates' Jaguars, thrilling a crowd of 73,214 at the Dome.

Defensive back James Hunter (Lions, 1976-82) and linebacker Robert Pennywell (Niners, 1976; and Falcons, 1977-80) led a unit that held Southern to 17 points. The defensive line was anchored by Robert Barber (Packers, 1976-80) and Michael St. Claire (Browns, 1976-79; and Bengals, 1980-82).

Others from this amazingly talented Tiger team who appeared on NFL rosters included offensive tackle Larry Favorite (Falcons); defensive end Arthur Gilliam (Broncos); defensive tackle Jessie O'Neal (Oilers, Seahawks and Redskins); offensive lineman Robert Simon (Oilers); defensive backs Eugene Williams (Jets) and Michael Harris (Eagles, Jets and Steelers); and center Billy Manning (Saints) -- who later became an assistant under Robinson.

The Bayou Classic would be played another 29 times at the Superdome before Hurricane Katrina rendered the facility unplayable in 2005. After a one-year hiatus at Houston's Reliant Stadium, the contest returns home this year.

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1997 Bayou Classic
November 24, 2006

ONE: There would be no stopping Southern's Pete Richardson, then in the midst of eight years of domination in New Orleans.

Nevertheless, Eddie Robinson's final game, after 57 seasons at Grambling, provided the proper send off to college football's winningest coach.

The NBC broadcast included several features chronicling his storied career. Tributes flowed in from then President Bill Clinton, fellow coaches like Penn State's Joe Paterno and a bevy of former players.

More than 300 media credentials were issued, and they quickly scattered out to interview the likes of Willie Davis, Charles "Tank" Smith, Elfrid Payton, Henry Dyer, Mike Williams, James Hunter, and others.

The build up threatened to subsume the Bayou Classic itself.

Of course, Robinson took it all in stride: "I'm really not trying to think of this game as my last," he told The News-Star in 1997. "It's there in the back of my mind, but I'm really just trying to take this as just the next game we have to try to win."

That didn't happen, as Southern dispatched GSU, 30-7.

Even so, there were other numbers threading through the four-hour broadcast, staggering numbers - 408 wins in 587 games, 17 SWAC titles and 210 players in the NFL. Hundreds, if not thousands of young men, with a road map to life in the form of a college degree.

In carrying the game, NBC shared the story of Eddie Robinson with the world one final time.

The 1997 Classic was one instance - this year, with the return to New Orleans, is another - when it seemed appropriate that the game turned into a sideshow. Robinson's towering achievements deserved no less.

Also considered: 2004 Bayou Classic, an upset win by Grambling that sent Richardson into a tailspin. Then the reigning SWAC champion, the Jaguars went on to lose in the '04 title match and haven't had a winning season since. ... 1974 Bayou Classic, the first ever held. This game was held at Tulane Stadium while construction of the Superdome continued. ... 2006 Bayou Classic, which is set to include an emotional homecoming in New Orleans, a year after Hurricane Katrina.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Remembering: Collie J.

In honor of this week's Bayou Classic, here are some more recent pieces about longtime Grambling sports information director Collie J. Nicholson, a friend and hero:

His sweeping influence
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

By Nick Deriso,

Framing the late Collie J. Nicholson's legacy within the context of Grambling is fitting, but it sells short his sweeping influence.

Without Nicholson, it's true, much of Grambling's nomenclature wouldn't exist - the nicknames, the classics, so on. But there are larger lessons, moments of towering leadership, inside these stories.

For Nicholson to be able to convince people in New York City, deep in the troubled 1960s, to let two black colleges square off in Yankee Stadium - and promising a sell out - is, to my mind, more impressive than actually selling it out.

He did, and they did.

As the legend of Grambling grew, so too did that of black college football in general - and then, after the school joined in 1959, the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Nicholson's accomplishment, then, was twofold: In telling the story of Eddie Robinson, and his players, a case was made for African-Americans ballplayers everywhere.

That's his true contribution, and it can't be contained within a simple telling of Grambling's history. Without Collie J., everything is different.

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Nicholson dead, put GSU on map

Thursday, September 14, 2006

By Nick Deriso,
GRAMBLING — Former Grambling State University sports information director Collie J. Nicholson, credited as the brains behind the Bayou Classic, has died at 85.

Nicholson battled a series of age-related illnesses throughout his early 80s, finally succumbing at 7:08 a.m. Wednesday morning at his Shreveport home. His wife Ophelia, daughter and son surrounded him.

"Grambling lost a great soldier today," said Doug Williams, a former player and coach at GSU. "Flags should fly at half mast on campus for Collie J. The reputation that school has across the nation is all because of him."

During a 30-year career that began in 1948 at Grambling, Nicholson played a key role in many of its signature high points in sports — most notably the creation of the neutral-site rivalry game against Southern University at the Superdome in New Orleans.

He also helped establish the early careers of several future professional players, from Paul "Tank" Younger (the first black to sign a football contract in the 1940s) to Williams and Larry Wright (first-round draft picks by the NFL and NBA, respectively, in the 1970s).

"I feel quite sure that I never would have been chosen that high, if not for Collie J.," said Wright, who later returned to coach men's basketball at GSU. "This is a great, great loss for Grambling."

Nicholson's flair for promotion helped spawn celebrated football games at Yankee Stadium in the 1960s and in Hawaii and Japan in the 1970s. And by the time Nicholson retired in 1978, Grambling had played football in 27 of the 50 states, he once said.

A television program featuring team highlights, with comments from legendary former football coach Eddie Robinson, aired on 90 stations across the nation. Stories about Grambling athletics regularly ran in hundreds of newspapers.

Nicholson was widely recognized late in his life for those historic marketing breakthroughs, all accomplished in the days before facsimile, modem and cable.

The NCAA and College Sports Information Directors of America twice named his press guides as best in the nation, part of a string of 13 national awards Nicholson garnered.

A member of the Grambling Hall of Fame, he was inducted into the Southwestern Athletic Conference hall and received CoSIDA's Trailblazer Award in 2002. The Louisiana Sports Writers Association honored Nicholson with its Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism in 1990.

More recently, the University of Louisiana System Board, which oversees GSU, approved a plan in May to rename the Robinson Stadium press box on campus after Nicholson. He was too ill to attend the subsequent ceremonies, held in June.

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'Collie J.' remembered for lifting Grambling’s programs, players

Thursday, September 14, 2006

By Nick Deriso,
GRAMBLING — Collie J. Nicholson, Grambling's first sports information director, wrote GSU right into the national consciousness.

And he did it with nothing more than a battered typewriter and a big heart.

"Collie was the catalyst that put Grambling in the consciousness of America," said Douglas Porter, a former GSU assistant football coach. "His perseverance in promoting the team and the band across the country meant that eventually everywhere you went, people were aware of Grambling. And that's to his credit."

The 85-year-old Nicholson, who served as SID for 30 years through 1978, succumbed to a series of age-related illnesses on Wednesday morning at his Shreveport home.

But not before forging an identity for this country college, and shaping the careers of countless young student athletes with his flair for descriptive writing.

"When people think of Grambling, they think of (legendary former football coach) Eddie Robinson, and rightfully so. But the one who taught people about him was Collie J.," said Doug Williams, a former GSU quarterback and football coach. "He's the reason all of America knows about all that we did."

That no one had ever heard of marketing in the 1940s, well, that never stopped Nicholson — who had an unbendable optimism. When he was done, Grambling had established a far-flung reputation far beyond its humble and distinctly rural beginnings.

"We just came along at the right time. I tell you, the Lord was in the plan," Nicholson once said. "It was timing: Coach Robinson was developing all these players for pro football — and we had a marketing plan. We didn't know what it was — they didn't call it marketing, back then — but we had a concept."

Nicholson, the Marine Corps' first black correspondent during World War II, had been hired on the spot in 1948 by former Grambling president R.W.E. Jones during a chance meeting on campus. That proved to be an inspired choice.

Nicholson began building momentum by sending stories to a widespread national network of black newspapers, eventually contributing regularly to more than 400 of them. In those primitive times, he would type up dispatches and then drive 75 miles to the Western Union station in Shreveport to wire them out.

"When we wanted something to happen, we had to do it for ourselves," Nicholson once said. "Black college football and Grambling had to stick up for itself."

After the Grambling brand became better known, Nicholson then set about promoting a series of neutral-site games — eventually dubbed "classics" — to be played in large American cities against other historically black football programs.

Sold-out games followed in the late 1960s at Yankee Stadium and then later at Giants Stadium. The initial event, in 1968 against Morgan State, drew 64,000 fans.

Later, he negotiated deals that saw Grambling play in Hawaii and Japan — becoming the first American college program to play overseas — and also helped found the Bayou Classic, an in-state rivalry game against Southern played at the Superdome in New Orleans.

"There were naysayers when it came to neutral-site games," said Porter, who made that groundbreaking marketing trip to New York with Nicholson in the segregated 1960s. "But he was so positive. There was a never a shadow of a doubt. He had a tremendous amount of confidence — in himself, and in Grambling."

Much of Nicholson's — and Grambling's — legend was built around football. But Nicholson worked just as hard at promoting other sports, making household names out of talents like Willis Reed and Larry Wright on the basketball court, as well as slugger Ralph Garr and sprinter Stone Johnson, among others.

"He believed in all of the programs," said former baseball coach Wilbert Ellis, who worked with Nicholson for two decades at GSU. "He just loved Grambling. It's a great loss not just for Grambling, but for the entire sports world."

More personal marketing triumphs bookended his career at Grambling.

In Nicholson's first years at the school, he was instrumental in pushing Paul "Tank" Younger into the NFL, ensuring that Younger became the first black college player to sign a pro contract.
Nicholson's tireless promotion also lifted Williams to a fourth-place finish in the 1977 Heisman Trophy voting and to first-team honors on the Associated Press All-America team, both firsts among black colleges.

"To be mentioned for the Heisman?" Williams said, still a bit incredulous. "That was all Collie J. When he told me he was going to put me up, I though that was as funny as Bugs Bunny. It was the highest a player from a black school had ever finished. That's never going to happen again."

Nicholson's legacy continued to play out in ways both large and small.

He never stopped writing about sports. This was, after all, a man so dedicated to his craft that he actually learned Japanese while negotiating the Toyko game.

Years after retiring from Grambling, he was still working as a freelancer — and oftentimes for the same newspapers he'd once cold-called in the 1940s.

Known for his flair with the pen, Nicholson conjured dozens of nicknames that stuck forever — from Paul "Tank" Younger and Ernie "Big Cat" Ladd to Gary "Big Hands" Johnson and Ernest "Monster" Sterling.

"He described players in such a way that it captured the imagination," Porter said. "He had a way of attaching a name that fit the player. And he told their stories just as well. A lot of them never would have gotten a chance to play if not for Collie."

He earned national recognition 13 times during his time at Grambling for press guides. And, even in the end, awards continued to line his mantel.

The Louisiana Sports Writers Association gave Nicholson its Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism in 1990. The College Sports Information Directors of America followed with its Trailblazer Award 12 years later, even as Nicholson was inducted into the Southwestern Athletic Conference Hall of Fame.

Nicholson remained humble, framing his legacy in simple terms.

"I would like to be remembered as someone who tried to find a way to fit the Grambling program into the general marketplace," he said. "I've tried my best to do that."

Finally, just last May, the University of Louisiana System Board, which oversees GSU, approved a plan to rename the Robinson Stadium press box on campus after Nicholson.

His old typewriter was placed inside a special display at the Robinson Stadium Support Facility.
Friends and family hailed the honor, saying it will stand forever as a reminder of all that he'd accomplished.

By then, however, Nicholson's health was failing and he could not attend.

"He made Coach a household name," Porter said. "He had a gift for putting together words. That gift was to Grambling's great benefit. Without Collie J. Nicholson, such a great many things would not have been."

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GSU family still honoring Nicholson

Monday, September 18, 2006

By Nick Deriso,
HOUSTON — Saturday's Grambling State game turned into a tribute to the school's first sports information director.

Santoria Black presented an extended tribute to Collie J. Nicholson, who passed away on Wednesday, as part of halftime on the GSU radio broadcast.

Grambling product James "Shack" Harris also fondly recalled Nicholson's unique marketing genius while scouting seniors as the general manager of the Jacksonville Jaguars, even while Nicholson's son Jim was visiting with the team on the sidelines. His initials, CJN, were affixed to the back of the team's helmets.

"He's an icon and a legend," said Grambling offensive coordinator Sammy White, who played at GSU during the latter part of Nicholson's 30-year tenure, which lasted from 1948-78. "He had a passion — and that opened so many doors for me."

Nicholson is credited with establishing the Grambling name nationwide through neutral-site games in larger American markets — including the Bayou Classic in New Orleans against Southern. He was also the brains behind two trips to Japan, where GSU became the first college program to play overseas.

"He put Grambling on the map," said longtime GSU trainer Eugene "Doc" Harvey. "He had ideas long before his time. I was fortunate to be a part of that, and I got a chance to see the world."
Funeral arrangements for Nicholson were completed over the weekend.

A public viewing is scheduled for 1-6 p.m. Tuesday at Winnfield Funeral Home, 3701 Hollywood Ave. in Shreveport. Nicholson's funeral is at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Matthew A.M.E. Church, 1610 Murphy St. in Shreveport. Military burial follows at Forest Park Cemetery.

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Williams: Nicholson 'made Grambling what it is'

Thursday, September 21, 2006

By Nick Deriso,
SHREVEPORT — Collie J. Nicholson, Grambling State University's first sports information director, was given a hero's sendoff during his funeral Wednesday morning.

Family and friends spoke passionately for nearly three hours at St. Matthew A.M.E. Church in tribute to the man who made Coach Eddie Robinson's program — and black college football — internationally famous.

Nicholson died last week at his Shreveport home after a lengthy illness. He was 85.

"We as players tried to live up to Collie J. Nicholson's words," said former Grambling quarterback James Harris, now an NFL executive. "He'll probably never get the credit that he deserves. But I think I speak for the thousands of players when I say: We always knew what he meant to Grambling."

A military funeral followed at Forest Park West Cemetery, with ex-players Harris, Doug Williams and Steve Dennis, among others, serving as pallbearers. Honorary pallbearers included Robinson, football and wrestling star Ernie Ladd, boxing promoter Don King and Negro League baseball legend Buck O'Neal.

"I could talk about all of his accomplishments, but the proof is in the pudding," Williams said. "Collie J. made Grambling what it is."

Born July 7, 1921, in Winnfield, Nicholson served in the U.S. Marine Corps as its original black World War II combat correspondent before beginning his career in 1948 as GSU's first sports information director.

Nicholson's innovations over the following three decades at Grambling included the "classic" game concept, where Grambling traveled with its marching band to major cities — including groundbreaking events at Yankee Stadium; trips to Hawaii and Japan; and the Bayou Classic, an on-going rivalry played against Southern in New Orleans.

"He isn't here with us today, but his legend — his legend lives on," said longtime Shreveport newspaperman Andrew Harris, as he fought back emotion. Harris got his start writing as an assistant sports information director under Nicholson.

Other speakers included Joseph Carter, who as president of the Shreveport chapter of the Grambling University National Alumni Association pushed forward a resolution to christen the press box at Robinson Stadium in Nicholson's honor. Naming ceremonies were held in June of this year.

"It didn't happen until he was in his twilight," Carter said, "but at least it came before the sunset."

Members of Nicholson's family in attendance included his wife, Ophelia; son Jim Nicholson and his wife, Donna, of Houston; and daughter Shirley Rhodes of Shreveport; as well as two grandsons and a great-grandson.

"He loved Ophelia," Jim Nicholson said, as he detailed his father's more personal side. "It was like MasterCard; he never left home without her."

Jim Nicholson spent the service with his arm around Doris Robinson, wife of the ailing former coach. Eddie Robinson was too ill to attend.

Grambling president Horace Judson was on hand, as were former presidents Steve Favors and Harold Lundy. Wilbert Ellis, the school's second baseball coach and longtime administrator, sat in a crowd dotted with longtime GSU staff members, including Bessie McKinney and Ruby Higgins.

Former Robinson assistant coaches Melvin Lee and Doug Porter were joined by most of the current staff under coach Melvin Spears. Larry Pannell, director of the Tiger Marching Band, played clarinet as part of the GSU Faculty Ensemble, which performed throughout the services.
National writers paying tribute included Jerry Izenberg of The (N.J.) Star-Ledger and Michael Hurd, a 10-year staffer at USA Today.

Hurd, a collaborator with Nicholson on the reference book "Black College Football, 1892-1992," was at work on a biography at the time of Nicholson's death. Hurd said the book is due later this year.

"We'll always remember what he stands for, and I mean 'stands for'— not stood for," said Izenberg, who met and befriended Nicholson while on assignment to write his first story about Grambling in 1963. "We will all carry Collie J. Nicholson in our minds when we leave here."

After retiring from Grambling in 1978, Nicholson founded a successful public relations firm, while continuing to work as a freelance sports writer. He also handled publicity for both the Southwestern Athletic Conference and with Don King Enterprises over the years.

June's renaming of the Robinson Stadium press box became the final honor in a life filled with them. Nicholson received the Louisiana Sports Writers Association's distinguished service award in 1990, the Bayou Classic Founders Award in 1992 and the College Sports Information Directors of America's Trailblazer Award in 2002.

He was inducted into the SWAC Hall of Fame in 2002, as well.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Bayou Classic 2004

Grambling still needs to find offensive balance

November 13, 2004

By Nick Deriso,

GRAMBLING - The Grambling State coaches have talked about balancing the offense this season, about using the running game to ease the transition for a freshman under center.

"The main thing is to keep pressure off (first-year quarterback) Brandon Landers," said interim GSU coach Melvin Spears. "We want to be 50-50 in terms of running and passing."

That hasn't happened.

As GSU travels to Division I-AA independent Savannah State (2-7 overall), its offense is still in pass-first mode - despite losing senior All-American Bruce Eugene for the season in the opener.

In fact, the Tigers have averaged 31 passes a game - second in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Yet, GSU has fewer completions than anyone in the top half of the SWAC.

Kickoff for the SSU game, a tuneup for the annual Bayou Classic, is at 1:30 p.m. today. It's Grambling State's final opportunity to put together both halves of the offense - and perhaps position itself to win against Southern for the first time in three seasons.

How much is GSU passing? The Tigers have 74 more attempts this season than their opponents.
That's not usually the recipe for success with a youngster at quarterback. GSU has already matched its interception total from last season - with two more games left on the schedule.

Still, Spears says the air show is to be expected when you examine what opposing defenses have given GSU - and accounts for this 4-5 season by saying his young offensive starters simply aren't making plays.

"The last game (a 37-23 loss to Alabama State, clinching a winless season at home), we got everything that we wanted," Spears said. "But when you're in the red zone, your guys have to beat their guys. We just didn't cash in."

Actually, the numbers illustrate an effort at balance from GSU. But it's more statistical that anything - and Landers' numbers (not to mention his noggin) are suffering.

On paper, the Tigers have gotten 75 first downs so far on the ground, and 79 in the air. A little more than 1,770 yards have come on rushing plays, with 2,180 added from passing the football in 2004.

But, the truth is, GSU's ground game has only been the focus for short bursts, then it's abruptly discarded.

For instance, the Tigers finished with 42 rushes and 33 pass attempts against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. A closer look shows that 16 of those running plays were called in succession as the game began, while the Tigers' final 14 plays were passes.

Similarly, GSU had 46 rushes with 33 passing attempts against Jackson State. But at one point GSU reeled off nearly 20 consecutive passing plays, followed by almost a dozen rushes.

Clearly, GSU was having success with its ground attack against Alabama State, as runners Ab Kuaan and Ruben Mayes grinded out 159 yards - and a startling combined average of eight yards per carry. But coaches gave up on the run in the third quarter, when the Tigers were only down by four.

Grambling State lost each of those games.

Spears reiterates that the opponent's defensive scheme made passing the logical option.
"Our guys came out and played with great effort," Spears said. "But winning comes down to execution. When we execute, there is no team in our league that can beat us. They executed better than us."

When the running game evaporates, however, teams can focus on harassing the freshman quarterback. And they are: GSU is tied with Mississippi Valley State for most quarterback tackles on the season, and no SWAC team has lost more yards on sacks.

In keeping, Landers' combined completion rate for the last two games, 34.95 percent, is actually 1.4 percent lower than his first game in relief of Eugene.

Yet, Landers keeps throwing.

"It's our job to help him have that confidence, so he can keep going out there to run the offense," said offensive coordinator Sammy White. "He's got a certain air about him. He's a great leader."

Still, if GSU hopes to steal a Bayou Classic win in two weeks, they will not only have to score points, but keep Southern's No. 2 offense off the field.

Running the ball does that.

The Tigers can use today's game against SSU to improve its No. 9 rank in the 10-member SWAC for rushing attempts. A consistently balanced approach might, in turn, affect some other stats: GSU leads the conference in interceptions, while it's seventh in completion percentage - and only one point ahead of last-place Texas Southern.

"I don't think it's anybody's fault," said Spears. "It's just a matter of having a young guy playing at that position. The three or four ballgames that we lost, the best team didn't win. But we're going to show up for the next two weeks and see if we can close this thing out."

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A Classic script change

November 22, 2004

By Nick Deriso,

GRAMBLING- In 2002, Southern entered the Bayou Classic at 5-6 on the year, hoping for an upset to avoid a non-winning season.

Grambling State, meanwhile, was spotless in Southwestern Athletic Conference play and assured of another trip to the title game.

The result? An emotional 48-24 thrashing by Southern.

Two seasons and a coaching change later, GSU is trying on the costume for that spoiler role in New Orleans.

The Bayou Classic - pitting Southern (8-2 overall, 6-0 in the SWAC) and GSU (5-5, 2-4) - kicks off at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Louisiana Superdome.

"The shoe is on the other foot. But we're not talking about that," said interim GSU coach Melvin Spears. "We are just trying to concentrate on the fundamental things of what we do and try to combat mistakes. If you look at last year's game, it's really about what we didn't do on defense. The last team to score won the ball game, and that wasn't us."

In fact, Southern and GSU matched each other stride throughout 2003, arriving in New Orleans for a winner-take-all Western Division game that decided who advanced to the SWAC championship. The Jaguars deflated GSU's hopes for a record fourth straight try at the title, winning that offensive slugfest, 44-41.

Even in 2000, the first of those three straight championship years for the Tigers, GSU fell to Southern in New Orleans. Former coach Doug Williams, with Spears as offensive coordinator, left in February with a 1-5 mark as a head coach against Southern - and that lone win was back in 2001.

"The last couple of years, they've had this same spoiler feeling about us," said Spears. "It's certainly turned in a different direction. But the parity in our league has meant that teams like Southern have struggled even in their wins, and they have a good football team."

A win on Saturday assures Southern the division, sending the Jaguars back for a second straight SWAC title game on Dec. 11.

But even without those implications, this in-state rivalry game has its own unique majesty.

You have to take the records and put them over on the side," said Southern coach Pete Richardson, trying to win his second title in five seasons. "You are looking at a game that's been built to a great magnitude. This game is for the alumni and the students. A lot of individuals consider this more important than winning the championship."

GSU has slumped under the weight of injuries and inexperience in Spears' first season since Williams' departure. The Tigers, winless at home in 2004, must steal a Bayou Classic victory to avoid their first losing season since 1998.

"We were blessed for four years," said Spears. "To have the opportunity to have that run - with hardly anyone getting hurt - was great. Then all of a sudden, you fall on bad luck. It's just part of this business. But we hope to come of age here at the end of the year. Hopefully, you'll see the team that I know we have here."

There are more than bragging rights at stake, however.

Were Grambling State to pull off the upset, Southern would be tied with Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the West - and would have to await the outcome of the Golden Lions' game against Alabama State on Dec. 4 to find out its fate. (Because of a scheduling conflict, Southern and UAPB did not play in 2004.)

In other words, an average Grambling State team has an opportunity to do what some average Southern teams have done over and over recently: Ruin a principal rival's picture-perfect season.

"Everything goes in cycles," said Spears. "We're just going to go out and play like hell. We won't have anything to else to play for, except to represent Grambling."

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Their final hour to shine

November 23, 2004

By Nick Deriso,

GRAMBLING - So much about this season was unique for Grambling State's senior class.

It began with Doug Williams leaving as coach and ends with this most unusual Bayou Classic, the first since 1999 where the graduating football players are assured of playing their final day in Black and Gold.

In 2000-02, GSU had already earned another game, with a trip to the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game. In 2003, the Bayou Classic decided who would advance to the title match.

But this season's Tigers slipped to 5-5, and 2-4 in SWAC play, leaving the team's most veteran players with 60 short minutes of collegiate football left to play.

It's no surprise then that senior defender Kenneth Pettway has called this "my championship game."

Southern (8-2, 6-0) faces GSU at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Louisiana Superdome.

Other seniors include: offensive linemen Lance Wright and Darryl Rodgers; kicker Brian Morgan; defensive backs Jermaine Mills and Michael Daigre; fullback Michael O'Ree; linebackers John Petty (a Newellton product), David Robinson and Marcus Yanez (out of Bastrop); defensive linemen Aqua Etefia and Lennard Patton; and transfer receiver Antonio Hargro, among others.

Senior quarterback Bruce Eugene, lost for the season with a knee injury, has applied for a medical exemption to get his final year of eligibility back. Receiver Moses Harris redshirted after breaking his ankle in practice the week before GSU's opening game.

They say the finality of this contest ratchets up the pressure a notch or two - though the coaches are trying to guard against an end-of-the-world mentality.

"There's some pressure," said Daigre of finishing out his career against Southern. "Every game, I prepare the same. But we've got to have this one. It's Southern. It's a big rivalry for the alumni."

The seniors' determination has played out over the past few days of sloppy weather, when coaches have had to move practices inside the intramural building to avoid rainshowers. Several seniors have been conducting their own separate meetings to help the younger players appreciate the task at hand.

"They understand what's at stake," said GSU offensive coordinator Sammy White, the former all-SWAC receiver. "This is their last harrah, and the world is watching."

A focused Pettway assures: "When we get down on the field with Southern, we'll take care of business."

Interim GSU coach Melvin Spears reminds them, however, that the most important moment in these seniors' collegiate experience is graduation.

"We approach it from a football nature," said Spears. "But we also remind them that they came to Grambling not just to play football, but to prepare for the rest of your life. The seniors have done an outstanding job academically, so they will have a lot to build on. They will be ready to go into corporate America, and be leaders in their communities."

Still, for some, the game remains the pinnacle of their time at Grambling State.

"Since I was little, that's been the main thing that I wanted to do - to play in the Bayou Classic," said Mills, a Baton Rouge native. "It's like I'm coming back home. I've just got to enjoy those 60 minutes."

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Jags spotless in SWAC so far - despite obstacles

November 24, 2004

By Nick Deriso,

GRAMBLING - They lost their quarterback and most of their receivers to graduation. They lost their running back and the SWAC Freshman of the Year on defense to academic problems.

What Coach Pete Richardson and Southern University didn't lose was momentum.

Winners of the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship in two of the past five seasons, the Jaguars have a chance to finish the season undefeated in league play with a victory in this week's Bayou Classic.

Southern (8-2 overall, 6-0 in the SWAC) - which must win to guarantee a trip to the SWAC title game - faces GSU (5-5, 2-4) at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Louisiana Superdome.

Should the Jaguars lose, they will be tied with Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the West and must wait for the Golden Lions' final contest to learn their fate.

"We always look forward to playing Southern," said interim GSU coach Melvin Spears, who can salvage a winning season with an upset in New Orleans. "Coach Richardson is one of the best coaches in America, not just in our conference. When you play the defending national champions, you'd better get ready for a dog fight."

Senior quarterback Thomas Ricks, tops in the SWAC for total offense, had little problem replacing Quincy Richard - who set a slew of Southern's passing records last season.

"We knew going into this year that he had the capability to do that," said Richardson. "It was just a matter of getting the playing time. He is an excellent quarterback, and has been in the system. He just didn't have a chance to play. Our concern was not Ricks, but the entourage around him. We lost all of our wide receivers, and it takes time to build that chemistry. That seemed to improve each week, and his confidence level then seemed to grow. As a result of that, he had an outstanding year."

In fact, a rebuilt receiving group has helped Southern to a No. 2 spot in total SWAC offense. After averaging a Division I-AA-best 40 points per game in 2003, this young team managed 32 per night this season.

The transition hasn't been quite so smooth on defense. Entering this game, the Jaguars are No. 9 in the 10-team conference against the pass, though they are No. 3 against the run.

"We are dealing with a lot of people who had not had the opportunity to play - our secondary, in particular," said Richardson. "It seemed like each game they played with a little more confidence. Of course, we played a schedule as good an anybody in Division I-AA football."

Southern opened against perennial power McNeese State, and later played South Dakota State - which ended its first season in I-AA at 6-5 overall.

"That McNeese game, they had to grow up fast," said Richardson. "Over the past couple of weeks, we've made some progress. Getting back to the championship will boil down to defense."
Despite the adversity, Southern has continued to win - primarily through a series of canny comebacks. Four of its wins have come on fourth-quarter rallies.

"They're going to be highly prepared. You know that," said Spears. "They are going to play hard. You've got to look under every rock in order to be successful. It's going to be a war."

Top target James Vernon, who has been out since Oct. 23 with a sprained right knee, returns for Saturday's game. But Southern will still have to rely on a revolving cast of running backs.
Gutty runner Steel Adams has a separated shoulder and is questionable, joining a beat-up group on the sidelines that includes leading rusher Gerald Holmes - who has missed most of six games with his own leg injury. Ricks has picked up most of the running yards and is now the team's leading rusher.

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GSU hopes for 2001 repeat

November 26, 2004

By Nick Deriso,

GRAMBLING - On Nov. 24, 2001, Grambling State accomplished something it's only done once in 12 seasons: Win the Bayou Classic.

Much has changed since then, with the departure of coach Doug Williams to the NFL. But some things remain from that 30-20 victory over Southern.

Interim GSU coach Melvin Spears was the offensive coordinator back then. Current position coaches Calvin Spears and Vyron Brown also played that day.

Kicker Brian Morgan, now a senior captain, scored the Tigers' final points on a 40-yard field goal - on his way to Southwestern Athletic Conference freshman of the year honors.

"The guys we had then," Melvin Spears said, "they all weren't great athletes. But they were great football players. They loved to play and they played hard together. The significance of them winning, as opposed to the others, boiled down to heart. That team had some great leadership. You had some intangibles."

The win came after a thundering first quarter from Grambling State. In fact, the Tigers shredded the SWAC's second-rated defense with 27 points in the first 11 minutes and 21 seconds alone.

What does it take to get back to that glory?

"Hard work and dedication," said Brown, now running backs coach at his alma mater. "And a lot of belief."

Brown, after leading the team in rushing in 1998, was a change-of-pace runner and kick returner in 2001.

"Consistency," said first-year secondary coach Calvin Spears, who insists that beating Southern again in the Classic "is why I came back."

Senior quarterback Randy Hymes was making his first start in four games that day, having been replaced by Bruce Eugene in the first quarter against Texas Southern. But he dictated the outcome - leading GSU on four straight touchdown drives.

"The team that we had then was more a senior-type ballclub," Spears said. "They had gone through some adversity, but had only lost one ballgame down at Alabama State. We had some warriors then."

By the time this stunning first half was done, Hymes had completed 14-of-26 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed seven times for 86 yards and a touchdown. Grambling State held Southern to just 28 yards on offense before the bands played.

"You've got to do what you came to do," said Calvin Spears, who had seven tackles and an interception in the 2001 victory. "Once they get you into their mindset, playing their game, you are in trouble. Coach Richardson has a way of making games flow in his direction."

Not this time. Grambling State gained 544 yards of total offense on a team that was allowing just 285 per game. GSU's defense also played well, keeping Southern at 219 yards of total offense, creating two turnovers and registering three sacks.

Levi Washington led all GSU receivers with five catches for 128 yards. Hymes - now a wideout with the NFL's Baltimore Ravens - and Brad Hill both had 78 yards of rushing on the day.

Winning had an odd effect, Calvin Spears said: The local crowd, always deafening in its support for nearby Southern, turned as quiet as a church congregation.

"They always bring the Jaguar Nation," Spears said. "If we can keep the Nation at bay for a little while, our team can get some confidence."

It worked in 2001.

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Louisiana's Classic rivalry

November 27, 2004

By Nick Deriso,
NEW ORLEANS - There will be big plays. Game-changing, tongue-wagging, momentum-swinging plays.

No lead is safe in Bayou Classic, perhaps Louisiana's signature college rivalry game. No expectation based on season records is valid. No easy prediction is broached.

"There is always a lot riding on it," said GSU offensive coordinator Sammy White, who never lost to Southern as a player under former coach Eddie Robinson in the 1970s. "You're going into a rivalry where most people don't care about the record. They just care about that game."

Kickoff of this annual grudge-match between Grambling State (5-5, 2-4 Southwestern Athletic Conference) and Southern (8-2, 6-0) is at 1 p.m. today at the Superdome.

"The magnitude," said Southern coach Pete Richardson, "has escalated to the point where you play for pride. Hopefully, you get to a point that you taper emotions and you don't dig a hole you can't get out of."

Taper emotions? Fat chance.

Take Southern's razor-thin 44-41 victory last season, which got off to a galloping start.

First, the Jaguars scored on a seven-play, 83-yard drive that senior quarterback Quincy Richard capped with a 3-yard touchdown run. Richard, in fact, would open the game by completing 15 consecutive passes.

So, GSU answered with a 71-yard touchdown pass from Bruce Eugene to Tim Abney on the Tigers' first play from scrimmage to tie the score.

Emotional, it was.

That's why keeping things in perspective becomes a coach's main goal.

"We're going to give up a couple of big plays," said first-year Tigers secondary coach Calvin Spears, a senior on the last GSU squad to beat Southern three years ago. "We know that. We have to take those jabs. If we keep jabbing right back, and don't get out of position, the knockout will come."

That certainly held true last season, where the final team to score was destined to win the 30th playing of the Bayou Classic. The Jaguars did.

Interim GSU coach Melvin Spears - the Tigers' offensive coordinator during the past six Bayou Classics - has watched film on that game continuously during the past two weeks. His updated game plan is deceptively simple.

"Whoever controls the ball and gives up the least amount of big plays is going to win," said Spears, who installed some inventive triple-option plays this week. "We're going to have to run the football a little more than normal. If you look at the game from last year, we threw the football 65 times. We'll have to be more balanced with a freshman quarterback in there."

Balanced? Fat chance - at least, typically.

Last season, these two teams combined for a staggering 1,136 yards of total offense, with 961 of it coming in the air.

But GSU doesn't have its senior quarterback from that game, after Eugene went down with a season-ending injury on opening day this season. In his place is flinty but sometimes-inconsistent Brandon Landers, a Carroll High product who is third in the SWAC for total offense but also leads the conference in interceptions.

"In the past, we've played against a very dynamic quarterback in Eugene," said Richardson, who is 10-1 against GSU. "He can make big plays with his arm and running the football, too. In the last couple of games, a lot of points have been scored and that's a tribute to the playmakers they have had. Anytime you have talented athletes, there's a chance for those plays to happen."

Without Eugene, and a string of other team leaders lost to injury, the Tigers have fallen out of title contention for the first time since 1999.

But GSU coaches say a quickly improving running game will lessen the burden on Landers - and limit the effectiveness of Southern's No. 2 offense. GSU has gained 456 of its 1,377 rushing yards on the season in its last two contests.

"It will keep their offense off the field," said running backs coach Vyron Brown. "We're going to come out and try to control the ball - and by the end of the game, if we've taken care of the little things, hopefully we will come out with a victory."

That kind of time-consuming, grinding tempo would limit scoring opportunities for Southern, which is led by senior quarterback Thomas Ricks, the SWAC's leader in offensive yards and touchdowns.

"That's our plan coming in, to control the game," said junior running back Ab Kuaan, the team's leading rusher the past two seasons. "If we do that, the sky's the limit."

Special teams could play an important role. GSU led Division I-AA nationally in kickoff returns until the final week of its season, and has gained 24.71 per kick coming out of the bye week.

"When you look at a game of this magnitude, the first thing you think about is ball control," Spears said. "Ball control and field position. You can do it by running the football - or by doing an outstanding job on special teams."

There is no margin for error.

This game seems to turn on the smallest of mistakes, even in a win: In 2001, the last time GSU beat Southern, the Jaguars mounted an impressive comeback late in the game before finally falling 30-20.

That resurgence began during GSU quarterback Randy Hymes' first-half masterpiece, where he had a hand in four touchdowns. But Southern cornerback Codie Smith's second-quarter pick, returned 96 yards for a touchdown to make it 27-7 at the break, sparked a here-we-go-again rally by the Jaguars - even though they fell short.

In the three years before that victory, Grambling State led Southern at halftime each time, only to lose in the end. Most agonizing was 1999, when GSU held a 31-10 advantage, only to watch Southern score 27 unanswered second-half points for a 37-31 win.

Last season, Eugene was reduced to tears when a final, furious fourth-quarter drive came up short.

"They're going to take it personally, regardless," said Melvin Spears, "because of all the hype and the excitement surrounding the game. When you have this kind of camaraderie, both guys want bragging rights. Whatever goes on, we just try to get them to approach it like any other game."

Any other game? Fat chance.

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November 28, 2004

By Nick Deriso,

NEW ORLEANS - What a rush.

A bruising ground game earned Grambling State a winning season - and redeemed an awful 1-12 run against Southern - at Saturday's 31st Bayou Classic.

Four rushers combined for 292 yards as GSU beat the Jaguars 24-13. The Tigers finished 6-5 on the year, and altered Southern's postseason plans.

At 8-3, the Jaguars now must await the outcome of Arkansas-Pine Bluff's Dec. 4 contest against Alabama State, which will determine if the Jaguars advance to the Southwestern Athletic Conference title game.

"We wanted that winning season," said interim GSU coach Melvin Spears, "and it came down to the Bayou Classic. I thought that was outstanding."

Grambling State used an effective running game to keep the contest just out of reach, as top rusher Ab Kuuan had an average of seven yards per carry.

"I knew if our guys put forth the effort, and stayed focused," said Spears, "we could run the ball on Southern."

And how.

Kuuan finished with 126 yards on 18 carries before a crowd of 68,911 at the Louisiana Superdome - and many more on NBC's national television broadcast. Three rushing touchdowns gave Kuaan back-to-back 10 touchdown seasons and tied his single-game best.

The brilliance of that ground game from Kuuan, along with sophomore fullback Ruben Mayes, meant GSU freshman quarterback Brandon Landers would attempt just 13 passes.

"I've just got to tip my hat to the offensive line," said Kuuan, who was named player of the game. "They knew we were going to come in and run the ball. We had two weeks to prepare and that meant we all had fresh legs coming in. Thinking about this win sends chills down my spine."

But that run-oriented approach led to a low-scoring first half. One season after these two teams combined for 32 first-half points - and 85 at the end - GSU and Southern put up just nine at the break. Only 21 second-half points kept this from becoming the lowest scoring Bayou Classic ever. The record is Southern's 10-3 victory in 1988.

That was just what Spears wanted.

But the Tigers gave up a disputed 48-yard touchdown reception as time expired on the half to push Southern ahead for the first time on Saturday. Spears was still arguing with the officials after the teams had gone to the locker rooms.

Replays seemed to indicate that junior Emile Bryant's knee hit the ground at the GSU 1, but the play stood. The extra-point kick failed, leaving the score at 6-3 at the half.

That was not what Spears wanted - because the Southern touchdown signaled a return to the usual momentum-shifting mood swings so closely associated with this 53-year-old rivalry.

SU retook the lead on a seven-play, 68-yard drive to open the second half, scoring on a fourth-and-one with a 10-yard rush by Kuuan. Senior Brian Morgan's kick made it 10-6.

But as the third quarter drew to a close, Southern running back Devin Herbert's 2-yard TD run capped an eight-play, 41-yard drive. The Jaguars led again, 13-10.

Kuuan answered with a 1-yard scoring blast at the top of the fourth quarter. Morgan's kick brought the score to 17-13.

SU then made a critical stop, as senior defender Kenneth Pettway blocked a long field-goal attempt that was then recovered on the Southern 40-yard-line by GSU sophomore Greg Fassitt.

The Tigers' ensuing scoring drive, again without a single pass, ended on a diving run by Kuuan to seal the win.

"I knew I had to come in and stick with the game plan," said Landers - who, after leading the SWAC in picks this season, was unblemished on Saturday. "I used to watch this game on TV. To be on the field for such a great win for this institution is a great feeling."

Landers wasn't alone. The Tigers completed their first game of the season without a turnover.

"We felt like if we didn't turn the ball over," said GSU offensive coordinator Sammy White, "we'd have a great chance to win. Then, we'd just keep running the ball to keep them off balance."

Southern quarterback Thomas Ricks, who was chosen SWAC offensive player of the week five times this season, did his best to spark Southern - passing for 176 yards and a touchdown and leading Jaguar rushers with 93 yards.

But with GSU holding onto the ball for more than 36 minutes, it wasn't enough.

"They had two big backs, and a huge line. They just kept beating on us," said Southern coach Pete Richardson, whose team entered the game at No. 20 in Division I-AA by ESPN/USA Today. "They really beat us up."

Grambling State revealed its all-run motives in its first drive, relying on Kuuan and Mayes to get to the Southern 29-yard line. But GSU had to settle for a field goal try after Landers was sacked on third down, and Morgan missed.

"I don't know if it was a mess-up with the hold or what, but it just didn't come out right," said Morgan, who later connected on another 39-yarder in the second quarter. "I didn't have the greatest game. But today, it didn't matter."

GSU defensive end Jason Hatcher, a Jena product, blocked a 47-yard attempt by Breck Ackley with 20 seconds left in the first quarter, to keep the game scoreless.

On a fourth-and-nine, Kuaan gained 32 yards to the Southern 25 on a fake punt early in the second quarter. Morgan then scored the game's first points.

There were moments when the game looked like it might turn in Southern's favor.

As returner Gabe Wallace moved into GSU territory on a second-quarter punt return, junior Matt Duhe knocked the ball loose. Kuaan recovered at the GSU 39.

But then a delay-of-game penalty pushed the Tigers back to midfield. GSU went for it consecutive fourth downs after an off-side penalty, but came away with no points.

Flags, in fact, fell like rainstorms - with 13 for 79 yards in the first half alone. Both teams - ranked No. 1 and 2 in the conference for penalties - would eventually combine for 121 yards on fouls.

But GSU continued its relentless, slow assault.

"It feels so, so good," said Farmerville sophomore linebacker Dimitri Carr, as players attempted to douse defensive coordinator Luther Palmer with a cooler of ice water. "I can't believe I've got two more!"

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Tigers help Spears with a little job security

November 28, 2004

NEW ORLEANS - He may have saved his job. He knew that.

Interim coach Melvin Spears was looking at a losing season, not the best item to have atop your resume when Grambling State begins a national search for a permanent replacement for Doug Williams this month.

School officials have said he will be a part of that interview process. But how much weight would they give to a candidate with a losing record?

Or one who dropped GSU's signature rivalry game - and on national television?

"We've gone through some things all year," said Spears. "Trials and tribulations. I told them they would have to play with enthusiasm to win, with discipline - and for 60 minutes."

It would take all that, and more.

GSU hadn't strung together consecutive wins since beating Bethune-Cookman, Prairie View and Mississippi Valley beginning in Week 3.

It would mean turning back a rising tide of losses to Southern. GSU led the all-time Bayou Classic series 13-6 when Southern began its recent dominance. Since 1993, the Tigers had won just once, the 30-20 victory in 2001 with Spears as offensive coordinator.

"See this monkey?" senior linebacker Marcus Yanez jubilantly asked a group of his teammates as the game wound down. "Take it off! Take this monkey off my back!"

It would also involve a most unusual strategy for this game.

A year after helping compile a game-day stat of nearly 1,000 yards in the air, GSU would attempt only 13 passing plays. But rushing touchdowns - even coming from a pass-first ex-coordinator like Spears - still count on the scoreboard.

His canny patience in this contest - refusing to start flinging it downfield, even when Southern mounted small comeback bids - made this Spears' crowning achievement as an interim coach.

"I think I had an outstanding football team out there today," said Spears. "I intend to be back at Grambling, until somebody tells me any differently."

The implications of this win were both far reaching - the, you know, job interview - and immediate.

"We're going to celebrate this," said senior defender Kenneth Pettway, reveling in the moment. "My senior year, to go out with a win, to have a winning season, and win the Bayou Classic? I love it!"

Spears clearly did, too. He stopped at midfield, after receiving the Bayou Classic trophy, for a picture with his children. He looked around one last time at the Superdome, before ducking into the locker room for an emotional talk with the players - who had given him a vote of confidence after Williams' sudden departure in February.

"We had an opportunity to compete against (Southern) Coach Pete Richardson - who I think is one of the best coaches in the America," said Spears. "We had to bring our 'A' game."

GSU controlled the clock, and the crowd, for much of the first half - holding the ball for more than 18 minutes and leading 3-0 as time drained away on the first half.

But with four seconds left, and only a single play left to try, and everyone from Bourbon Street to Esplanade knowing that the long ball was coming, Southern quarterback Thomas Ricks launched a 48-yard pass to Emile Bryant.

Bryant came down in between a trio of GSU defenders, and appeared to go down on the 1-yard line - a point Spears unsuccessfully argued - but was given the touchdown.

The play should have looked familiar from SWAC game tapes.

It was remarkably similar to the dagger that SU used to finish off a stunned Alabama State earlier in the year, and set up the go-ahead score against Alabama A&M - just two of a dizzying number of late comebacks for this flawed but charmed Southern team.

There ensued then the usual emotional tug-of-war, with three lead changes in the second half.
Grambling State, at a level 5-5 going into Saturday's game, should be used to that.

"I had to keep the staff, and everybody around me, in a positive attitude," said Spears. "That was our strength. That's what we came from."

In the end, Grambling State's bruising running backs simply overwhelmed the smaller Southern line, gaining a season high in rushing yards. And the defense held when it had to.

What should have also looked familiar - the Cinderella ending for Southern - never materialized.
But there might just be one for Spears now.

"The president is happy, the alums are happy, my cousins are happy," said Spears, who looked pretty darned happy, too.

"We're going to enjoy this next few hours and then next week, I'll sit down and talk to Dr. (Horace A.) Judson and find out what direction they want to go. I expect to be at Grambling."

Here's how you know that's no hyperbole: Spears was making plans after the game to hit the recruiting trail for next year's roster.

"We've got a number of guys, blue-chip guys, that are thinking about coming to Grambling," said Spears, smiling widely.

Some coaches, too.

But Spears was talking like a man who may have just saved his job. He knew that, too.

NICK DERISO, named columnist of the year this summer by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association, is sports editor at The News-Star, 411 N. Fourth St., Monroe, La., 71201. Contact him at (318) 362-0233 or at