Sunday, August 20, 2006

On Melvin Spears and Grambling

August 24, 2003

By Nick Deriso
Grambling State University offensive coordinator Melvin Spears can look to some stunning accomplishments on the field since being hired by Doug Williams six years ago.

His unit broke 16 GSU single-season records last year alone. Spears also spearheaded a new strength and conditioning program.

Spend much time with Spears, however, and you'll find he brings the conversation back around to one specific stat: The number of players who have graduated from GSU.

News-Star sports editor Nick Deriso talks to Spears about the team's goals, both in and out of pads:

What's the secret to Grambling State's success since you've been coaching - not just on the field, but in the classroom? After all, you had 16 get diplomas last season.
We look at the players from an overall standpoint. We say all the time: Our main objective is to get them ready for corporate America. They've got to understand different types of roles. There are leadership roles, but the support guys - those coming in and out of the ballgame - have to understand what their roles may be, too.

You've taken a player like Bruce Eugene, who started as a rough-around-the-edges sophomore, and turned him into a record-breaking quarterback - but also an honor student.
Over time, giving him our tutelage, he's starting to step up to the place where we know he can be. He's applying himself in the classroom, and applying himself on the field. He's done a real, real good job.

Bruce is part of a powerful offense, one with a batch of speedy receivers - but also one with more potential at running back.
One of the things we focused on in the recruiting process was looking for guys with great speed. We had the opportunity to bring some speedy guys in to supplement Tramon Douglas. The thing we've always missed is having a real good fullback. Now that we have one with Rueben Mays (a University of Tennessee transfer), you'll see us with two wide receivers, a tight end and two backs.

That's got to make your SWAC opponents nervous.
When you talk about athletes, I think we have as good a group as anybody in the country - bar none. It's because of the recruiting process. We have a number of kids who were highly recruited, but whose fathers and mothers went to school here. They know that our retention ratio has been so great. We have graduated 82 kids in the last four years. When you have that kind of retention, it means you're going to have a pretty good football team.

It's also easier to recruit when you're talking to mama and daddy about scoring touchdowns - but also about seeing their son graduate, right?
(Laughs) No doubt! No doubt.

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GSU success earns Spears national honor
August 31, 2003

As Grambling State convenes for practice tonight, there will be another trophy on the mantel - only this time, it's not for one of the players. Or even for head coach Doug Williams.

Melvin Spears has been named the Division I-AA offensive coordinator of the year by "American Football Monthly" magazine.

Spears helped construct an offense that raced past the Southwestern Athletic Conference last year, ranking first in the nation in both I-AA passing offense and scoring offense. The unit also smashed 14 school and several other conference records on the way to Grambling State's third straight SWAC championship.

"I think it is wonderful - even though I was a bit surprised," Spears said. "It just says a whole lot about our team. I think it is a team award, because I could not get anything done without those 12 guys paying attention to the detail portion of the things that we do."

Williams said the recognition is well deserved.

"I don't care who the head coach is," he said, "there is always someone doing the dirty work when he's not around. When not only the players, but the assistant coaches get rewarded like this, it makes the championships even more special."

Williams hired Spears, an Alcorn State alum, six seasons ago. He'd had coaching stints in Arizona and Maryland.

"My hat goes off to Coach Williams who brought us all on board and put together a pretty good team," Spears said, giving credit to the rest of his staff.

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Grambling's Melvin Spears won't let any criticism keep him from churning out victories
November 20, 2005

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Throwback conundrum, old-school character, popular curbside topic of conversation from rough-hewn back streets to tree-dotted cul-de-sacs.

We are witnessing in Grambling State coach Melvin Spears the birth of what is, at once, all of those things.

A year ago this week, Spears beat Southern, GSU's signature rival, in the nationally televised Bayou Classic.

Once a largely unknown assistant under Doug Williams, Spears is now working under a multi-year contract — and has coached this Grambling team to a spotless league record in 2005. Still, he is someone who encounters controversy as easily as his pass-first offenses find the end zone.

Spears wrapped up a berth to GSU's conference championship game before Halloween. His quarterback is Division I-AA's active career leader in total yards from scrimmage.

Yet one popular poll this week on, a message board devoted to athletics in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, perfectly sums up the sometimes-paradoxical nature of this Grambling coach.

The simple query: "Melvin Spears: Classless, or Kick A—?"

As Spears prepares for a return this week to the Bayou Classic, his insoluble nature remains as much as mystery to some as the day Williams, his first cousin, hired Spears in 1998 as offensive coordinator.

He's a guy who had his players pay tribute to a legendary influence like former GSU coach Eddie Robinson, but also publicly demanded a forfeit when a competing school's officials said they couldn't play in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

He is a coach who took the team on a tour of historical landmarks from the Civil Rights era before a critical game against the defending SWAC champion in Montgomery. But also the one who stuck with his starters after halftime in eye-popping blowouts over Prairie View and a first-year NAIA program.

He is a man who wears sunglasses at night.

Spears' eyes began to falter during a stint as a computer programmer after graduating from Alcorn State.

"One day I woke up, and I couldn't see at all," said Spears. "I was blind, basically."

After a series of tests for light sensitivity, Spears underwent a cornea transplant in his left eye. He said he has worn shades ever since to keep his vision from degenerating any further.

"People talk about intimidation with these glasses," said Spears, chuckling at the thought. "They are just something I need to operate day to day."

Those shades became his persona, and probably his defense mechanism, in the dark days after Williams suddenly resigned in February 2004 for a job in the NFL.

This should have been the time of his life. After all, Spears would quickly be named interim — something he called a dream job.

But some were slow to accept Spears. He almost immediately became ensnared in a series of alumni-generated tempests — including a resume inquiry sparked by an anonymous fax to the state board that oversees GSU.

"There were always people," Williams said this week, "who wanted to see him fail."

That was simply the first tumbling pebble in an eventual avalanche of misfortune last season.

Spears and his staff worked through the inevitable learning curve. Worse than that, though, were mounting injuries — none more damaging than the blown knee of senior quarterback Bruce Eugene.

Spears struggled to a 6-5 record, losing every home game — something that had never happened at Grambling in records going back to 1950.

"I did a whole lot of praying, a whole lot of soul searching," Spears said.

Perhaps never more than in those moments after a tough loss on homecoming.

Spears' office, like Williams' before him, is usually a bustling corner of activity after games — with fans, alumni and parents milling about.

Not this time. Spears sat alone behind his desk for hours, thinking about what might have been.
"There was nobody around," Spears said. "I was here until early into the night. If not for my faith, in God and in this program ..."

After a long pause, Spears continued: "That's got us over the hump."

Success against Southern, always critical, had never held more portent. A victory there meant job security. Next came a medical waiver for Eugene by the NCAA.

A year later, Spears enters the Bayou Classic on a seven-game winning streak. But even that has not been without controversy, as GSU galloped past conference opponents by an average of almost four touchdowns per game.

Along the way, Spears went for two with 34 seconds left in the Western Division title-clinching 58-21 win over Texas Southern. Then there was that lopsided 82-7 victory over the embryonic Concordia College.

"Many share the opinion that acts like a two-point conversion attempt in the final seconds of a long-since decided game does not exude class or sportsmanship," said Donavan Simmons, a 1997 GSU graduate who played as a redshirt freshman for Robinson.

SWAC beat writer Josh Moon, in a stinging piece on Friday, wrote: "I can't wait on karma to catch up with this guy."

But Spears doesn't see the point in telling young people not to give their all, and doesn't believe that the other team wouldn't have won by that same margin if it could.

"We stress that our players shouldn't play down to the level of the competition," Spears said, smoothly deflecting. "Our job is to go out and play Tiger football."

Winning has allowed Spears to relax. He's even taken to letting Eugene call some plays.
In this very action, Spears seems to be allowing himself to grow into the job.

And, save for an expected stumble against Division I-A opponent Washington State in its second game, Grambling has made good on that confidence.

"Spears is creating a mindset throughout the entire team that it's full speed until the final gun," said long-time supporter Michael Watson, a GSU product from Sicily Island. "Critics focus on the offensive scoring, but fail to notice that this non-stop mentality permeates the entire squad. Spears has this team locked into being the best it can be on every play, every day."

The son of Melvin Sr. and Edith Matthews Spears, GSU's coach grew up in Clinton, and said he always followed his maternal cousin Doug around.

"When you talk about role models, I will always start with my mom and dad," said Spears, who shares Edith's temperament and style. "The next guy in line, though, is Doug Williams. Always has been, always will be."

It just took Spears 20 years to follow him all the way to Grambling.

While Williams signed to play collegiate football for Eddie Robinson, Spears says he chose conference foe Alcorn only because he didn't want to sit behind his talented older relative on the depth chart. Spears would play for another football legend — Marino Casem, known as "The Godfather of the SWAC."

"We ran the Wing-T, much the same as Eddie did," said Casem, who coached at Alcorn from 1966-86 and later was an administrator at Southern.

"Melvin ran the counter trap as well as anyone has run that thing for me," Casem said. "He might not have been as fast as the Trumaine Johnsons and the Sammy Whites that Grambling had playing that position, but he ran it as well because he knew the system."

In fact, Spears played in modified versions of the GSU offense both under Casem and at Clinton High School — where his coach was a former member of that legendary 1942 Grambling squad that went unbeaten and unscored upon for Robinson.

"Grambling," Spears said, "always seemed to be around."

Spears left computer work for coaching in the 1990s. He was defensive coordinator at Morgan State, his first collegiate work, when a call from Williams reunited the two.

"I have known Melvin all my life," Williams said this week. "I had no idea then that he would end up being the coach and what he would go through. I just felt comfortable with him."

Spears would switch sides, serving as offensive coordinator at Grambling for the next six seasons. That versatility was something his former coach at Alcorn recognized in Spears even as a youngster.

"He was smart and he knew the system as well as some of the coaches," Casem said. "He also knew all the other positions. I knew in my innermost being that he would be a success as a coach."

Spears' offenses, which topped I-AA for production in 2002, were an important cog in Williams' run of three straight SWAC titles beginning in 2000.

Randy Hymes, one of the most celebrated former players from that period, is now a receiver with the NFL's Baltimore Ravens.

"Everybody knew in the league that I was coached by Doug Williams, but I am always speaking Coach Spears' name to people," said Hymes. "I remind them that there was somebody right there beside Doug Williams."

Still, when Spears stepped out of the former Super Bowl MVP's considerable shadow last year, Spears found the spotlight to be searing and unforgiving — even behind those ever-present shades.

He seemed to take from that the lesson that a coach had to win to make his way at Grambling, and win big.

Texas Southern shouldn't feel bad, the on-campus joke goes. This guy is so hard that he cut his own son.

Spears, divorced years ago, actually became closer with his kids once he came back to Louisiana — since they were living in Baton Rouge and he was coaching in Baltimore.

Spears' three older children — Seana, Kulmoris and Jerome, the former tight end — have all gone to Grambling State. His youngest son Sean is a fixture around the program.

But when Jerome didn't live up to expectations, he was taken off the roster.

As a father, he said that hurt. But Spears knew, as a coach, there was no other way.

"It was," he said, "business."

Spears took the same approach with the hurricane game, saying it could have been played as scheduled by two schools that were outside Katrina's destructive path.

It's that simple with him, and that complicated.

Eventually, Spears' relationship with Williams came to take on this now-familiar dichotomy.
The two speak infrequently these days. Both seem to be concerned with their legacy at Grambling, and they are at different points in that journey.

"Eddie Robinson set this stage, then Doug Williams followed," Spears said this week, in a familiar refrain. "This is just something I am building upon."

Spears is fond of recalling Robinson's big wins, and his most well-known quotes. That doesn't always sit well with Williams, who wonders aloud about how politics inspires those statements.
There are those in the old guard, however, who revel in them.

"Melvin has recognized the great contributions that Eddie Robinson made to Grambling and to football in general," said Casem, himself an old friend of Robinson's. "I think some haven't appreciated it as much as Melvin does."

Longtime former baseball coach and athletics administrator Wilbert Ellis could be seen last week taking Spears aside at a benefit banquet for the proposed Eddie Robinson Museum, and putting a hand on Spears' shoulder.

"I'm proud of you, son," said Ellis. "You have done well by my alma mater."

Spears' team is favored to win a second consecutive Bayou Classic this week — something that hasn't happened at Grambling since 1989-90.

Some might assume Spears would relax. If only. That's not Spears' style.

Practice on Wednesday, the midpoint of a bye week, ran more than 40 minutes late. Then there were meetings and tape to break down.

"It must be said that Melvin Spears longs for greatness," said Simmons, a fan who has begun to warm to Spears after heavily criticizing both his selection and the season that followed.

"Perfect, he is not," Simmons adds. "Passionate and committed, he is."

Spears remained at work in the stadium support facility on Wednesday night as chill and darkness fell all around Grambling.

"I didn't even go here," he said, smiling broadly. "But nobody can out-Grambling me."

In that canny modification of Robinson's oft-told quote on patriotism, Spears would acknowledge — even if it was unintentionally — his story's two sides, his fundamental contrasts.

And, perhaps, what his ultimate goal was all along.

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Grambling's Spears let go after 3 seasons as coach
'I hate to see any man get fired, but Spears may have doomed himself with other things besides wins and losses'
December 19, 2006

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — The roller-coaster ride for Grambling State University coach Melvin Spears ended Monday with his abrupt termination by school officials.

A career at GSU marked by dramatic highs and just as incredible lows never had a chance to plateau after a 3-8 season — just the third time in 60 years that Grambling has lost as many as eight times. GSU dropped six 2006 contests by a touchdown or less, two in overtime.

"We lost a lot of close games," said redshirt sophomore quarterback Brandon Landers, a Monroe native. "That's why I think he should have been given another chance."

Grambling issued a news release shortly after broke the story on Monday afternoon that Spears would not return for a fourth season. He finishes at Grambling with a 20-14 record.

Reached on Monday, Spears said he was given no reason for the firing, only that it was "an at-will termination."

In the prepared statement, GSU president Horace Judson said, "It is time to change the direction of Grambling's football program. ... This was a difficult decision, but I believe it is in the best interests of the university and the football program."

Judson said the school hopes to have a new coach in place by mid-January and that longtime assistant Sammy White — a former all-conference wingback at Grambling — will serve as interim head coach until a replacement is found.

Spears was hired by former GSU coach Doug Williams in 1998 as offensive coordinator. He helped craft a unit that led Grambling to three consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference titles, 2000-02. Spears served as interim coach in 2004 after Williams resigned to take a personnel job with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But quarterback Bruce Eugene was felled by a knee injury in the opening game, and Spears needed to win three of his final four — including the season-ending Bayou Classic rivalry game against Southern — just to post a 6-5 mark.

Spears received a five-year deal in the offseason before 2005 — largely, some believed, because of that Bayou Classic win — and went on to win two in a row against Southern.

Eugene's return helped Grambling storm through the SWAC to an 11-1 record and another championship in '05. After beating league opponents by an average of more than three touchdowns, Spears was named SWAC coach of the year.Next, however, came a three-win debacle in 2006.

"I hate to see any man get fired, but Spears may have doomed himself with other things besides wins and losses," said Grambling resident Paul Taylor, a News-Star fan blogger.

Spears' year was bookended by controversy, beginning with a NCAA inquiry launched in January. The probe, which is ongoing, reportedly focused on the eligibility of a series of transfer players.

Spears then became embroiled in another investigation, this one internal, after drug tests were administered to some football players just days after an embarrassing homecoming loss last November.

The University of Louisiana System also reportedly looked into that matter, which might have sped Spears' demise.

Even before his first season in 2004, an anonymous tip to the ULS board led to a probe that uncovered inaccuracies on Spears' resume. Spears flew to Arizona, where he completed routine paperwork and received a master's degree that he had long listed among his credentials but never received.

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Spears' fate tied to QBs
Coach's championship season sandwiched by inconsistency
December 19, 2006

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Grambling State's Melvin Spears got much different results without Bruce Eugene under center.

Together, they swept through the Southwestern Athletic Conference in 2005, rewriting record books on the way to an undefeated league mark.

Apart, Spears managed just nine wins over two seasons. First, there was the 6-5 interim campaign in 2004, when Eugene was lost to a knee injury. Next came a dismal 3-8 slump in the just-completed '06 campaign, after Eugene's eligibility ran out.

"It was a situation where as a team, we didn't prove we could win without Bruce," said senior GSU receiver Henry Tolbert. "It started to seem like he was the thing that kept us above water."

Grambling has an historical average of just three losses per year during the past 60 years — a mark that was mirrored by former coach Doug Williams, who originally hired Spears as offensive coordinator, over the 1998-2003 seasons.

During that span, GSU would win a trio of league titles in 2000-02 under Williams and then again with Spears in 2005. The Tigers were also just one win away from the title match in both 1999 and 2003.

That very consistency made Spears' skids without Eugene all the more dramatic.

Spears cleared out his office on Monday afternoon, and took stock of his wild ride.

"I've been blessed to carry on the legacy of (former GSU coach) Eddie Robinson, Doug Williams and all those players who came before me," Spears said. "We won four championships, three as offensive coordinator and one as a head coach — and we graduated a lot of players. That's the important part."

Grambling had only dropped as many as eight games in a single season on two previous occasions, both in the twilight of Robinson's storied tenure.

Still, GSU kept most of its losses extremely close in 2006, falling by an average of just eight points. That had some players thinking Spears would be given another season to straighten things out.

"I just think he should have been given a chance to pull out of it," said redshirt sophomore quarterback Brandon Landers, who took the majority of the snaps this season.

Said Tolbert: "Everyone thinks we should always win at Grambling; that's the way it is. But how could you be in love with a coach one year and the next, he's out the door? I can't say I agree with it."

Not everyone wanted Spears to stay, including those still outraged over a late-season drug-testing controversy.

Asked after the finale against Alcorn State if he would return next season, backup sophomore quarterback Al Hawkins said: "Not if he does," referring to Spears.

Hawkins was one of several players to be tested in November, just weeks before the nationally televised Bayou Classic. Their families said they received signed letters from Spears that detailed the results, possibly violating privacy laws.

GSU quickly opened an investigation, one that focused on testing and reporting protocol. The University of Louisiana System Board, which oversees Grambling, also looked into the matter.
That, coupled with the NCAA's ongoing probe into the football program, may have proved to be the tipping point for Spears. GSU officials are not commenting on what precipitated his termination.

D'Wayne Priestly, a vocal booster, called the testing improper and said it left Grambling with no other choice.

"As a GSU alum, I opine this termination had to be done, to maintain the credibility and integrity of the university and its administration — not for Mr. Spears' 2006 record of 3-8, but for the misusage of drug testing practice and procedures," Priestly wrote in an e-mail sent overnight to Grambling President Horace Judson and copied to athletics director Troy Mathieu.

Spears said he was unsure late Monday how the remaining portion of his five-year contract, signed two seasons ago, would be handled.

Spears had a base salary of $150,000, which at the time made him the second-best paid coach in the SWAC behind Southern's Pete Richardson.

A final three-victory season meant Spears missed out on several incentives that pushed him closer to $200,000 in 2005 — including winning a conference title ($7,500), being named national black college champion ($5,000) and winning eight or more games ($5,000).
Without Eugene, everything changed.

"At Grambling, high expectations are part of the deal for the coach — and the quarterback," said Landers, a Carroll High product. "But from the outside looking in, people don't know what Coach Spears meant to this team. From champions to 3-8, I know was tough. But it (his firing) came as a surprise."

Photographs hanging throughout the Robinson Stadium Support Facility, framed in gold, feature Spears, Williams and Eugene during activities leading up to the 2005 SWAC Championship Game.

On Monday, that seemed like a very long time ago. Much longer than one calendar year.

"I'll have to thank Doug for giving me this opportunity," Spears said, finally. "I've cherished these moments."

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