Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Remembering: Grambling enters period of turmoil

Nick's note: This was, of course, just the beginning of a remarkable period of change for Grambling at the dawn of the administration of school president Horace Judson (pictured at right). In the four years that followed, Grambling would see Willie Jeffries come and go as athletics director, followed by an interim and then Troy Mathieu. Spears would be let go in 2006 and replaced by Rod Broadway. Then, in a series of shattering losses over an eight-month period, Grambling would mark the passings of seminal legends Collie J. Nicholson (September 2006) -- who is extensively quoted in the following piece -- then Ernie Ladd (March 2007) and Eddie Robinson (April 2007).

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Back to earth
The good ol' days of steadiness in the GSU athletics department are over.
July 12, 2004

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Will Grambling State ever again see the bedrock stability it once knew?

Not in today's topsy-turvy world, said Collie J. Nicholson, the sports information director at GSU for 30 years, beginning in 1948.

But even Nicholson is taken back by 2004's evolving situation. "There have been changes made over the years," he said, "but not to this degree."

A year ago, fans of the Grambling State football program were still savoring a third consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference championship.

The Tigers didn't add a fourth - finishing with a respectable nine wins, but still one game short of the 2003 SWAC title game in Birmingham.

A year ago, Michael Roach, coordinator for each of those championship teams, was running GSU's defense. One game into the 2003 season, he resigned - citing personal and family concerns.

A year ago, receiver Tramon Douglas had just broken future Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Rice's conference record for receiving yards. An off-season injury would so alter his senior season that Douglas would go undrafted by the NFL.

Heishma Northern, in his sixth season at Grambling as coach of defensive backs and special teams, took over for Roach. Defensive line coach Gabe Northern, in his third season with the Tigers, handled the linebackers last season.

But as 2004 dawned, Heishma Northern was not asked to continue as defensive coordinator. Gabe Northern was fired.

Coach Doug Williams, the architect of GSU's first SWAC titles and first winning seasons since 1994, hired Tom Lavigne as defensive coordinator - but would resign his post before Lavigne took over. Williams is now with the NFL's Tampa Bay franchise.

Lavigne, a GSU graduate, was subsequently fired by interim head coach Melvin Spears, Williams' long-time offensive coordinator and assistant head coach.

A year ago, Albert Dennis III - a former player whose father was also one of Robinson's first team captains - was the athletics director. He had overseen three conference titles in football, the completion of a new baseball facility and the groundbreaking on a basketball gym.

But, after the University of Louisiana System board hired Horace Judson as new president for GSU, Judson fired Dennis on his first official day in office.

Then, an item on Spears' resume came into question - a situation that was apparently resolved after a trip to Northern Arizona University over the weekend.

All of this turbulence seems particularly noteworthy when placed alongside a bit of relevant trivia: Williams was just the second GSU coach since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency.

Eddie Robinson had earned 408 career victories from 1941 through 1997, setting an all-time record for wins that would stand until last season - and he did it all at this country school, located in the hills of western Lincoln Parish.

Williams, his replacement, would coach for 51 fewer years at Grambling. A school that was the very model of stability has apparently caught up with the times.

"I don't think it will ever be as stable as it used to be," Nicholson said. "Things have changed to such a degree, that I think this is the norm nowadays."

Questions about a master's degree from Northern Arizona prompted Spears to travel to Flagstaff to resolve the issue over the weekend. A dean there confirmed to The News-Star on Friday that Spears had completed the required courses, but still needed to finish minor paperwork to receive his degree. His transcript was expected to be updated early this week.

"Really it's a question of having a degree posted, not having completed the degree requirements," said William Wright, chair of the department of research, foundations and leadership - in which Spears studied at Northern Arizona from 1993 until taking job with Williams before then 1998 season.

But that still leaves the question of who will be athletics director at Grambling State - and what all of this has done to a team that some expected to return to championship form in 2004.

"My first concern," said Williams, upon hearing that Spears' resume was under review, "is for those players. I pray for them."

So far, the team has tried to carry on as usual, said senior linebacker Kenneth Pettway.

"When it involves your coach, it's going to be on the players' mind all the time," Pettway said. "He comes in every morning, then to every workout every evening. He's in his office if you need someone to talk to. Then, when there comes a time that he might not be there, it's difficult for the team."

Judson hasn't officially addressed the AD situation since asking Dennis to step down more than a week ago.

While the school rebounded in football during Dennis' tenure, Grambling State hasn't captured the SWAC Commissioner's Cup, an all-sports trophy, since 1997-98 - the last year before Dennis took over for Robert Piper.

Left unfinished is an away game against Mississippi Valley, which outside promoters hoped to move from Itta Bena, Miss., to Chicago's Soldier Field. Dennis said just days before he was fired that GSU had still not completed negotiations on moving that contest.

Then, there is the opening for a defensive coordinator. Spears was reviewing applications before questions about his resume had him on a plane to Arizona.

"I've got applications coming in, but the administration hasn't signed off on the new job description for the position. Until that point, we are not ready to comment," he said last week. "A bunch of guys have sent resumes. Quite naturally, you're talking about Grambling, so a lot of people are going to be interested."

Despite such upheaval, GSU assistant Mark Hall still leads the team in a tough but reliable regimen of weights and summertime conditioning. Players say there's nothing more that can be done, during this off-season of change.

"It must be very difficult for them to understand that these problems are off the field," said Nicholson, major architect of the legendary Bayou Classic. "But they can still make Grambling proud."

A year ago, the path didn't seem so rocky. But Pettway says that doesn't mean the team is confused about what's ahead.

"As a team we came together and had a meeting," said Pettway, a 2003 transfer from Southern Arkansas who was this past spring's most impressive performer. "Our workout stayed intense. We still show up for running every day. Even though things are going on around the team, our goal remains the same: To win the championship. We are staying focused, even though things are going on."

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