Friday, November 09, 2007

Remembering: How ULM/Grambling happened

Nick's note: As Grambling prepares for its Saturday game against nearby Louisiana-Monroe, we take a look back at the two-year period leading up to this first-ever match up of programs located less than 40 miles -- but, when it came to football, worlds -- apart:

Grambling, ULM discuss gridiron clash
January 14, 2005

By Paul J. Letlow and Nick Deriso
Officials at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and Grambling State University have discussed a historic first meeting in football that could take place in the 2005 season.

ULM athletics director Bobby Staub said he stopped in Grambling on a recent drive from Dallas to visit with GSU vice president for finance Billy Owens.

The two discussed the potential of such a game, and conversation is ongoing.

"We've played them in other sports," Staub said. "I sat down with Billy three months ago to investigate the possibilities of playing

"The bottom line is that trying to find dates that work makes things problematic."

While both sides have been receptive, working out the scheduling matrix has proved to be an obstacle.

"The dates didn't work, but we agreed to stay in touch," Staub said.

Staub and new GSU athletics director Willie Jeffries have not met, but Jeffries said he spoke to ULM coach Charlie Weatherbie about playing as recently as Wednesday.

"We talked this week," said Jeffries, who arrived on campus Jan. 4. "We're looking into the game, and Monroe itself. We'd like to explore the willingness of the city's businesses to sponsor an event like this."

Owens said he is awaiting word from Jeffries on moving forward.

Although its philosophy involves scheduling more non-conference I-A home opponents, ULM has played host to Division I-AA teams from other Louisiana universities - Nicholls State, Northwestern State and McNeese State - in recent years.

Grambling State has played San Jose State and Louisville, both members of college football's top classification.

Staub said the game could be a box-office smash, long-missed at ULM.

"It's like the benefits of us and Louisiana Tech playing," Staub said. "It's a school 30 miles down the road. My bottom line is: Who can we bring in to energize the fan base, put fannies in the seats and generate revenue?"

Fans had a positive reaction, too: "The atmosphere would be electric and the rivalry could be extended beyond one game," said Grambling resident Paul Taylor, a fixture at GSU practices and games. "Not only could this be a classic game, but it would help ULM's bid to stay in I-A football with a sellout crowd."

GSU has been there before:

That 2003 visit to San Jose State - a market that has struggled to generate football attendance - helped the Trojans to their first sellout in 13 years. SJSU is a member of the Western Athletic Conference, along with Louisiana Tech.

The timing of these talks, even if an on-field meeting isn't arranged this year, is fortuitous.

In an interview with The News-Star published Sunday, University of Louisiana System president Sally Clausen said she would like to see ULM, GSU and Louisiana Tech compete against each other more often.

Meetings among the three have occurred only occasionally over the years.

ULM and Grambling have not played in men's basketball since the 1999-2000 season, while ULM and Tech have not played since 1990-91. Tech and Grambling have never played.

In women's basketball, ULM and Grambling played this season - but in a tournament in Mississippi. ULM and Tech have not played since 1998-99, while Tech and Grambling have never played.

In football, ULM and Tech last played in 2000.

Owens confirmed that GSU proposed playing on Oct. 17 or 24, but he said ULM couldn't make those dates. Switching Southwestern Athletic Conference games has sometimes been difficult for GSU, and could stall the proposal.

But if a date can be agreed upon, the next phase of the negotiations for a ULM-GSU match-up would involve compensation.

Grambling's budget depends heavily on checks from football games - away dates that often bring $200,000 above and beyond expenses, according to Owens. GSU would have to weigh the option of playing closer to home for a smaller paycheck, but with fewer expenses.

One solution could be a revenue-sharing plan contingent on ticket sales or attendance.

"I think it would be great if we could play," said Staub. "And hopefully we can work something out in the future."

Should the GSU game fall through, Staub said another I-AA team could fill a home date for the Indians in 2005.

"I've talked with a number of I-AA schools, including Grambling," Staub said. "We may look at a I-AA at home. If we can get a home and home with another I-A school, that may happen."

GSU meanwhile, is in a series of negotiations for games - including a possible trip back to San Jose.

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ULM vs. Grambling?!: Much obliged
Friday, January 14, 2005

By Nick Deriso
Thank you, Bobby Staub.

Thank you, Willie Jeffries.

Thanks for arriving here with open eyes and open hearts. To think, Louisiana-Monroe and Grambling State - just 37 mile markers apart down Interstate 20 - have never played football.

They could now, since ULM's Staub and GSU's Jeffries both say they are open to the idea. A game has been discussed for several weeks, with a date and financial considerations the lingering sticking points.

Both seem like small concerns after so much history has already been lost.

Imagine Heisman winner John David Crow coaching the Indians in 1975 against an Eddie Robinson team that included future Southwestern Athletic Conference Hall of Famers Doug Williams and Sammie White.

Grambling was founded in 1901; ULM followed 30 seasons later. All-time record on the gridiron: 0-0.


Apparently, nobody dared to question that before you guys, named athletics director at ULM and GSU in the past few months. Thank you.

This will inevitably lead to a discussion about the fading ULM rivalry with Louisiana Tech - if only because GSU would have to drive through Ruston to play the Indians.

But while the surface issues might seem the same - after all, is there a better way to spike revenue than with a local rivalry? - this proposal involving Grambling must inevitably have a different resonance.

ULM, whatever its actual racial makeup, is considered a primarily white institution. GSU is perhaps the nation's best-known historically black college.

Thirty-seven miles. Yet, so far apart.

But does that really mean they can't play football? No. At least, I hope not.

Looks like you guys, around football so long, think they should too.

Sure, people will always take sides in this game. But, at its best, that's not because anyone is white or black. Players of all races and religions are booed and cheered, benched and idolized.

Sports are a great equalizer. But you already know that. And I thank you for it.

Thanks for realizing that this dialogue, even if nothing has come of it just yet, is its own reconciliation for a town still shuddering from questions of race in a police shooting.

Jeffries, the first black coach of a Division I-A program, put things in perspective: "It's a football game, but it could be so much more."

Thanks for seeing that. For knowing it in your heart.

Now, there are stumbling blocks.

GSU has to have guaranteed money from its football schedule to float its budget, a situation that was complicated by the SWAC's decision to mandate nine conference games per season. Playing ULM must make financial sense.

Would GSU keep driving down the interstate, whatever the cash incentive, if it suffered a losing streak like Tech had against the Indians in the 1980s?

And what if, by some chance, the Indians lose to these Division I-AA Tigers?

"A game like this is a recruitment game, with the winner getting first dibs on prized Monroe recruits," said GSU fan Paul Taylor of Grambling. "It could mean an end to the coach at ULM if he loses."

Still, a possibility like this kindles so many larger hopes.

Can we make this work? Can we have fun doing it?

There are those Indians fans who might never venture to tiny Grambling to see the World Famed Tiger Marching Band. There are those GSU supporters who have never seen the wildly energetic coaching style of Indians coach Charlie Weatherbie.

They sit, in this conversation, not 37 miles apart … but side by side at Malone Stadium - as a community.

Thanks, most of all, for that.

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'Great for fans': Grambling to play ULM
First meeting for schools set for Nov. 10 at Malone
Sunday, February 18, 2007

By Nick Deriso
The University of Louisiana at Monroe has never met Grambling State on the football field.

Until now.

The two area programs will play Nov. 10 for the first time ever, in a match scheduled for Malone Stadium in Monroe.

ULM athletics director Bobby Staub has confirmed contracts have been signed, though details of Grambling's payout were not released.

"Any time you get to play someone in close proximity, it's a benefit," Staub said. "We were able to work it out in a way that was good for both of us."

The ULM-Grambling game will mark the first between area schools since the Warhawks were crushed 42-19 at home by Louisiana Tech seven seasons ago. That series was played from 1953-2000, with an overall record of 29-14 in the Bulldogs' favor.

The Division I-AA Grambling, meanwhile, established a pattern of playing upper division opponents over the years — a run that includes Louisville, San Jose State, Washington State and the University of Houston since 2000 — but has yet to face either of northern Louisiana's I-A programs.

"It's something that could grow," said Grambling athletics director Troy Mathieu. "It's essentially a home game for each of us, and that's great for fans."

ULM and Grambling were nearing a contract to play in 2005, but Staub could not come to an agreement with former GSU athletics director Willie Jeffries. The Tigers ultimately scheduled Pac-10 foe Washington State, and a subsequent stumble at Seattle was their only loss in an 11-1 campaign two seasons ago.

"The fan interest has always been there," said Sicily Island native Michael Watson, a 1977 Grambling graduate. "Now, the two schools have finally decided to take advantage of this money-making opportunity. This will be an economic boost to the northeast Louisiana region. The civic and business leaders need to really put a cooperative effort into making this game a huge event."

The Nov. 10 playing date comes at a key time in the season for Grambling, which needed an out-of-conference opponent to keep from sitting out consecutive Saturdays before its in-state rivalry game against Southern in New Orleans.

"I like where it falls on the schedule, in terms of helping to keep our players focused for what could have been almost a month between games," Mathieu said.

The Warhawks opened their 2006 season at home with Alcorn State, which — like Grambling — is a member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. The Thursday night game drew a season-high Malone Stadium crowd of 18,106.

Staub said the success of that contest had little impact in signing Grambling to play this year.

"We weren't looking for any one conference to play against," Staub said. "You just try your best to start close to home, and Grambling worked out. At the end of the day, you are trying to sell tickets — and we think Grambling will do that."

ULM opens this season with Tulsa at Malone Stadium and is scheduled to play nonconference games at Clemson and Texas A&M in September — along with a visit to Alabama in November. Grambling has already filled its other nonconference date in 2007 with the University of Pittsburgh in a game to be played Sept. 8.

The Warhawks also play three Sun Belt Conference games at home. GSU plays Alabama A&M, Mississippi Valley and Texas Southern at Robinson Stadium, then travels to play Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Jackson State, Alabama State and Alcorn State.

Grambling's annual games against Prairie View A&M and Southern are played at neutral sites.

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For fans, ULM-Grambling game well worth the wait
Sunday, February 18, 2007

By Nick Deriso
Exuberant local fans are hailing a once-in-a-lifetime football game between ULM and Grambling.

The talk wasn't of a shared, but separate, history — but of bragging rights around town.

"At last! This game is long overdue," said Grambling supporter Michael Watson of Sicily Island. "I've been waiting on this game since my collegiate days in the mid-70s. We really used to run a lot of smack back and forth about a possible gridiron match up."

School officials have confirmed that ULM will play host to Grambling on Nov. 10, a first for the two teams.

"It could be an exciting opportunity for both programs," said ULM supporter Tim Holcomb, a News-Star fan blogger. "Regional match ups like this always seem to carry a little bit more emotion — and the large crowd that the two teams are likely to draw sure seems to make it a win-win for both schools."

ULM hit the gridiron for the first time in 1951, establishing a 225-333-8 overall record. Its 1994 move up to I-A followed a national championship six years earlier in the lower classification, when ULM was known as Northeast Louisiana.

Over that span, the Warhawks have won five league titles — four in the Southland (1983, '87, '90 and '92) and one in the Sun Belt (2005).

Famous ULM products include Super Bowl quarterback Stan Humphries. Heisman Trophy winner John David Crow also coached at the school for six seasons beginning in 1975.

For years, ULM's biggest regional rivalry was nearby Louisiana Tech, but that series has gone dormant since 2000. This is the second time school officials have contacted Grambling about an out-of-conference date; details couldn't be worked out before the 2005 season.

"I think it's a great idea," said Warhawks fan Chris Rightsell. "I think ULM and Louisiana Tech should follow suit."

Grambling got started much earlier than ULM, fielding its initial football squad in 1928.

Coach Eddie Robinson (1941-97) oversaw a Division I-record 408 of the historically black college's 484 all-time victories. No historical I-A program has a better winning percentage except Yale.

Along the way, GSU earned 21 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles. Seventeen came under Robinson, a coaching legend who sent hundreds of players into the NFL — including four Pro Football Hall of Famers and Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams, his eventual successor.

"Grambling's football achievements are well known, and the list of athletes it has produced over the years is equally impressive," Holcomb said. "For them, the match up with ULM offers the opportunity to evaluate themselves against I-A competition. For ULM, a game with Grambling would add another much-needed home game to our schedule."

Both schools have rosters dotted with local talent, creating still more intriguing storylines.

ULM signee Antron Mason, for instance, succeeded current Grambling starter Brandon Landers as quarterback at Carroll High in Monroe.

"I think that game happening for the first time ever is great," he said. "I've got some former teammates who play for Grambling — Jesse Smith, Desmond Lenard. It will be fun to play and fun to see."

Oddly, ULM and Grambling have faced off in other sports. They played a women's basketball game in 2004-05 and a men's contest in 1999-2000.

But never in football. That's made this game — even if the one-year contract is never renewed — an instant classic.

"Let's just say that the Warhawks better be ready for battle," Watson said. "We're gonna come to Malone Stadium to show y'all how to tailgate before and after a big victory!"

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