As they emerged from the locker room, Grambling players were gutted. Sport coats and ties could not distract from their watery eyes. It is something you are not supposed to see, a private moment between these young men and the game they just played.
The celebratory pulse from the Southern band thumped around them. Their head coach had just told them it was okay to cry as long as they kept their heads up. He knew how they felt; he was once a Tiger running back who played in four Bayou Classics, including a gut-wrenching, five-point loss in his final season. He reminded them of the incredible progress they had made since January, when his journey with them had begun. But grieving requires time, and only minutes before, they had watched dreams -- a SWAC title, a series lead against their biggest rival -- die inches short of the end zone.
New Orleans lives on its own. The names and faces change. New bodies occupy old spirits. Different bands play the same songs each night, as different party-goers of all ages, ethnicities, and denominations leave their heads on Bourbon Street. The id of the city controls whoever occupies it.
The 24 hours from Friday evening's Battle of the Bands through Saturday afternoon's game are one of the most complete college football days on the calendar.
On one weekend late in each year, New Orleans donates itself to the Bayou Classic. Southern University and Grambling State put on a show. The 24 hours from Friday evening's Battle of the Bands through Saturday afternoon's game are one of the most complete college football days on the calendar.
And these universities, alumni, and fan bases know it. They know exactly how good their bands are. They know their brass sections will knock you to the ground. And they know that while their teams are not what they once were, football doesn't need perfection to be perfect. Heart, soul, and a classic setting will get you pretty far.
This is the pinnacle of the Southwestern Athletic Conference season, perhaps bigger than the conference title game that takes place a week later. This is a New Orleans event. The names and faces change. The bands play on.
When Grambling athletic director Aaron James was dismissed by the new Grambling president this summer, he said a variation of what most dismissed ADs at tough jobs say.
"It was very difficult," James recalled. "Anytime that you have a situation like that, it's always difficult. The only one that really gets hurt is the institution. We worked through it, and I think we came out of it much stronger as an institution and as a department."
The thing is, there is no "situation like" what Grambling was dealing with a year ago.
In the most recent data, LSU spent more than $105 million on athletics and took in revenue of more than $117 million. One state over, Texas spent almost $147 million and took in almost $166 million. Grambling State, about 220 miles northwest of Baton Rouge and about 370 miles east-northeast of Austin, spent under $8 million and took in just over $6 million.
Among public Division I schools, Grambling's revenue figures aren't actually the worst. SWAC mate Mississippi Valley State spent and took in about $4.4 million. Coppin State, a MEAC school with no football program, took in $3.4 million and spent $3.7.
We live in a college athletics universe with unprecedented amounts of money going in and heading out. A handful of power-conference football coaches are paid more than Coppin State pays for everything related to its athletics. Schools build absurd, Olympic-level facilities and repaint locker rooms every couple of years because they can't actually just pocket the money -- it has to be spent, and when you aren't paying players more than you are, that money has to go somewhere.
Talking about American college athletics in 2014 mirrors talking about general American economics and politics in 2014. That isn't much fun. On one side of the sporto-political ledger, you might find yourself saying things like "a rising tide lifts all boats" in arguing for better sharing of wealth and healthier athletic departments throughout Division I.
Meanwhile, if you are a have among a sea of have-nots, you find yourself saying things like, "Why should we share it if they are not generating it?" If you are a major-conference program, you are a corporation, one that pays a search firm hundreds of thousands to tell you to hire a coach everybody knows, one that pays a public relations firm to help your Playoff push.
In recent years, Grambling has found itself a victim of sports politics and the real kind. Already stuck with revenue about 1/20th that of Texas, GSU has also taken the brunt of concussive budget cuts to higher education in Louisiana.
But the roots of the problem go much deeper. In 2009, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal turned down stimulus money from the federal government. That same year, Jindal cut $219 million in state funds for higher education, including $5 million that would have been earmarked for Grambling. In January 2012, Jindal announced an additional mid-year budget cut of $50 million for higher education, with Grambling losing out on nearly $1 million of that total. This is not chump change.
It gets worse. According to a 2011 university financial report, Grambling's share of funding from the state of Louisiana was projected to decrease nearly 40 percent by the 2011-12 school year from its peak in 2007-08. According to Frank Pogue, the university president, that figure is now up to more than 50 percent in the last eight years. To help offset the shortfall, the school hacked some $200,000 from its athletics budget in 2010-11. And that same report called for an additional cut of $1.19 million from athletics in 2011-12.
Grambling has nearby high school talent, but with failing facilities and minimal revenue, it has been stuck in purgatory, unable to invest.
College athletics are about resources: the talent base around you, the facilities you use to develop that talent, the money you use to build the facilities that draw the talent. Grambling has nearby high school talent, but with failing facilities and minimal revenue, it has been stuck in purgatory, unable to invest. Add any extra drama to the equation, and bad things can happen quickly. For instance, players could revolt.
Popular coach and former GSU star Doug Williams was fired early in the 2013 season, and he took a lot of program support with him when he left. Players already frustrated with a lack of basics, like proper flooring in the weight room, refused to travel to Jackson State in October, and the school was forced to forfeit a game.
It went in the books as the team's 13th consecutive loss. It made some within the SWAC community wonder if GSU should even remain a part of the Bayou Classic. After winning the SWAC championship in 2011 and winning the HBCU national championship as recently as 2008, the Tigers went 2-21 overall in 2012-13.
November 29, 13 months after the boycott, Grambling had a first-and-goal with a trip to the SWAC title game on the line.
Broderick Fobbs came back to Grambling in December of last year. To take the head coaching job at GSU in 2013 would have required you to either be a crazy man or a G-Man. Fobbs is G to the core. His father, Lee, was an all-conference fullback for legendary GSU head coach Eddie Robinson; Fobbs himself came to GSU to play running back in 1992 and ended up a two-time Robinson captain.
When Robinson recruited Lee, he had already been the head coach for three decades. He had already hit the 200-win mark. He was already an institution. By the time Broderick was ready to follow in his father's footsteps, Robinson was at 370 wins and counting. But the Grambling of Lee Fobbs was different. Between 1968 and 1978, the school produced 32 draft picks (five first-rounders, including Super Bowl XXII MVP Williams in 1978) and 36 pros. Since 1996, only three Tigers have been drafted.
Still, no matter how long it had been since the program's glory days, it hadn't been that long. Fobbs, a career assistant at Louisiana-Lafayette, Northwestern State, McNeese State, and Southern Miss, thought he could see it happening again in due time. But it began almost immediately. Given a short time to recruit, a single set of spring practices, and most of the same facilities that caused a revolt in the first place, Fobbs began to rebuild. And after a slow start, the Tigers got hot.
The Tigers began the season 0-3 with semi-competitive losses to Lamar and Bethune-Cookman sandwiching a payout-game shellacking at the hands of Houston. But the Tigers beat Jackson State, 40-35, on September 20. The next week against Prairie View A&M, quarterback Johnathan Williams and his hand cannon stepped into the lineup. GSU wouldn't lose again for nearly two months.
The Tigers tripped up against Alabama State on November 15, but a Bayou Classic win would still have given them an 8-4 record, a SWAC West title, and a rematch with Alcorn State (whom GSU knocked off, 28-21, in October).
Southern University and A&M College is located on the Mulatto Bend of the Mississippi River, about 10 miles north of LSU in Baton Rouge. Because of the Robinson effect, Southern has taken on second billing in the Bayou Classic, an Auburn to Grambling's Alabama, a UCLA to GSU's USC. But that's not fair. The Jaguars have won nine HBCU national championships and had already won 10 SWAC titles by the time Grambling, a school only two-thirds Southern's size, joined the conference. Southern didn't produce a run of pros like GSU in the 1970s, but it has cranked out stars like Mel Blount, Harold Carmichael, and Aeneas Williams.
Baton Rouge is only about 90 miles from the Superdome, a hop compared to the 300 miles Grambling fans must travel. As a result of distance and recent success, Southern fans outnumber GSU fans on game day, but because heading up the morning of the game is tough to pull off, the base of GSU fans helping to clog Bourbon Street on Friday night is larger. The Southern band, the Human Jukebox, makes up the difference.
It is almost a cliché to talk about the Bayou Classic's bands. It could come across as an insult to the Classic itself and its plot twists -- Grambling wins 10 of 13 from 1974-86, Southern wins 10 of 11 from 1993-03, Grambling wins seven of 11 from 2001-11. The 2014 matchup was a tie-breaker, with the series tied at 20 wins apiece.
Still, the bands more than live up to the hype. You can watch on television. You can dig up countless YouTube clips. You can come to accurate conclusions regarding technical prowess. But you just cannot get a sense of the power.
In Friday night's Battle of the Bands event at the Superdome, Grambling's World Famed Tiger Marching Band perhaps did a better job of moving and playing at the same time. They were strong and entertaining, better than 90 percent of the marching bands you'll ever see. But Southern's band was bigger and louder. More brass. More drums. And to even a trio of 60-year old ladies riding a cab back toward downtown after the show, that makes a difference.
"I like it loud. Southern was loud."
That was far from unintentional.
"The band is larger this year. We've got more people and more energy," band director Nathan Haymer says. He took over this summer and immediately began trying to figure out ways to make an already great band greater.
"When you compare Ohio State's budget to ours, it's like comparing a steak dinner to a piece of candy."
"The band was ranked by the NCAA in January of this year as the No. 2 band in the country behind Ohio State. Now, that's an honor within itself. When you think about North Carolina or Duke, you think about basketball. Alabama and LSU, football. For Southern, it's the band. That's no slight to the football team, but the way I try to look at it, the Southern band being ranked No. 2 in the nation would be like the Southern football team being ranked No. 2 in the Playoff rankings.
"When you compare Ohio State's budget to ours, it's like comparing a steak dinner to a piece of candy. Our band has always been great, but our students are graduating with house notes because of student loans. I don't think that's right. State funds have been cut, and there's nothing we can do about that. But we wanted to raise funds. We're focusing more on marketing and branding. We've had an active campaign all fall.
"You have to keep thinking outside of the box. Ohio State has a big advantage in that their stadium holds 100,000 people. Ours holds 28,000. So more people see them. So if we want to get to No. 1, we have to do things outside of the box."
Part of that campaign: a band documentary. Does your school have its own band documentary?
The Human Jukebox owned everything from new songs to fight songs to "Purple Rain." Man, did they own "Purple Rain."
Even Grambling fans accepted that Southern had won the Battle of the Bands.
"I guess we can't sweep 'em, but we're still going to put a basketball score on 'em tomorrow."
It's easy to forgive a little bit of Grambling bravado. It's fun to take newfound confidence for a spin, give it a test drive and see how far it can take you.
(And technically Grambling did put a basketball score on them. That's a pretty nebulous term these days.)
It's also easy to forgive Southern fans for being over the Grambling redemption story. Jaguar head coach Dawson Odums has pulled off something reasonably similar. Granted, there were no boycotts and no forfeited games, and Southern's alumni base is bigger than GSU's. But the budget is only marginally broader than Grambling's, and following Pete Richardson's 17-year tenure in Baton Rouge, Southern had experienced its own slide.
Richardson took over at Southern in 1993 and proceeded to win the last five Bayou Classics of Robinson's career. Southern didn't lose to Grambling until Richardson's ninth year, and the Jaguars won four HBCU national championships and five SWAC titles between 1993 and 2003. In an atmosphere of budget parity, that's damn impressive.
Southern won 11 or more games five times in Richardson's first 11 years but averaged just 5.8 wins per season over his last five. In his final two seasons (2008-09), Southern experienced back-to-back 6-5 campaigns and losses to Grambling.
Southern looked outside the family to replace Richardson; former Phoenix Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs running back Stump Mitchell took over in 2010, but his tenure never got off the ground. The Jags went 2-9 in 2010 and 4-7 in 2011, and after an 0-2 start in 2012, he resigned. Odums, his defensive coordinator, took over as interim coach but didn't necessarily want to keep that whole title.
Southern went just 4-5 in Odums' 2012 interim run, but three of the four were important: for only the second time in school history, the Jaguars beat Grambling, Jackson State, and Florida A&M in the same season. He showed leadership, preached accountability, and won the full-time gig. And in his first full season, Southern won the SWAC. They nearly pulled off the feat again in 2014, falling by a 38-24 margin to Alcorn State in the SWAC title game.
"The Bayou Classic is a true family event. Everybody every year looks forward to it. People plan their whole Thanksgiving around the Classic. It's like one big family reunion. It's a fun rivalry. You have families with kids who have gone to both schools."
"People plan their whole Thanksgiving around the Classic. It's like one big family reunion." Southern alumni Aeneas Williams with his son at the 2014 Bayou Classic. (Courtesy of SU Athletics Media Relations/Herman Shelton)
Calvin Mills Jr. was Pete Richardson's starting fullback from 1997-99. His mother, a Southern alumnus, wanted him to go to West Point out of high school, but he told her he wanted to play for Southern.
"I told her one day I want to play at the Superdome. I had to walk on, but I sold myself and proved myself worthy of a uniform."
His senior season, he scored the game-winning touchdown in a 37-31 Bayou Classic victory; it sent the Jaguars to the first-ever SWAC championship. They won, 31-30, over Jackson State.
"New Orleans is so welcoming to events as a whole. That's what I love about New Orleans. You can go to a football game, then walk right down the street to the night life. You don't see that in most of the big cities. It makes it peaceful, safe, where people can continue the excitement after the game. Bayou Classic, Super Bowl, Sugar Bowl, whatever. Being from New Orleans, I've experienced that all my life.
"This event means a lot to the city. A lot of alumni have come from New Orleans to go to Southern U. and Grambling. So it's like coming back home each year."
After a brief stint with Tony Dungy's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mills returned to Baton Rouge. He became an entrepreneur, forming CMC Technology Consulting, of which he is CEO. He also helped to form the Southern University Football Foundation.
"It's an alumni foundation for the football team so the young guys can have a resource to come and talk to us and get some support. Every year I have an opportunity to talk to the young men, and it's allowed me to stay close to the program."
In August, Mills approached band director Haymer with an idea. "I want to go to the Bayou Classic and propose at halftime."
"It took me all of 30 seconds to agree," Haymer says. "That's a game-changer. There's nothing I can do to top that. You've had proposals at games before, but never has the band spelled out, 'Marry me.' I was excited about it."
From there, Mills went to the Bayou Classic commission. They were quickly on board.
"I was getting tackled," Mills says. "'When are you going to propose?' I just said, 'Be patient, Sweetie.'
"It's the 100-year anniversary of Southern University. I'm from New Orleans. I played football. Fifteen years ago, I scored the game-winning touchdown in the Bayou Classic. I wanted to do something memorable for this, for me, for my fiancee, and for her daughter.
"I had the perfect cover. She thought I was going to be honored at halftime."
"I didn't tell the band what we were doing until the day before," Haymer says. "When we rehearsed it, it was 100 yards long, and one side of the band didn't know what the other side was doing. I didn't want this to end up on social media. It had to be drawn up like a Broadway play."
And on Saturday morning, Mills and Haymer found out that NBC had gotten wind of the idea and wanted to broadcast it live as well.
The jewelry company from which Mills bought the ring agreed to provide a huge jewelry box. His fiancee's daughter was inside with the ring itself. The box was wheeled out, and his fiancee was instructed over the loud speaker to look up at the Jumbotron. She read the "Marry me," and her daughter reached out of the box to hand him the ring.
"I did that as a favor for Calvin, but it was free," Haymer says. "Certain things money can't buy. And the reaction was much bigger than I expected. SportsCenter. A newspaper in London. They're talking about something the Southern band did. There was nothing else we could have done to really top this moment. We could have done a great show, and it would have been 'Southern's band was great.' But the Southern band's always great."
The game itself, played in front of nearly 58,000 in the Superdome, was bananas. One of the most fun of the season at any level of football.
With a division title and series advantage on the line, Grambling and Southern played a classic.
Even rivalry games have duds sometimes, and the Bayou Classic isn't any different: in 41 years, 14 games have been decided by at least 17 points, and 25 have been decided by at least 10. Three of the previous four had been decided by at least 21. But with a division title and series advantage on the line, Grambling and Southern played a classic.
Before Southern coaches and players rushed the field celebrating an end-of-game goal line stand, the two teams would combine for almost 1,000 yards, three 100-yard receivers, a 100-yard rusher, 16 plays of 20-plus yards, and nearly every possible special teams event: blocked kicks, return touchdowns, a muffed kick return, a long punt return, a punt snap hitting an upback in the face, a surprise onsides kick, and one of the worst fake field goal attempts you'll ever see. (The Southern kicker, clearly with no idea what to do or where to go, went in motion before the snap, leaving the holder crouched in his holding position with no kicker behind him. Funny enough, it didn't fool GSU.)
GSU was forced to play catch-up most of the way. Southern went up 14-0 in the first quarter and 31-10 in the second. But every opportunity to put the Tigers away went awry. The Jaguars went up 38-17 early in the third, but Grambling return man Ka'Jand Domino returned the kickoff 99 yards for a score. Southern scored again, but so did Grambling.
GSU cut the score to 45-38 midway through the fourth, but Southern's Jaleel Richardson returned a short kickoff 79 yards for a score. Just 20 seconds later, Grambling QB Williams scrambled out of the pocket and found Chester Rogers roaming wide open. Seventy-six yards later, it was a seven-point game again. And we were only getting started.
GSU recovered a surprise onside kick but stalled near midfield. Southern blocked a punt with 6:21 left and drove into field goal range, but with 2:30 left, Grambling blocked a 37-yard field goal to give itself one last opportunity to tie. The Tigers converted a fourth-and-3 near midfield, and Williams juked a defender out of his hip sockets to go 18 yards to the Southern 11 with under a minute left.
On fourth-and-8 from the 9, Williams scrambled right and dove for a first down, inches short of the goal line.
For 59 minutes and 54 seconds, the Jaguars had jumped ahead and Grambling had reeled them back. The Southern defense had been on the field for 96 snaps, both because GSU was 13-for-26 on third and fourth downs and because when SU's offense scored, it did so quickly -- of seven touchdowns, four combined to need eight snaps.
With six seconds left and no timeouts remaining, GSU could either attempt a quick pass with the hopes of getting a second play afterward or try to push Southern's tiring defensive front into the end zone on a quarterback sneak. Fobbs and offensive coordinator Eric Dooley chose the latter. And Southern pushed back.
"Everything in New Orleans is a good idea." That's my favorite line from Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Volume One. He wrote it while talking about the recording of his moody, underrated Oh Mercy in the Crescent City in the late-1980s.
"Around any corner, there's a promise of something daring and ideal and things are just getting going. There's something obscenely joyful behind every door. Either that, or somebody crying with their head in their hands."
The personality of the city changes from block to block, and the city has an option for whatever your mood, food preference, and desire for chaos.
On a weekend like this, you can get your fill of whatever you want. If you want a Mardi Gras 365 experience, you've got Bourbon Street. If you want the best bacon melt of your life, you've got it at Cochon Butcher. Ridiculous rabbit and sausage jambalaya? Coop's Place. Dive bar with the locals just a couple of blocks from the chaos? The Chart Room. New Orleans is at all times the corporate-holiday, turn-off-your-brain adult playground, the weirder-version-of-Nashville it is portrayed to be.
But it is also a family town, one with heart, one that ties you to the person next to you. It has to be to create and embrace this event.
When you see the content smile of a woman in a Grambling jacket at the airport, telling you she's indeed going to the Bayou Classic ...
When you hear the honest thank yous of people on the street when you wish their team luck on Saturday ...
The Bayou Classic is everything you fell in love with when you fell in love with college sports.
When you see the smiles of two 70-something Southern supporters on the Superdome field after the game, asking "Did you have a good time?" and, knowing the answer to that question already, "You coming back next year?" ...
... you realize this is a special thing. The Bayou Classic is everything you fell in love with when you fell in love with college sports. It is rivalry. It is an important battle. It is players from the losing team unable to control the tears.
It is also a respite, a perfect oasis for a sports life that is, for the other 51 weeks of the year, challenging and frugal.
The Bayou Classic makes you a sports socialist. It makes you realize that this sport can be so much better, too big to hold just 60 or so major programs, too incredible to limit your own exposure to sports joy. At all times, we should make sure that there is always a place in college for healthy, historical rivalry, and that there is forever a pathway to health for those who want to make history.
* * *