Doug Williams owns the word "Grambling." He says it with a casual love, like he's talking about a spouse. "Gram-blun." His relationship with his alma mater is complicated and thorough, from star quarterback to head coach to frustrated alum.
Williams signed with legendary Eddie Robinson's Tigers in the early 1970s and led Grambling to three Southwestern Athletic Conference titles. In 1977, the one season SWAC teams were considered Division I schools before the I-A/I-AA split, the senior led major college football in just about every passing category. He threw for 3,286 yards and 38 touchdowns, finishing fourth in Heisman voting.
After a 12-year pro career that featured the Super Bowl XXII title and 100 passing touchdowns in 88 NFL games, Williams got into coaching. He was a running backs coach at Navy, then the offensive coordinator for the World League of American Football's Scottish Claymores. He spent two seasons as a scout for the Jacksonville Jaguars and a year as Morehouse's head coach.
Then his alma mater asked him to succeed Robinson in 1998.
"I was realistic," he says. "I've been real all along. I knew when integration came in, the guys who used to go here because they didn't have anywhere else to go, they weren't going to come. We didn't have the resources, the economics. We're not going to battle LSU for a kid. You've got to get the kid who wants to come to Grambling and let those kids grow."
Since he'd left GSU in the 1970s, the stature of HBCU football had fallen.
"Go back to the 1975 draft. You had Walter Payton and Robert Brazile on the same [Jackson State] team, and both got drafted [in the top six]," Williams says.
"Grambling had Gary Johnson drafted in the first round [No. 8]. Robert Barber was drafted in the second. And you had [future Hall of Famer] Jackie Slater playing line at Jackson. He graduated the next year."
Langston's Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson also went in the first round, N.C. Central's Charles Smith and Norfolk State's Leroy Jones went in the second, Kentucky State's Frank Oliver and Tennessee State's Cleveland Elam went in the fourth, etc.
"If you take the mid-1970s and go backwards, teams like Jackson, Grambling, Tennessee State ... they could have competed with anybody in the country."
They took advantage of most of their few chances to back up that claim. Between 1975 and 1977, Grambling beat Hawaii twice, knocked off Oregon State, and split with Temple when the Owls were playing solid ball under Wayne Hardin.
In 1977 (the one season for which I have complete points-scored-and-allowed figures), Tennessee State finished first in estimated defensive S&P+. Grambling was fifth on offense. Jackson State was also in the overall top 50. After the split, Florida A&M won the inaugural I-AA playoffs.
Eventually, the full integration of Southern programs in the late-1960s and early-1970s drained HBCU programs. Whereas they once had endless Southern talent thanks to others' prejudice, an open football universe meant fewer opportunities for HBCUs. And by the 1990s, a couple of decades of drain had an obvious effect.
"I would say probably after the 1970s, things started really slowing down from a recruiting standpoint," Williams says. "I came in in the early 1970s, and we got some good players. But integration changed the dynamics and gave kids a chance to look at other schools. The top-quality athletes started looking around, but you could get guys who would grow into good players.
"It really tailed off in the 1980s. There's a lot of kids who went to big-time Division 1 schools who never got to play but probably would've done well and developed at an HBCU. But they got caught up in the recruiting game."
When Williams came back to Grambling, he had a long-term plan.
"1998 to 2003, we built a program. We didn't build a football team. We were willing to take lumps at the start."
There weren't too many lumps, though. As happens at the end of many legends' tenures, the product had trailed off. From 1995-97, Grambling went 5-6, 3-8, and 3-8, losing to Southern in the Bayou Classic all three years.
In his first two years, Williams' charges improved to 5-6, then 7-4. Then they dominated.
Grambling won the SWAC for three straight years, going a combined 31-5 in that span, and then came four points short of a fourth SWAC Championship appearance in a row.
Though the talent wasn't what it was in the 1970s -- in two games against FBS competition from 2000-03, Grambling lost 52-0 to Louisville and 29-0 to San Jose State -- Williams' tenure was impressive.
He left to become a personnel executive for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (the team that had drafted him in 1978, when offensive coordinator and future Washington head coach Joe Gibbs was enamored with him). After seven seasons, he served as the general manager of the United Football League's Virginia Destroyers for a year.
But his alma mater needed him again. Grambling had won SWAC titles in 2005 and 2008, made the title game in 2007, and gone 9-2 in 2010. But when Rod Broadway left, the school approached Williams.
Williams' second stint began with another SWAC title. After losing four straight games early in the year, the Tigers finished with seven consecutive wins. They blew out Southern, then took down Alabama A&M for the ring.
But the vibe was different now.
On the field, a rebuild was necessary, and in 2012, Williams underwent a youth movement.
"Recruiting had fallen off a little, and that year we had a bunch of young kids that were growing up."
GSU went 1-10, beating only Virginia-Lynchburg. They lost five games by one possession each, but they weren't deep enough to seal games away.
Off the field, facilities were crumbling. Fundraising was almost nonexistent.
"If your president ... and that's one of the reasons I'm not there right now, we had a president who wasn't raising money. He put his athletic director there. It was buddy-buddy."
During Frank Pogue's tenure as Grambling's president from 2009-14, the university faced intense challenges. Funding from the state plummeted as Louisiana under governor Bobby Jindal. And when money goes down, in-house politics go up. Power plays are more prevalent, and friends tend to get promoted. Pogue promoted former Grambling basketball star Aaron James to interim athletic director in 2011 and eventually removed the "interim" tag. James and Williams were never on the same page.
Unimpressed with their ability to raise funds, Williams did it himself, but says he was told he wasn't funneling the money through the appropriate channels.
"I was raising money myself. I couldn't get anything fixed otherwise," Williams says. "I got the dressing room done and was about to do the weight room. Nobody was getting money from it or anything. The group I had was doing the paying. They were directly paying the vendor who was doing the work. But it wasn't going to the school, so the president couldn't say he raised it."
Whatever the reason, Williams was fired after he had raised funds to get the decrepit weight room floor replaced. And with Williams gone, the purchased flooring sat in boxes during the 2013 season.
"I was fired because I was raising money," Williams says.
There are at least a few elements of truth to that. Helping Williams' version of the story: upon replacing Pogue in 2014, virtually the first thing new Grambling president Cynthia Warrick did was fire James. My request for comment from Pogue, now the president at Cheyney University, didn't receive a response.
"We had no plan. There was no communication. The AD was like a henchman. I was doing things he couldn't do."
As Williams describes this, he sounds like he still has a smile on his face. He is a charismatic presence, one many gravitate to. When he had a problem with administrators, a large portion of fans and boosters automatically did, too.
Players upset with his firing were infuriated by the fact that the flooring still hadn't been laid. And following a tense meeting with Pogue and James, the football team staged a boycott, refusing to travel to Jackson State. As Pogue insisted, "We're going to Jackson and we're going to play Jackson State ... I don't see the players as being in control ... I have never lost control of an institution," Grambling did not travel to Jackson.
Women's basketball coach Patricia Cage Bibbs, a Grambling Hall of Famer, replaced James as an interim but didn't last long. Williams has his theories about why: "Pat was too straight-forward, so they fired her, too."
Obadiah Simmons Jr. has served as interim since May 2015, and with a budget so uncertain, the search for a permanent AD has been suspended.
"There wasn't nothing going on when I was there. They've gotta be able to go around the corner and raise funds. There has not been an AD in place since they hired Pat Bibbs, who could raise funds. And Grambling's got a name! But you don't have anybody who can communicate it."
Much has been made of Louisiana's budget crisis, and you know that if it is affecting even LSU, it can be even more destructive for HBCUs.
"We don't get all the stuff we should get, but I don't blame the Louisiana government for everything. You should still manage what you have.
"Until you make a commitment to having a great football team -- and there's no reason why you shouldn't -- that's where it starts. You have to have a commitment of winning and wanting to win, and you have to have the resources to get it done."
That said, Grambling has rebounded somewhat in Williams' absence.
Head coach Broderick Fobbs, a former Robinson captain himself, has gone 7-5 and 9-3 the last two seasons. In 2014, the Tigers lost a heartbreaker to Southern to miss out on the SWAC West title; in 2015, they took down Southern and fell to Alcorn State in the title game.
Fobbs has done well while turning over the roster. By my count, only five starters from the Southern game were Williams signees. Fobbs has supplemented depth by bringing in others' signees. Tennessee defensive back transfer Deion Bonner and Rice receiver transfer Lovett Gibson were contributors. Fobbs added transfers from Ole Miss (Devante Kincade), Texas (Montreal Meander), Arizona (Darrell Clark), and Texas Tech (Derrick Dixon) this offseason.
In the name of program vs. team, Williams isn't a fan.
"I wasn't a big transfer guy. I figured transfers might present a problem. For one thing, they transferred for a reason. They weren't happy with playing time, or they had discipline problems. And when they get somewhere else, they sometimes think they're better than the other guys around them because of who they signed with. And when you sign transfers, you're losing out on guys who can help build your program."
To each their own. Plenty of programs have won by loading up on transfers, and plenty have done well focusing on four-year guys. But Fobbs did appear to make sure one obstacle didn't present a problem: Williams' son was still a quarterback on the team.
Did Doug Williams Jr. think about leaving when his dad left?
"I went to Grambling, my brothers, two daughters, a nephew, nieces. From a family standpoint, my son was Grambling," Dad says. "The new offense they ran didn't fit him very well. He's not a read-option guy; he was an in-the-pocket guy. He understood that, and he didn't cause problems."
When Doug Jr. got hurt during his senior year, backup Johnathan Williams (no relation) thrived.
The product isn't as strong as it was 40 years ago, and the money isn't what it needs to be. But Grambling competes well in the SWAC more often than not. And people continue to show up.
Grambling averaged 10,035 in attendance in 2015, more than the FBS' Ball State and Eastern Michigan and nearly as much as Georgia State, a bowl team.
Other HBCUs do even better. Of the 28 FCS teams to average at least 10,000 in attendance, eight were HBCUs: Southern (18,310), S.C. State (15,629), Florida A&M (15,060), N.C. A&T (14,988), Tennessee State (14,620), Jackson State (13,252), Alcorn State (12,343), Alabama State (10,290), and GSU.
Still, quality lacks. According to the Sagarin ratings, only one HBCU ranked among the FCS top 40 (A&T, at 36th). Donation levels are unspectacular. So is PR.
"I think we've got to do a better job at the conference level, doing a better PR job," Williams says. "One of the downfalls of all the black colleges in the SWAC is the lack of SIDs [sports information directors] who are doing their job. I was fortunate. When I was at Grambling, we had a guy who was the best of all time at black colleges: Collie Nicholson."
The SWAC and MEAC do have the new Celebration Bowl now, a de facto HBCU national championship.
More HBCU football
More HBCU football
On the first Saturday of bowl season, in front of 35,528 in the Georgia Dome, MEAC champion N.C. A&T took down SWAC champ Alcorn State, 41-34. It was a crazy game full of plot twists and big plays, and it was a strong representation of black college football.
"The Celebration Bowl is a good thing," Williams says. "The most important thing is we've got to rally behind it and understand that this is a legitimate opportunity, a national championship game. I know the CIAA and SIAC [the Division II HBCU conferences] might not look at it that way, but it is what it is."
And what about the fact that SWAC teams don't compete in the FCS playoffs (and MEAC teams rarely make it very far)?
"There's only been one black school to win the national championship: Florida A&M in 1978. They won the very first I-AA tournament. It's good that we can have a bowl game.
"The goal for these schools in Division I could be exactly what they've built: the Celebration Bowl. Do that and get behind it."
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