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Grambling State Tigers on the prowl again

Three years after protest led to a forfeited game and national news, football team’s playing well in the SWAC

Fans of a certain generation undoubtedly enjoyed hearing the World Famed Grambling State University Marching Band go old-school during the Oct. 29 homecoming morning parade — Boogie Wonderland by Earth, Wind & Fire — and again at halftime of that afternoon’s 70-0 stomping of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, with I’ll Be There by the Jackson 5.

The band should have gone back further, to the theme song for Franklin Roosevelt’s initial presidential campaign in 1932: Happy Days Are Here Again.

The Tigers are 7-1 overall, unbeaten and barely tested in six Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) games, and appear headed for a return trip to the conference championship game — assuming they can fend off a challenge from archrival Southern in the Bayou Classic. A win in the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl that matches the champions of the SWAC and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and a 15th black college football title – the first since 2008 – certainly aren’t out of the question.

The only loss to date might be viewed as their most impressive performance of the season, at least by those who only follow FBS football. The visiting Tigers led Arizona 21-3 at the half in early September, but lost 31-21 after starting quarterback Devante Kincade left with an injury late in the second quarter. Grambling’s visit was anticipated more for an appearance by the renowned band, but it’s doubtful many Arizona fans fully appreciated the musical performance while pondering an 18-point deficit.

Grambling is ranked 16th in the FCS coaches poll and boasts the classification’s No. 4 total offense and No. 12 total defense. All this for a program that, only three years ago, sank to the depths of forfeiting a game after players refused to practice for a week or board charter buses for a 2½-hour ride to Jackson State.

“It’s a good feeling,” said Robert Clark, a 1972 alum whose ample tailgate spread beneath the canopy of his Prevost Vantare RV included gumbo, ribs, chicken, dirty beans and rice.

A turnaround in two years

The school where Eddie Robinson made so much coaching history throughout much of the 20th century was in the news for all the wrong reasons during the 2013 season. Doug Williams, part of three black national title teams as a Grambling quarterback and two more as a coach, was abruptly fired after a 1-11 record in 2012 was followed by losses in his first two games in 2013. Interim coach George Ragsdale was dismissed after the mid-October events that included the forfeit. The players’ stated complaints primarily pointed to a school and athletic department that were drastically underfunded: inadequate facilities and equipment plus unreasonably long bus rides to locations such as Kansas City and Indianapolis instead of plane trips.

Broderick Fobbs, one of Robinson’s players of the 1990s, came home in December 2014 as head coach and produced a SWAC West winner in his second season. The heart of the 2016 offensive team is the junior Kincade, who transferred from Ole Miss last winter when seeking a school closer to his home in Dallas, plus an up-tempo offense resembling what he was leaving behind.

Senior receiver Chad Williams is second in the FCS in receiving yards per game at 134.7. He removed any suspense from the homecoming game on Grambling’s first offensive play. Williams raced behind single coverage and a cradled a 70-yard touchdown pass from Kincade for the first of the Tigers’ six first-half touchdowns.

Williams was a freshman on that 2013 team and feared for the future of the program when those buses sat empty on a Friday afternoon in front of the Stadium Support Building. Last week, he said he isn’t surprised by what has happened since: “I pictured this from my freshman spring, with these coaches.”

Last season, Fobbs’ first as Tigers head coach, they finished 9-3 and lost to Alcorn State in the SWAC championship game in Houston, 49-21.

A legacy of winning from the 1940s

The windows in Fobbs’ corner office face the same practice field where he often dreaded beginning a day’s drills under Robinson with 110-yard runs. Fobbs’ father also played for Robinson, and he saw “Coach Rob” as a father figure since his own had left home when he was a young boy.

“Coach Robinson basically becomes my granddaddy when you really think about it,” Fobbs said, smiling.

Robinson amassed 408 career wins, breaking Paul “Bear” Bryant’s record for then-Division I football in 1985, leading the Tigers from 1941 until 1997. His coaching prowess was complemented by the kinetic marketing mind of the school’s athletics publicist, Collie J. Nicholson. Together, they made Grambling football known from coast to coast in the 1960s despite the racial segregation of the sport. The Tigers played in venues such as Yankee Stadium, the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Astrodome, even in Japan. They were part of the first nationally televised football game between two historically black universities (HBCUs) in 1971.

Finances have long been a challenge at Grambling even when football has been winning, a common issue among HBCUs. According to figures compiled by USA Today Sports following the 2014-15 academic year, Grambling’s athletic revenue ranked 228th among the 231 schools that played football in the FBS and FCS that season.

Look no further than Robinson Stadium (capacity 19,600) for evidence of that. The small scoreboard behind the north end zone features faded signage; one of the ads is for a bank that has changed names. Homecoming saw the home-side stands nearly filled while the opposite side was sparsely occupied.

TUCSON, AZ - SEPTEMBER 10: Wide receiver Martez Carter #4 of the Grambling State Tigers celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown against the Arizona Wildcats in the second quarter at Arizona Stadium on September 10, 2016 in Tucson, Arizona.

TUCSON, AZ – SEPTEMBER 10: Wide receiver Martez Carter #4 of the Grambling State Tigers celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown against the Arizona Wildcats in the second quarter at Arizona Stadium on September 10, 2016 in Tucson, Arizona.

Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Gone in the wake of the 2013 episode are school president Frank Pogue and athletic director Aaron James, the latter a basketball alum who’s in the school’s athletic hall of fame. The latest president has been on the job since Aug. 1. Rick Gallot Jr. (pronounced “gallow”) is an attorney and an alum (nursery school through college) who also knows politics, given his time as a city councilman, state legislator and state senator.

Longtime faculty member Obadiah Simmons Jr. has been the interim athletic director since May 2015. Gallot hopes to have a recommendation within two or three weeks for a new athletic director, one whose top priority will be increasing revenue and awareness of a program that once commanded national attention.

“Our brand has a lot to do with athletics and the band,” said Gallot, who was a Grambling drummer. “You have to understand it, embrace it and promote it.”

Protests led to change

In 2013, senior safety Naquan Smith from Atlanta was chosen by his teammates to be the spokesman for the players’ grievances because he was a sixth-year player; they called him “Papa Nate.

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in sports management, a master’s degree in sports administration and now works in Beaumont, Texas, as a personal trainer. During a recent lunch meeting, he cited factors beyond the travel and facilities issues that incensed the players back then. They were also angry that president Pogue wouldn’t explain why Williams was fired – simplified answer: Their working relationship had reached the breaking point – and they perceived that Ragsdale sided with the administration instead of with them.

Smith said he’s pleased with the role that the 2013 Tigers played in the program’s subsequent resurgence. After Missouri football players staged a protest in fall 2015 resulting in the university president’s resignation, Williams phoned him to say the Grambling stand inspired that action.

“I think we kind of opened the doors,” Smith said.

Future looks bright

Fobbs’ original contract with Grambling was scheduled to expire after this season, and he agreed to an extension through 2018 three weeks ago. During his Monday media briefing two weeks ago, Fobbs mentioned his “vision” for the program, which he shares with few people: “I can’t tell you exactly what that vision is because it would blow your mind. … If growing means doing other things, then we’re going to do that.”

Grambling is likely the only HBCU where winning multiple black national titles wouldn’t be mind-blowing; it’s practically considered a birthright here. Doing other things? Would that be moving up from FCS to FBS, separating from the rest of black college football, for a school that only recently struggled to replace a weight-room floor?

It’s arguable that Grambling is being held back by its SWAC brethren. In Jeff Sagarin’s weekly ratings of this season’s 253 FBS and FCS football teams, No. 148 Grambling is the only conference team above 200. The league teams that the Tigers defeated the past three weeks by a combined 176-27 are No. 251 (Mississippi Valley State), No. 253 (Arkansas-Pine Bluff) and No. 244 Alabama A&M.

Gallot knows Fobbs’ ultimate goals for the program and is on board. Mentioning a hypothetical effort to reach the FBS elicited a broad smile from Gallot.

“I don’t think there’s any vision that’s too big or too bold for Grambling,” he said, measuring his words carefully. “But, again, you have to develop that sustainable track of success before anything else is worth talking about.”

Thomas Aiello, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Valdosta (Georgia) State and the author of a history of the Bayou Classic, is skeptical of such an attempt.

“I can see them trying to find that glory that they lost,” Aiello said. But cutting ties with SWAC schools other than Southern might be too big a price to pay, he added.

Happy Days Are Here Again was first performed in the 1930 movie Chasing Rainbows. Would Grambling be chasing an FBS rainbow?

“They told a lot of people they were crazy,” Fobbs said in reference to his unspecified vision, “and things came to pass.”

Jeff Miller works for ESPN.com’s personalization team.