Doug Williams was waiting in line to place his order at Dowling’s BBQ, just around the corner from his home, when the man, a local attorney, spotted him and sauntered over. Placing his hand on the shoulder of the Super Bowl XXII most valuable player, the man spoke earnestly: “It’s terrible, what happened. But I hope you stay. We need good men like you in this community.” Williams nodded and thanked him, then placed his order: brisket plate, double beans.
It happens all the time, ever since Williams was fired as Grambling State University’s football coach on Sept. 11: folks expressing their regret, lamenting the unfairness of it all, offering their warmest wishes. It happened over and over earlier this month, when Williams attended the Washington Redskins’ “homecoming” game, where the franchise celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Super Bowl XXII title.
“I didn’t run into one person, black or white, who didn’t walk up to me and say, ‘That’s a tragedy, what happened at Grambling,’ ” Williams said the other day, over his brisket and baked beans. “Sitting on the airplane next morning, I’m next to a guy. And the first thing he says is, ‘How could they fire Doug Williams?’ I just said, ‘Easy.’ ”
Williams, 58, lets loose a hearty belly laugh as he reaches the end of the story. Two months after his firing — and nearly four weeks after the story exploded when Grambling’s players, including his son D.J., a quarterback, boycotted a game to protest the state of the program — Williams seems remarkably at peace with what happened, and remarkably well-adjusted to his new life as a stay-at-home dad and “bus driver,” as he puts it, shuttling his two youngest daughters, ages 5 and 8, back and forth from school, soccer practice and dance class.
When he isn’t driving his kids around, he binge-watches “NCIS” episodes and, depending on his mood, either pays attention to his phone — which is constantly ringing and pinging — or doesn’t.
“Hey, Judge,” Williams says into his phone, pausing from his lunch to take a call from an old friend in New Orleans. The judge was calling to see how Williams was doing and lament the situation at Grambling. “I know, I know. Okay. Thanks for calling, Judge.”
There isn’t much point in pondering his next move just yet. Grambling is still paying Williams his salary, and there won’t be any football jobs coming open until after the new year. The only thing he and his wife, Raunda, know for sure is that they will be moving somewhere.
Williams, who spent six years in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers front office last decade, said he spoke “in passing” to some Redskins officials about his situation over the weekend, but offered no specifics and said he didn’t expect to speak to them again until after the current season. In February 2011, after a discussion with Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and General Manager Bruce Allen, Williams was prepared to join the organization in a player-personnel role when the Grambling job came open.
“My son was already in school,” Williams said. “Dan said, ‘That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — if you have a chance to coach your son, go coach your son.’ And I appreciated that. That’s where we left it.”
Williams took the Grambling job, making his return to the storied school for which he was an all-American quarterback in the 1970s under legendary coach Eddie Robinson and led to three straight Southwestern Athletic Conference titles in the 2000s in his first go-round as head coach. He won another conference title in his first year back, before things started to fall apart.
“I don’t regret one move I made,” he said. “Because number one, I don’t care what anybody says, no matter what has happened to me here, Grambling is where I got my foot in the door. Thank God for Eddie Robinson. I loved Grambling yesterday, I love Grambling today and I’m gonna love Grambling tomorrow.”
Left unspoken was the flip side, which these days is best expressed as a question: Does Grambling still love Williams back?
He may be well-adjusted and at peace with his ugly exit from Grambling, but there is still one thing — one name, actually — that can push Williams back from the table, send a heavy sigh from his throat and bring a faint trace of moisture to the corners of his eyes: Coach Robinson. If you want to get Williams going, all you have to do is mention his name.
“Oh, boy,” Williams says, steeling himself for the emotions that he knows are coming. “God forbid if Coach were living right now. You gotta know Coach to know what he’d be thinking right now. If there’s any such thing as turning over in your grave, Coach has done it a few times. I can hear him now saying, ‘Hey, cat, you can’t do that!’”
Williams musters a grin at the memory. Williams himself was the rightful heir to the Robinson legacy, taking over for him as Grambling’s coach in 1998, following Robinson’s retirement after 408 wins — still an all-time record for major college football. When Williams was playing in the NFL and USFL, a career that lasted from 1978 to 1989, he figures he donated an average of $10,000 a year to Robinson’s program. They were inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame four years apart, Robinson in 1997, Williams in 2001. Until Robinson’s death in 2007, they spoke nearly every day.
“I knew Coach about as well as anybody knew him,” Williams says. “At the end of day the only thing that bothers me is [wondering], ‘What would Coach be thinking now.’”
One thing Williams can’t stand is people invoking Robinson’s name who didn’t know the man. “He goes around talking about Eddie Robinson,” Williams says. “To me, that’s disrespecting Coach.”
By “he,” Williams is referring to Grambling President Frank G. Pogue, though Williams never once mentioned him by name during an hour-long interview. It was Pogue who fired Williams in September, two games into the season — a move that appeared to be less about job performance, even though Grambling had lost 12 of its last 13 games at that point, than about a personality conflict and a long-simmering dispute over Williams’s power over the football team.
“I think [the firing] was more about trying to embarrass me, or to try to make me understand who’s king,” Williams said. “Hey, you can’t fight a man in his own castle.”
In one breath, Williams says he doesn’t want to get into a “crossfire” situation of “he-said, he-said” in regards to why he was fired. But in the next breath, Williams does exactly that, detailing his conflict with Pogue over things as small as the personalized parking signs Williams put up at the football complex for himself and his coaches — which Pogue promptly took down — and as large as the continued influence on the program of the Grambling Legends, a booster group made up of prominent athletics alumni, including Williams, Willis Reed, Willie Davis and Charlie Joiner.
“When you get a letter from the president, in black and white, telling you [the school] wants no affiliation with the Legends?” Williams said. “We’ve got four Hall of Famers. You got the only [African American quarterback] to win a Super Bowl, and the guy [James Harris] who was first African American quarterback to win MVP of the Pro Bowl. You just kicked them to the curb. You don’t want no affiliation?”
At the heart of the dispute was the $32,000 raised by the Legends and another booster group, Friends of Football, that the groups intended to use to repair the badly deteriorating floor in the Grambling weight room. But Pogue, citing NCAA regulations, told the groups the money would have to be funneled through the school’s main foundation.
When Pogue called Williams into his office on the morning of Sept. 11, handed him a letter and told him the school was going in a different direction, Williams said, “Okay, Doc,” and walked out.
Will Sutton, a Grambling spokesman, declined to discuss the specifics of Williams’s firing, saying the school does not discuss personnel matters. However, Sutton cited specific university policies in refuting Williams’s characterization of the disputes over the parking signs and the $32,000 donation for the weight room.
“Doug Williams is a hero to the president and to many Gramblinites,” Sutton said. “Doug Williams is a superstar. Doug Williams is a favored son, and he will forever be a part of the Grambling State University family. He’s just no longer our football coach.”
Five weeks after Williams’s firing, Pogue tried to meet with Grambling’s football players, who were upset about Williams’s firing, the dilapidated condition of the facilities and the fact the team had to ride buses to away games as far as Indianapolis. But according to media reports, the players walked out of the meeting and began a boycott that lasted through that Saturday’s game at Jackson State.
Williams said he was visiting family in his home town of Zachary, La., at the time of the meeting and had no knowledge of the boycott. However, when a team captain called him after the forfeit of the Jackson State game and asked his opinion as to what the players should do, Williams said he responded, “I think you should get back out there and play football.”
Williams also disputed the school’s characterization that the real culprit in the demise of the program is state budget cuts that have decimated Grambling’s athletic budget, saying, “If the budget is so bad, why are you paying a coach $225,000 to stay home?” The figure represents the prorated portion of Williams’s $250,000 annual salary.
Williams said he has barely spoken about the situation with D.J., who has been the Tigers’ primary starter at quarterback this season. “I take my hat off to him,” Williams said, “because he’s gone through a lot of [anguish]. He has matured. D.J.’s going to be a heck of a man — he’s already heck of a man. I’ve seen the heartache, the pain this kid has gone through. And he’s survived it.”
Williams still can’t bring himself to set foot on Grambling’s campus — not even to see his son play. The closest he has come is the post office across the street.
“Yeah, I miss it,” he said. “Because you gotta understand — I recruited most of those kids up there. Nobody thought about the emotions of these kids when they made these decisions. That wasn’t important to them, because it was all about themselves.”
Asked if he could envision a repairing of the rift, a return to the Grambling fold for himself, Williams said, “Not as long as this administration is in place.” And then he pushed back from the table, stretched out his long legs and headed towards the parking lot.
It was still early afternoon, a couple of hours until he had to go pick up the girls from school, enough time to squeeze in an “NCIS” or two, or maybe a nap.