Grambling State’s football game against Jackson State was canceled in the wake of a player protest that has been gaining steam ever since the school fired Doug Williams as head coach in early September.
On Friday afternoon, players refused to board buses for the roughly 160-mile trip from Grambling, which is in northern Louisiana, to Jackson, Miss. The protest caps a chaotic week for the school’s program, which rose to national prominence as a powerhouse under legendary coach Eddie Robinson.
Players for the 0-7 team were unhappy with a number of issues, including the decision to fire Williams, the former Washington Redskins quarterback who was in his second stint as head coach. Players had sought a meeting with school administrators since the firing Sept. 11 and were angry that it took until Tuesday night.
Williams, whose son D.J. is the starting quarterback, was like “a father” to many of the players, safety Naquan Smith told the Shreveport (La.) Times. Williams, an unnamed source told the Times, could have gotten players to go to Jackson. “All (Doug Williams) would have to do is flick his finger, and those players would be here,” the source said.
Other issues included lengthy bus trips (1,200 miles round-trip to Kansas City and 1,500 to Indianapolis) and what the players regarded as poor conditions in the football facility.
The player unrest resulted in the second coaching change in five weeks. The school replaced George Ragsdale, who had replaced Williams, on Thursday with defensive coordinator Dennis “Dirt” Winston. The move did not appease players, who boycotted practice Wednesday and Thursday.
“I’m proud of them boys,” Williams, whose son D.J. is the starting quarterback, told USA Today via text. “They took a stance.”
On Tuesday night, players walked out of a meeting with school President Frank Pogue and Athletic Director Aaron James. “Things are rough, and we understand our players’ frustration,” Grambling spokesman Will Sutton said in a statement Wednesday night. “The president is frustrated, the AD is frustrated, the students are frustrated, the alumni are frustrated, so we fully understand our players’ frustration.”
“As a team, we feel like we wanted [Ragsdale] to actually step down,” Naquan Smith said. “[The team] is behind us because they know what we’ve been going through. They know the struggle. We said we’re behind each other 100 percent.”
On Friday, all of the issues came to a boil and players refused to play a game. George Dohrmann of Sports Illustrated spent the week at the school, where no one, he writes, “is prepared to accept that Grambling may be changed forever and that there could be a time in the not-too-distant future when having a football program becomes financially untenable.”
Williams and administrators had clashed before and in the spring of 2012 he’d sued the school for failure to pay performance bonuses. His firing came not long after he’d gotten $11,000 from an outside group to replace the rubber floor in the weight room without going through official channels, Dohrmann writes. The flooring, which was never installed, became a symbol of the current state of the once-proud program.