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Bayou Classic to roll on despite GSU’s woes

28th October 2013   ·   0 Comments

With a little more than a month remaining until the 40th annual Bayou Classic is played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, organizers are scrambling to move beyond Grambling State University’s recent public relations nightmare involving a walkout by members of its winless football team and a recent lawsuit filed by a Southwestern Athletic Conference rival that says GSU’s failure to show up on Oct. 19 ruined its homecoming weekend.

Grambling’s players staged the boycott two weeks ago because of many issues with university leaders, including the school’s rundown facilities, long bus trips to road games and coaching changes. The players were also reportedly not happy about the termination of former GSU quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams. The GSU Tigers, who have not won a game this season, are 0-8 and have lost 18 straight games.

Williams was fired after just two games this season and replaced by George Ragsdale, who was reassigned within the athletic department on Thursday and replaced by Dennis “Dirt” Winston.

After grabbing national headlines and being the topic of discussion and debate on talk radio and major sports networks like ESPN, GSU’s gridiron athletes returned to the practice field last week.

“The football team took a stance on what we thought was right,” GSU defensive back Naquan Smith said during a press conference last week while surrounded by his 82 teammates outside Eddie Robinson Stadium. “We did not quit on our university. There are many problems that exist and if no one says anything, nothing will become of our institution. We hope coach Eddie Robinson and his legendary players appreciate we took a stand and thought we were right.”

The players were preparing to host Texas Southern this past weekend, but only after forcing the university to forfeit its game against Jackson State last Saturday.

Smith said the players were eager to return to the field.

“Everyone on the team wanted to play, but to get what we feel is right, we had to take a stand and make sure our voice was heard,” Smith said.

The team met with several former GSU greats, including former coach Doug Williams, who told them to “go out there and play football.”

Smith said that although the team will play, “We have not forgotten the situation and how we’ve gotten here.”

“The one thing we’re going to do immediately is put everything behind us,’’ GSU interim coach Dennis Winston, a former GSU standout who played in the NFL for the Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints.” Do what the young men came here to do, play football. This week, we’re really concentrating on Texas Southern and playing football.

“If you saw our facilities then you would know why it took place. We’ve put athletes in a position where they need good working conditions just like anyone else would like to be in good working conditions. It just wasn’t a (good) working environment. The young men knew that. They did what they had to do.’’

Pogue said the walk-out was prompting Grambling to do a comprehensive review of its academic facilities, student services, athletics and financial needs.

Dr. Pogue said Monday night that GSU’s football players would not face repercussions for the boycott and that work is already scheduled to be done to improve conditions in the football team’s weight room.

“We will continue to support our football team—our players,” Pogue said. “We will pay attention, obviously, as much as we can financially to enhance all the athletic facilities including those in football. My concern now is we move forward together. The students have expressed themselves, their opinions.”

Even before GSU’s football players returned to the practice field last week, local organizers were already taking steps to minimize the damage the players’ boycott could have potentially had on what is widely considered the most popular event in Black college athletics.

“We actually have been in meetings with both of the planning committees on both campuses, Grambling and Southern, and we are excited about our plans this year,” NOCCI President & CEO Dottie Belletto told WWL-TV in a recent interview.

She said the event continues to be a big economic boost for New Orleans.

“This is a very slow period in the city of New Orleans and we’re filling up 93 percent of the rooms,” Belletto said.

This year’s matchup between Southern and Grambling will take place on Saturday, Nov. 30, in the Superdome. Other events associated with the Bayou Classic include a Battle of the Bands, Bayou Classic Parade, Greek Step Show, Golf Tournament, Career Fair, Fan Fest and a Gospel Brunch.

Last year’s parade marked the return of the Bayou Classic parade, which is held on Thanksgiving Day in the CBD.

In a letter to GSU alumni and supporters dated October 21, Grambling president Dr. Frank Pogue wrote, “Many of you are aware of the football team’s boycott of practice last week and this past weekend’s Jackson State game. As a result, we gained widespread media attention and the university forfeited Saturday’s game.

“There are many underlying issues that this situation should bring to light: many issues reaching farther than athletics,” Pogue continued. “Issues that affect the university as a whole. Issues, we as alums have been fighting for in the background, with limited mem­bers/alumni support. Our most recent chapter meeting (Oct. 12) focused on the state of the university. The concerns and recommendations gathered in that meeting are being provided to the national alumni board for follow-up and relate to such issues as campus upkeep, academics and customer service. The chapter made a commitment to ensure we are personally addressing issues at Grambling going forward. We want to ensure we are providing alumni support to the students and university personnel to get issues resolved.

“A major issue that should be highlighted by the recent media attention is Grambling has been in a state of financial emergency for a while now,” Pogue added,. “Bet­ween 2008 and June of 2013, the State of Louisiana and University of Louisiana System, in which we are governed, cut the university’s budge almost 60 percent, by almost $17 million. Think about how you would function with JUST 40 percent of your household income. Some improvements might have been made budget-wise in the latest portion of this year, but GRAMBLING IS STILL STRUGGLING! Regard­less of how you might feel about the university’s administration (positive or negative), past history regarding finances (our most recent audit was clean), student pride (pr lack thereof), we as alumni an friends of Grambling must step up now to support our beloved institution. There is strength in NUMBERS.”

Jackson State said last week that financial losses for the university and the city of Jackson, Miss., “could be in the millions” because of Grambling’s decision to forfeit Saturday’s football game after its players refused to play.

Eric Stringfellow, JSU’s’s director of university communications, said in a Tuesday night message on the school’s website that JSU “plans to pursue litigation against Grambling State and others.”

The game was Jackson State’s homecoming, which routinely draws at least 20,000 fans. The school is refunding money for thousands of tickets.

Jackson State also criticized the Southwestern Athletic Conference for a lack of communication during the process.

“It’s a rarity for any athletic team to come together to abandon their commitment to an institution by walking off the field. It’s a very unique experience. But we’re using this as an opportunity of learning, a teachable moment,” President Frank Pogue told the University of Louisiana System board that oversees GSU.

Pogue said he’s used the national attention Grambling has re­ceived as a way to highlight campus academic and facility needs and that the complaints lodged by football players about inadequate facilities are symptomatic of larger financial troubles on campus.

The university, like all public colleges around Louisiana, has been hit with repeated budget cuts from the state since 2008. Lawmakers and Gov. Piyush Jindal have stripped $690 million in state funding from higher education, a 48 percent reduction. Tuition increases have only partially filled the gap.

Pogue said Grambling’s state financing has been slashed 57 percent, and he said that fell on top of disparities in funding that already exist across the nation for historically Black colleges and universities.
“If you want to be helpful to Grambling, write a check,” he said.

University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley said Grambling’s financial woes are worst in the nine-campus system because the school had fewer reserves to plug budget holes, no large endowments to tap and a small student body.

“The financial situation at Grambling is severe,” she said.

Meanwhile, a backlog of deferred maintenance on the state’s college campuses has reached $1.8 billion, with only modest state funding allocated to chip away at the list and all of the campuses competing for the limited funds.

Dr. Pogue told The Associated Press that he’s already received hundreds of emails and phone calls from alumni and business leaders offering support. Donations weren’t pouring in yet, but Pogue said he’s telling people the best support they can give is a financial contribution.

On Thursday, the GSU website listed 81 names of Grambling alumni and supporters who had heeded Dr. Pogue’s call for $1,000 donations to the university.

The Associated Press reported that Woodley said last week that she was hopeful the state’s funding for higher education was stabilizing, but she said the UL System didn’t have new funds to offer as a quick fix for Grambling. She said her office will work with Pogue on the campus-wide financial review, with an eye toward finding ways to increase private donations and negotiating more dollars for athletics.

“This challenging week has sort of awakened alumni all over the nation who care very much for Grambling and for Grambling students, and the fundraising is starting to increase,” Woodley told The Associated Press. “We are hopeful that some additional private money from those who care about the plights of Grambling will come in to help us with some of the issues.”

“Despite any negative information you are hearing/reading, there are three things that can be done in the near future to ensure a positive message and alumni voice is heard and felt on Grambling campus, in the state of Louisiana, and around the globe, Pogue wrote in the October 21 letter to GSU alumni:

1. Support GSU with PRESENCE. This weekend is Home­coming. Regardless whether you think we’ll win the football game, we’re still Grambling. We still have a winning history to brag about to anybody opposing us. Eddie Robinson’s legacy is still acknowledged worldwide. We’ll regain prominence. Don’t turn your back on the university and team when they need it the most. True Tigers bleed Black and Gold rain or shine.

2. DONATE to Grambling. It doesn’t have to be a large sum of money. You can donate small portions every month. Make a sacrifice for the institution we love and skip a dinner out or happy hour once a month to give back to Grambling State University. Beyond just dollars, the more alumni that give, the more it demonstrates our support and care for the university. Alumni giving in quantity, as opposed to just $ value, is viewed by the State and others when determining how much money should be allocated to GSU. If we as alums don’t think Gramb­ling is worth our giving, why would we expect others to care???

3. JOIN a local chapter of the Grambling University National Alumni Association, Inc. (GUN­AA). I assure you, this isn’t a membership ploy. Again, there is truly strength in numbers. We have many alums wanting to do something, but are not sure what to do. We have ideas being thrown around by individual groups via email, Facebook, etc. We need ONE COHESIVE VOICE to quickly enact change. Don’t just sit around complaining, work towards progress. Your ideas are worth sharing. Hold GUNAA accountable, locally and nationally. Many of us are very busy. At times working with the alumni association can be stressful. …However, it is also rewarding, as we are supporting the university we love dearly and working with others who care about Grambling’s success, future and student well-being. In lieu of the current situation, we will need a strong voice pushing us forward, ensuring, and we’re continuing to do what’s best in support of our Dear Ol’ Grambling.”

Ardent Bayou Classic fans know that the fierceness of the rivalry between Grambling and Southern will continue to rage on despite GSU’s current woes.

“Like we say all the time, you can throw the records out the window once the game starts,” Ron James, a SU alum, told The Louisiana Weekly. “It’s all about the competition, the fellowship and the chance to shine on a national stage. This is the Bayou Classic, baby!”

“You have to take your hat off to those young brothers,” Ernest Alexander, who attended both GSU and Southern, said Thursday. “Members of that football team went out on a limb and laid it all on the line for what they felt strongly about. How many people can say they did that at the age of 19 or 20? And how many college athletes would risk everything to take a stand on their principles?”

“It’s up to us, all of us who have benefited from an education at one of the country’s HBCUs, to give back to the institutions that made our success and advancement possible,” Craig Washington, a former GSU student, told The Louisiana Weekly Thursday. “We can’t depend on the governor, state legislators or the federal government to do for us what we are more than capable of doing for ourselves. If we fail to do everything we can to support, strengthen and preserve historically Black institutions of higher learning and help them to continue to educate and uplift Black people, neither our children nor our children’s children will forgive us.”

This article originally published in the October 28, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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