Storylines, not Grambling's tradition, sells Saturday's game

It’s too bad Grambling State vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff isn’t a meeting of the two best teams in the SWAC, or even two teams still with a chance to win the SWAC’s Western Division.

But it’s still a big game, nonetheless. The reasons why? We didn’t see those coming two years ago.

The two most recent SWAC champions, separated by a 3-hour drive in the Delta, will square off at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Golden Lion Stadium for UAPB’s last home game of the season. Each team has overcome a long losing streak in its most recent game, getting its first win of the year against perennial cellar-dweller Mississippi Valley State.

The problem is, UAPB and Grambling State are cellar-dwellers, too. Not what we expected from the past two champions.

Or the past three, for that matter.

The loser of Saturday’s game will remain on the path toward becoming the third straight defending SWAC champion to finish at the bottom of the Western Division. Texas Southern was 4-7 and 2-7 in 2011, the season after it fired coach Johnnie Cole in the wake of NCAA violations. Grambling State, which won a key game at UAPB in 2011 en route to the title, inexplicably dropped to 1-10 and 0-9 last year, and continued struggles led to the firing of maybe its most notable alumnus, Doug Williams.

UAPB has gone from a 10-2 overall, 8-1 conference season to 1-7 and 1-5, just one fewer conference loss than last-place Grambling State (1-9, 1-6).

Is there a curse going on? Nah. Preventable situations have had a negative effect on Texas Southern (what if it didn’t commit the violations?) and UAPB (what if some key players remained eligible?)

Grambling State, on the other hand? Well, that’s why I use the word “inexplicably.”

A program with so much history and tradition that for decades has been the face of black college football has fallen flat on its back. And the problems that have surrounded the program aren’t only found on the football field.

The Tigers’ record itself is no bigger issue than the drama it led to (in part). With not much to lose, the Tigers protested Williams’ firing and the conditions of their athletic facilities and equipment by skipping out on Jackson State’s homecoming.

If anything, it’s a black eye for the SWAC. The conference’s most popular brand has lost a little luster — but it still brings storylines.

Look how the Tigers have done in their two games since the boycott: They took Texas Southern to overtime and defeated Valley.

By recent standards, Grambling State is on a mean streak. And that, coupled with UAPB’s well-known close calls in conference play this season, adds a little spice to this Saturday’s game. Even without that usual Grambling luster.

Oh, by the way, Dennis Winston is coming back to UAPB — as Grambling State’s interim head coach. We didn’t see that coming either, did we?

You know the story, by now. Winston was elevated from defensive coordinator the week of the forfeit to Jackson State, not to replace Williams, but in place of Williams’ interim successor George Ragsdale. The past three seasons, he was defensive line coach at UAPB.

Oh, Saturday’s game has really gotten interesting — with nothing other than pride at stake.

That’s not how anyone envisioned it, but it’s still worth the price of admission.

I.C. Murrell is the sports editor of The Commercial. Email him at