New Grambling State interim coach Dennis Winston began his turn in Monday’s SWAC coaches’ teleconference previewing his team’s upcoming game against Texas Southern.
Yes, Grambling State plans to play this Saturday. But questions about his players’ decision to forfeit a game at Jackson State this past Saturday were sure to come.
“One thing about it, we’re going to put everything behind us and do what these young men came to do and play football,” Winston said.
Grambling State missed what would have been Jackson State’s homecoming contest, capping a five-day protest by the players over the condition of athletic facilities and the firing of coach Doug Williams two games into the season. George Ragsdale, who originally replaced Williams, was fired last week and replaced by Winston, who was in his first year as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. Winston spent the past three seasons as defensive line coach at Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Winston said no players left the team after the forfeit and expected everyone to practice Monday. He doesn’t think his players’ missing about a week of practice will hurt them.
“I think the guys are very focused,” Winston said. “They made their statement and we’re just looking forward.”
This is the first head coaching gig for Winston, a standout linebacker at Arkansas in the 1970s who played 11 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints. He also was an assistant coach at Arkansas, Arkansas State, Norfolk State, Toledo and the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos.
Winston was asked how he will approach his new role.
“Sit back, pay attention and be aware of the things around you,” he said. “The immediate goal is to get this team together. The long-term goal will come however, and that is to be a head football coach.”
Website: Players issue statement
Grambling State safety Naquan Smith released a statement on behalf of the players concerning the recent boycott and plans to finish the season.
The statement was posted by CBSSports.com.
“As part of the athletic program at Grambling State University, the football team, took a stance on what we thought was right,” the statement began. “We did not quit on our university. There are many problems that exist and if no one says anything, nothing will come of our institution. We hope Coach Eddie Robinson and his legendary players can appreciate that we stood up for what we thought was right.”
Robinson, who died in 2007, was head coach at Grambling for 57 years and is the winningest Division I coach in history.
According to the statement, a meeting was held among the players and six men including Jim Bernhard of Baton Rouge, La., and five others later referred to as “Legends,” but it was not clear whether they are Grambling football greats. Bernhard, whose occupation was not identified, ensured the team would have updated facilities, but the players had to agree to return to practice Monday and finish the rest of the season, the statement continued.
“Although we are going to continue our season, we have not forgotten the situation and how we’ve gotten here,” the statement read. “… Grambling has given us the opportunity to be a part of its legacy and we are only looking to improve conditions for the university and future student-athletes.”
Facilities make a difference
Winston understood his players’ reasons for boycotting the Jackson State game.
“If you saw our facilities, then you would know why it took place,” he said.
It was widely reported the deterioration of Grambling State’s facilities and long bus rides to games in Kansas City and Indianapolis were among chief concerns the Tigers had. For some schools in the SWAC, properly maintaining facilities regardless of their age or adding new ones has been a challenge in recent years.
Some coaches in the SWAC voiced their opinion on the boycott during Monday’s teleconference.
“If anybody has a right to boycott and sit out, it’s the players,” Mississippi Valley State coach Karl Morgan said. “It was good to have solidarity and unity.”
Then again, the Tigers’ decision to boycott left Morgan “dumbfounded.” He’s dealt with the challenge of upgrading facilities since he first arrived in Itta Bena for the 2010 season.
“I know Valley has far worse facilities than Grambling,” Morgan said, although his home Rice-Totten Stadium has undergone some renovations. “We try to be top-dollar with every dollar we can. I’ve been mindful we don’t have the facilities. Facilities don’t win games, but they win student-athletes.”
Prairie View A&M coach Heishma Northern said he wasn’t sure about going so far as to skip a game, but added he was a part of player protests when he competed at Southern in the 1990s.
Prairie View’s 6,000-seat Edward Blackshear Stadium has yet to undergo significant improvements, although plans for a new stadium have been revealed as recent as 2010.
“I would tell my players if they decided to boycott a game, I’ll back you only if the reasons are legitimate and not based on personal agendas,” Northern said.
Jackson State coach Rick Comegy said he tried “to keep everything normal” for his football team Saturday, when Grambling State was supposed to visit.
Jackson State held an intrasquad scrimmage and got to greet fans in the stands and sign autographs afterward, calling it a positive the team could take out of the situation.
“You accept what happens, like anything in life,” Comegy said. “You keep everything normal for the kids and move on to the next game.”
SWAC: No fine issued
The SWAC said in a statement Monday that Grambling State has not been fined as a result of its forfeit.
The conference on Friday said in a news release the school was subject to fine for failing to compete in a conference event. The SWAC added Monday it was working with the school administration “to resolve and ensure that the appropriate actions are made,” but did not specify those actions.
“The Grambling State situation affects the entire conference,” SWAC commissioner Duer Sharp said Monday. “We would like to commend Jackson State University President Dr. Carolyn W. Meyers and athletics director Dr. Vivian L. Fuller for creating a homecoming experience for their students, fans and alumni.”