Grambling football, former Tigers quarterback and coach Doug Williams likes to say, has special meaning and standing in the sport.
But in Williams’ second go-round, that something unfortunately meant chaos in the program in 2013, the embarrassment of having to forfeit a game after a player boycott and going through three coaches that season, which concluded with a single victory for the second straight year.
Two years later, though, Grambling is back.
Saturday’s come-from-behind 34-23 victory against archrival Southern in the 42nd Bayou Classic wrapped up an undefeated SWAC Western Conference championship for the Tigers.
Now it’s on to next Saturday’s conference championship game against Alcorn State and, with a victory, a trip to Atlanta to face MEAC champion North Carolina A&T in the inaugural Celebration Bowl.
But this one — in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against the team that Tigers fans and players want to beat above all others — is the one that they’re likely to remember most about this season.
“This is a childhood dream,” said senior cornerback Nicholas Peoples, whose end-zone second-quarter interception and return to the Grambling 46-yard line was the biggest of several momentum-turning plays that got the Tigers out of a 20-3 deficit. “It’s every Louisiana kid’s dream to make it to the Superdome and win the state championship. That’s what this feels like today.”
It was also that kind of feeling for Broderick Fobbs, a Grambling man (Class of 1997) who returned to his alma mater last year to try to restore Grambling to the place in HBCU football — make that the sport in general — it first achieved under Eddie Robinson but had struggled to maintain in the two decades since his retirement.
“Our kids have been through a lot,” said Fobbs, whose team came within a stopped quarterback sneak of winning last year’s game and the division title that went with it. “But we were able to bring in a winning mentality. We just poured into them that we cared about them personally. That’s the most important thing, letting them know you care about them. Then they’ll go through a wall for you.”
If that sounds a lot like the way things were under Robinson, it’s easy to understand since Fobbs played on some of his final teams.
“Growing up, Grambling was all I knew,” he said. “Most people in this state grow up wanting to be Tigers, but they meant purple and gold Tigers. But to me, I was surrounded by black and gold Tigers. That’s why this is such a special job for me.”
Fobbs made sure to surround himself with like-minded assistants, not the least of which is his father, Lee, also a former Grambling running back (Class of 1973).
Lee, who has coached at a number of FCS schools, became his son’s running backs coach last year.
“I can’t find any words to express how proud I am today,” Lee said. “We talk about a lot of things in this coaching profession, but one of them is winning the right way. That’s why I’m so proud of Broderick. And when you see how he’s been able to come back to Grambling and do that, well, it means a lot.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Grambling’s rise from the ashes is that it has been accomplished primarily with players who endured at least one of the one-win seasons.
The Tigers started 16 juniors and seniors Saturday. Perhaps that’s because, even when things are bad, players want to remain attached to the school.
“When I came on my visit, Coach Doug showed all the history and all of the tradition, and I just fell in love with it,” said Peoples, who prepped at Byrd in Shreveport. “Guys really buy into it. And Coach Fobbs does a great job of bringing in guys that were Grambling greats. You listen to them, and you want to be a Grambling great, too.”
Among those Grambling greats is Wilbert Ellis, who first came to the Lincoln Parish school as a student in the late 1950s and was later both a member of Robinson’s staff and the Tigers baseball coach.
Ellis, who will turn 80 next month, is now director of the Eddie Robinson Museum, located on the campus.
Friday night, it was Ellis whom Fobbs asked to address the players. And Saturday, Ellis was among those celebrating on the Superdome floor.
“It just makes me feel so good to see Broderick doing so well with the team,” Ellis said. “He reminds me of Eddie.
“We’d just about hit bottom. But Grambling will never die.”