East: Southern, Grambling happy to make Classic great (again) _lowres

Advocate file photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Southern coach Dawson Odums walks among his players during pregame warmups at Alcorn State last seaon in Lorman, Miss. On Saturday, Odums -- who also serves as hos own defensive coordinator -- will match wits with Prairie View coach Willie Simmons, who serves as defensive coordinator.

There were enough dignitaries stretched across the dais on the floor of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to field one unit of a team Tuesday morning.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Louisiana Lt. Gov. Jay Dardene, business and civic leaders took turns at the microphone to tout the Bayou Classic game between Southern and Grambling on Saturday afternoon.

They were even able to squeeze in the leaders of the Jaguars and Tigers athletics and football programs to talk about the showdown for the Southwestern Athletic Conference Western Division title.

It was one big, happy family, smiling from ear to ear and trading good-natured barbs in anticipation of the 41st edition of the Classic, one featuring the highest football stakes in 10 years.

The longtime rivals feature many ties. Grambling interim athletic director Patricia Cage-Bibbs and Southern football coach Dawson Odums were both coaches at North Carolina A&T, and both indicated that she cooks a mean pot of gumbo.

Odums coached under Lee Fobbs, whose son Broderick has orchestrated Grambling’s remarkable worst-to-first turnaround in his first season as Tigers head coach with his father at his side.

Southern athletic director William Broussard, whose parents both graduated from Grambling, briefly crossed paths with Broderick Fobbs at Northwestern State before Fobbs was hired at McNeese State.

Broussard and Cage-Bibbs took turns inviting each other to be their guest at the SWAC Championship Game on Dec. 6 in Houston.

It figures to be one of the most intense Bayou Classics in recent memory Saturday, but Tuesday provided an opportunity for everyone to appreciate everyone’s role in revitalizing this event.

“Even though we compete hard against each other, Grambling and Southern are family,” Broderick Fobbs said. “Thanksgiving is a great week to get together. We pull for Southern when we’re not playing them and I’m pretty sure they do the same thing with us.”

A few minutes later, Odums deadpanned: “I can promise you one thing. Southern does not root for them.”

But in reality, who at Grambling or Southern would not have rooted for what this week’s game has become? Both teams are 7-1 and either Southern will win and get a chance to play for a second consecutive SWAC title, or Grambling will return to the title game it won three years ago.

“I think it’s a tremendous job when you look at where they were at last year,” Odums said of Grambling’s turnaround. “When the season is over, I’ll look forward to spending some time with (Broderick Fobbs) and talking to him because that’s a tremendous job, and it’s right that we give notice to it — because you look at where they were, that’s tough.

“I take my hat off to them for a well-done job in 2014.”

In 2013, Grambling had the worst record in the SWAC after going through three coaches during the season and bottoming out with a forfeit loss at Jackson State when players refused to make the trip in protest of conditions in the athletic program, including the coaching situation.

Odums can appreciate how quickly Fobbs put the Tigers on the right track, having taken over as interim head coach when Stump Mitchell was reassigned after a 0-2 start in 2012 and winning a championship 15 months later.

Southern, like several of its SWAC brethren, has had to overcome obstacles such as NCAA probation borne from insufficient Academic Progress Rates and the reporting of such.

Odums lost some players for the season because of ineligibility and other for several games because of a lack of academic certification. It led to a rocky start that’s been followed by a current six-game win streak.

Both coaches have restored success and dignity to the programs that compete every year in the SWAC’s signature event, one that brings the conference more attention than even the title game.

Broderick Fobbs said he attended his first Bayou Classic when he was three months old. He spent many of his Thanksgiving weekends playing makeshift football games in the hallways of New Orleans hotels while his dad was an assistant coach on Eddie Robinson’s staff.

The business folks who depend on a big Bayou Classic crowd are appreciative of the renewed interest generated by the resurgent football programs.

And the football programs are clearly appreciative of one another.