Cliff Exama came to Grambling because he wanted to win. And in 2008, when the middle linebacker started playing as a freshman, he and the Tigers won. A lot.
Under then-coach Rod Broadway, they went undefeated in Southwestern Athletic Conference play, then hammered Jackson State in the championship game 41-9.
Titles were nothing new to Grambling, of course. But the experience was new to Exama, who made a grave mistake.
“When we won that first one in ’08, it was like, ‘Oh, man, winning the SWAC was easy. We’ll do it every year,’” Exama said. “Then people started beating us. We had to realize it’s not that easy.”
Fast-forward to Saturday, to the 2011 title game in Birmingham, Ala., when the Tigers stormed back from a 15-point deficit to take a one-point lead against Alabama A&M.
With time running out, A&M drove to the Grambling 36-yard line. Facing a fourth-and-6, the Bulldogs went for it. Thanks to experience and film study, Exama recognized A&M’s formation and knew that they were almost certain to pass.
So he dropped back in coverage, and he played down-and-distance, sitting on a curl route as quarterback Deaunte Mason rolled left and let loose a wobbly pass.
Exama attacked. He picked it off, sealing a 16-15 win.
“This season was epic,” Exama said Sunday.
With two rings and a signature play in his final game, Exama secured his spot in Grambling’s packed-to-the-gills football history. His college career is over. But before he leaves campus, he wants to make an impact one more time.
Exama wants his younger teammates to understand something.
“I know a lot other players will be like, ‘We’ll win it every year,’” Exama said. “I want them to know it’s not going to be easy winning the championship. It’s going to take a lot of work.”
The man has a point.
Even though Grambling — with its nationally known name, a host of young players and another year under Doug Williams — figures to contend in the SWAC Western Division again next season, its path to back-to-back titles is littered with landmines.
Prairie View and Arkansas-Pine Bluff both came within one win of clinching the West title, and after blowing several opportunities, both teams had only themselves to blame for missing out.
Even Southern — which finished 4-7 and was completely outclassed in a 36-12 loss at the Bayou Classic — could’ve finished alone in first place, if it only had a stronger kicking game. Lest anyone forget, the team lost four games by a total of 13 points.
Yes, the jury is very much out on Stump Mitchell. After two years, his 6-16 record is hardly Mumford-esque; and the Jaguars have plenty of work to do — in the classroom, in recruits’ living rooms, in the weight room and on the practice fields.
But this year proved that the Western Division is still up for grabs.
It’s there for any team that wants to attack.