He says he didn’t do it for the money. That point may be moot, anyway, since Grambling — the Louisiana-based HBCU that fired Melvin Spears as head football coach after the 2006 season — says it’s going to appeal a dramatic half-million dollar judgment handed down last week in his wrongful termination suit.
No, Spears says it was vindication. Vindication that he shouldn’t have been so quickly shown the door, just one year after going undefeated on the way to a Southwestern Athletic Conference championship. Vindication for the long journey he took after that firing, as Spears returned to assistant coaching for four seasons before finally rejoining the head-coaching ranks this offseason at his alma mater, Alcorn State.
“To get that vindication, that was really what it was all about,” said Spears, who was awarded $460,500 in damages and $130,000 in attorneys fees by an East Baton Rouge Parish jury on Friday. “It’s unfortunate that we had to go to those lengths to get it done. But now its given me a clean slate to move forward with the legacy that (Alcorn and SWAC hall of famer) Marino Casem built here.”
Spears was named interim head coach at Grambling in 2004, after Doug Williams — who has since returned to GSU — took a front-office job with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Spears had served as offensive coordinator and assistant head coach to Williams as Grambling won a trio of conference titles in 2000-02. The team went 6-5 in Spears’ initial season, winning all of its home games, and then 11-1 in 2005, before slumping to 3-8 in 2006 after the graduation of record-smashing quarterback Bruce Eugene. Spears said, even as he rebuilt, Grambling had fielded a competitive team in ’06 — one that lost six games by a touchdown or less, including two in overtime, yet he was fired that December.
“There is always going to ba transitional period when you lose a player like Bruce Eugene,” said Spears, who has since hired Eugene to oversee quarterbacks at Alcorn. “It took a little time to gel. Look at the next year (when head coach Rod Broadway took over at Grambling), that maturity showed. They went all way the way to the SWAC Championship Game, and then turned around and won it the season after that.”
Spears’ attorney Wade Shows argued that he was fired without cause, violating a contract with three seasons remaining that would have paid Spears at least $156,000 a year. School officials indicated at the time that Spears’ termination was related to an on-going NCAA investigation into the football program. But, by the fall of 2007, college football’s governing board had cleared Grambling of any significant wrongdoing, only citing the school for five secondary offenses during Spears’ tenure.
That only bolstered Spears’ argument, he said.
“I have never fortgotten the day all of that happened, but we’ve gone on,” Spears said. “Our players helped win a fifth championship for Grambling, with the athletes that we assembled. When Coach Williams left there, he left some great pieces, and then we left Broadway some pieces.”
Spears, 51, conceded that the situation will likely intensify the ongoing conference rivalry between Grambling and Alcorn State, who face off in the 2011 season opener for both teams. But he insists that he holds no hard feelings toward the program that he once so proudly represented.
“You had some new people come in there, including an athletic director who was inexperienced,” Spears said. “You need people who have a great understanding about what goes on in collegiate athletics. You have to give each and every person the opportunity to do his job. I think that’s what we ran into into, some inexperience. They made some rash decisions that put the institution in a bad spot.”
Shows said in published reports last week that interest could bring the total award to a staggering $724,500.