Two resurgent teams to meet in the always-emotional Bayou Classic

The Bayou Classic in-state rivalry game always means something to the fans at Southern and Grambling. This year, with a shot at a record seventh appearance in the SWAC Championship Game on the line for Grambling, it means a little bit more.

That Grambling (6-4 overall, 5-3 Southwestern Athletic Conference) is in this position at all, after a 1-4 skid to open the season, only adds to the game’s multi-faceted storylines. The Tigers, under first-year returning coach Doug Williams, somehow bounced back to position themselves for that run to Birmingham, Ala. — needing now only to best Southern (4-4, 4-5) to punch their title-match ticket.

Thing is, though, Southern is equally resurgent. After posting a similarly ugly 2-5 record to start 2011, the Jaguars have won two of their last three — including a victory over Alabama State that all but knocked the defending East champs out of the championship game.

For his part, Williams says somewhere along the way his young Grambling team began to buy in to what the new staff was teaching: “I wish I could tell you the remedy. It’s the same team that had us at 1-4. We just didn’t make the plays we were hoping to make early on. We’re making those plays over the last five weeks. The guys are believing in what they are doing. I think that’s the difference. Other than that, there are no secrets; there are no remedies. We didn’t change anything we did. We just kept working hard and the guys finally got it.”

One other thing had to happen, far outside of Grambling’s control, for the Tigers to slip back in the SWAC West’s driver’s seat, though: Alabama A&M, in securing its own spot as the Eastern representatives in the championship game, topped Prairie View. That opened the division race back up on the other side of the bracket. If Grambling wins, the Tigers advance as Western representatives. If Southern wins, however, a set of tiebreakers would push Arkansas-Pine Bluff into the title match.

“It’s a good thing what we are seeing in this conference — a lot of parity,” Williams said. “The fact that it boils down to the last two weeks to determine who goes to the championship game, I think that speaks volumes.”

It also adds a vibrant spice to a neighborhood grudge match that’s always been a bubbling roux of emotion — televised since 1990 to a national audience on NBC from the Superdome in New Orleans.

“We do know for Grambling and Southern, this is the biggest game of the year,” Williams says. “For me, I was fortunate enough to play in the first one — down at Tulane Stadium. From what it meant from that day until today, I think it says alot about the two institutions in Louisiana.”


Willie Brown was a player of record-breaking skill, amazing stamina

Willie Brown (DB, Grambling State University, 1959-63) has been named to the Black College Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2012.

He joins 10 others selected from a list of 35 finalists who had been determined earlier by the Black College Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. Induction ceremonies will be held February 18, 2012 at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis during the Priority Payment Systems third annual enshrinement ceremony.

Here’s a look back at Willie Brown, whose stellar career has already earned him induction into the Pro Football, SWAC and Grambling Legends halls of fame …

So deep was Grambling’s roster in 1959-62, the only NFL player to intercept a least one pass in 16 consecutive seasons — and a five-time Super Bowl participant as a corner and secondary coach — never played defensive back.

Still, the stalwart Willie Brown lettered all four years at split end and outside linebacker, and Grambling won a title in 1960 — its first championship in the Southwestern Athletic Conference under the late Eddie Robinson, who would eventually add a record 16 more.

“He was one of the guys with great ability,” Robinson once said of Brown. “It wasn’t real important where he put him. He would have been a great running back. Or a great tight end, because he was an exceptional blocker. And he had character.”

An undrafted rookie out of Grambling in 1963, Brown eventually was signed by Houston — which then traded him away.

Bad move. Brown became a premier shut-down corner (combining speed, mobility, a fierce determination and a sharp football mind) after signing with Denver, and was all-American Football League just a year later. Over one memorable season, the Broncos secondary included a trio of Grambling products: Brown, Goldie Sellers and Nemiah Wilson.

But they didn’t do much winning. So in 1967, Brown signed with Oakland — where he sparked two Super Bowl runs, falling in 1968’s II and then winning a decade later in 1977’s XVI. In all, he pulled down 54 picks (setting a new career mark for the Raiders), and appeared in a total of five AFL All-Star games, four AFC-NFC Pro Bowls and nine AFL/AFC title games.

After retiring at ageless 38 in 1978, Brown became an assistant with the Raiders, and has helped the club to three more Super Bowls — and two more victories (XV in 1980 and XVIII in ’83; Oakland dropped 2002’s XXXVII).

“The satisfaction as a coach was just as strong as they were as a player,” Brown said. “I coached the position that I played, and I love those ball players that I coached.”

Perhaps best remembered for his then-record 75-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Vikings in Super Bowl XI, Brown was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1984, and the Grambling Legends Sports Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural class in 2009. He’s also a member of the All-Time American Football League Team.

“I just played as hard as I could,” Brown said. “Being in the Hall of Fame probably means more to your family than to yourself. I have always been the mellow guy who doesn’t put a lot of value in terms of how good I was.”

Brown’s long coaching career has included overseeing a number of standout defensive backs, notably fellow Grambling product Albert Lewis — whom he mentored at Oakland for the final five years of Lewis’ own lengthy 15-season NFL career.

“This all started at Grambling, with the things that Coach Eddie Robinson instilled in all the players,” Brown told me. “That work ethic carried over to the pros. If you look at the history of guys who came to the pros from Grambling, they had that kind of stamina.”

Starting with Hall of Famer Willie Brown.

The other 2012 inductees into the Black College Football Hall of Fame …

Harry Carson (DE, South Carolina State University, 1972-1975)
Eldridge Dickey (QB, Tennessee State University, 1964-1967)
James “Shack” Harris (QB, Grambling State University, 1965-1968)
Claude Humphrey (DE, Tennessee State University, 1964-1967)
Steve McNair (QB, Alcorn State University, 1991-1994)
Willie “Wonderful Willie” Richardson (WR, Jackson State University, 1959-1962)
Johnny Sample (DB/RB, Maryland Eastern Shore, 1954-1958)
Rayfield “Big Cat” Wright (OL, Fort Valley State, 1963-1966)
Cleve Abbott (Head Coach, Tuskegee, 1923-1954)
Jackie Graves (Former NFL Scout, former director of personnel for the Philadelphia Eagles)

The Black College Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee is comprised of journalists, historians and former football executives from around the country. The committee includes Ernie Accorsi, Charles Bailey, Gil Brandt, Charles Garcia, Donald Hunt, Mike Hurd, Ty Miller, Roscoe Nance, Charlie Neal and Lloyd Vance.

Plenty of intrigue remains as SWAC football season winds down

Though it hasn’t always been pretty — Western Division, I’m looking at you — fans have to love the way this Southwestern Athletic Conference season is winding down. With one game remaining, both divisions are still in doubt.

Two different teams could still advance to represent the East in the SWAC Championship Game, while three are alive in the West. Both divisions boast a team that controls its own destiny — and, remarkably, they play on Saturday: If Alabama A&M beats Prairie View, A&M represents the East. Meanwhile, if Prairie View tops Alabama A&M, the Panthers will advance to their second-ever league title match as the West champ.

After that, it gets more interesting. There follows a complicated list of scenario-based if/then equations — at least on one side of the bracket. In the SWAC’s Eastern divison, if Prairie View defeats Alabama A&M, then Alabama State advances to the SWAC title match. (Jackson State is, technically, involved with these scenarios, but has been ruled ineligible for postseason action.)

Peek over the West bracket, though and — well, you’ll want to get it all straight going into the final games of the league year …

In the SWAC’s Western Division, if Prairie View loses to Alabama A&M, then Grambling can advance to the SWAC Championship Game with a win over in-state rival Southern in the Bayou Classic. If both Prairie View and Grambling finish with season-ending victories, leaving both the Tigers and Prairie View at 6-3, then Panthers advance to the title match by virtue of their head-to-head win over Grambling.

What if both Grambling and Prairie View lose? That would leave a three-way tie at 5-4 between Prairie View, Grambling, and Southern, with Prairie View — which defeated both Grambling and Southern head-to-head — as the Western champ.

But wait. Arkansas-Pine Bluff, at 4-4 in the SWAC, also has a game left. What if Grambling and Prairie View lost, and UAPB won — meaning a four-way tie at 5-4 between Prairie View, Pine Bluff, Grambling and Southern? UAPB holds the tie-breaker there, by virtue of what would be its 2-1 record against the other three teams tied and a head-to-head victory over Prairie View.

So, yes, there is a scenario by which Arkansas-Pine Bluff — despite a two-game swoon beginning in late October that, at that point, had the Golden Lions posting a losing record in the SWAC — are your Western Division champions.

Here’s how it shakes out …

–If Prairie View beats Alabama A&M, then Prairie View and Alabama State will play for the SWAC title.

–If Alabama A&M and Arkansas-Pine Bluff both win, then Alabama A&M advances; the Bayou Classic will decide the Western title — A Grambling win sends the Tigers to Birmingham, Ala.; a Southern win sends Pine Bluff.

–If Alabama A&M wins and Arkansas-Pine Bluff loses, then Pine Bluff is eliminated — but the West still turns on the Bayou Classic. If Grambling wins, it’s in. If Southern wins, Prairie View will play A&M for the championship.

Simple, right?

Efforts to remove Melvin Spears are picking up steam at Alcorn State

Alcorn State president Christopher Brown seems to be giving serious consideration to the ongoing complaints from alumni regarding first-year football coach Melvin Spears — telling Ross Dellenger from The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger that there is a 50 percent chance the rookie coach will be ousted after less than a year on the job.

Spears finishes the season on Saturday against in-state Southwestern Athletic Conference rival Jackson State in the Capital City Classic. The Braves are 2-7 overall, with their only victories coming against one-win Mississippi Valley State and lower-division Concordia College.

“The bottom line is, I’m an alumnus as well — no one wants to see Alcorn win more than I do,” Spears says. “The thing about it is, if you go back and look at our history, we haven’t been very successful over the last 18 years. And when you lose 17 players off a team off that went 5-6, what could your expectations be — besides just starting the rebuilding process?”

A former coach at Grambling, Texas Southern and Alabama State, Spears signed a three-year, $130,000 contract to take over the rebuilding job in Lorman, Miss. But Alcorn State, picked as runners-up in the preseason polling for the SWAC’s Eastern Division, has won just one league game in 2011.

“I don’t think anything went wrong,” Spears says. “All you can do is come in and compete day in and day out. We’ve been in every ballgame. The only one where we weren’t early on was the Southern University game. Even against Prairie View (last week’s 40-14 defeat), we were in it until the third quarter. It really boils down to just a few playmakers here and there.”

Alcorn’s slide in the standings has been mirrored in the stands, with officially reported attendance of 2,500 on Nov. 1 against Alabama A&M and then a stunning 500 for Saturday’s stumble against Prairie View. That followed news last week that Percy Norwood, president of Alcorn State’s national alumni association, has started collecting money from boosters in the hopes of raising enough funds to offset any financial hit that the school would take by firing Spears early.

There has been, thus far, little in the way of specific complaints — other than those from players who were left behind as Spears and his new staff began making changes. The most notable departure, of course, was 2010 starting quarterback Brandon Bridge who, despite a lot of preseason hype, ended up on the bench and then out of the program. Dellenger reports that Bridge is now considering a transfer to Mississippi State.

“Alcorn alumni are not going to spread all of their dirty laundry to newspapers,” one Braves booster said. “There is a whole lot more that has gone on that needs correcting. This is not about win/lose but about the livelihood of our athletic program, our student athletes and the university as a whole. … There are concerns from alumni that are not being shared and I believe rightfully so.”

Brown, the school president, framed the issues in a broader way with The Clarion-Ledger, as well: “There seems to be a great deal of contention between our alumni and this football program. It’s clear to me there is something more than wins and losses.”

Brown has created a special commission to investigate the football program’s revenue losses and the effect on Academic Progress Rate scores from roster attitrition, as well as the staff’s relationship with alumni and parents. Brown told The Clarion-Ledger that no decision would be made until the commission’s findings are presented.

“Overall, our players are matriculating to where we think they ought to be,” Spears counters. “Our foundation is set. We look forward to what’s to come here in our program.”

If he gets that chance.

Complete black college football polls, Week 11: Jackson State remains SWAC’s highest ranked

Jackson State is the highest ranking Southwestern Athletic Conference team in the latest Sheridan Broadcasting Network Black College Football Poll, and is also the only SWAC team ranked in the Sports Network/ FCS Top 25, at No. 21 — one spot behind the MEAC’s Norfolk State.

The Sheridan poll, which includes lower division programs as well, has Winston-Salem State at No. 1, followed by Bethune-Cookman and Norfolk State — both MEAC programs. Norfolk State was top ranked in the Heritage Sports Radio Network and Dr. Cavil’s Black College Major Division Football Top 10.

Elsewhere, Alabama A&M and Alabama State, in an on-going battle for the SWAC East crown, at at Nos. 7-8 in the Sheridan voting. Grambling — after putting up its fifth win in a row last week — has also entered into the Top rankings.

Team, (first-place votes), record, points, previous rank
1. Winston-Salem State: (22), 11-0, 264, 1
2. Bethune-Cookman: (5), 7-3, 249, 3
3. Norfolk State: (3), 9-2, 196, 6
4. Jackson State: 8-2, 165, 7
5. Florida A&M: 7-3, 151, 8
6. South Carolina State: 6-4, 93, 9
7. Alabama A&M: 7-3, 86, 2
8. Alabama State: 7-3, 68, 5
9. Albany State: 8-3, 52, 4
10. Grambling State: 6-4, 41, NR
Others receiving votes: Morehouse 34, Hampton 29, Miles College 26, Elizabeth City State 19, North Carolina A&T 13.

Team, (first-place votes), record, points, previous rank
1. Norfolk State: (20), 9-2, 200, 2
2. Jackson State: 8-2, 180, 4
3. Florida A&M: 7-3, 141, 5
4. Alabama A&M: 7-3, 135, 1
5. Alabama State: 7-3, 110, 3
6. Bethune-Cookman: 7-3, 107, 7
7. South Carolina State: 6-4, 103,6
8. Howard: 5-5, 47, 8
9. Hampton: 6-4, 39, 9
10. Grambling State: 6-4, 33, 10
Others receiving votes: Prairie View 1.

Team, (first-place votes), record, points, previous rank
20. Norfolk State Spartans 9-2 855 22
21. Jackson State Tigers 8-2 766 21
Others receiving votes: Indiana State 331, North Dakota 195, Youngstown State 141, Jacksonville State 139, Stony Brook 135, Alabama State 98, San Diego 84, Bethune-Cookman 67, Duquesne 51, Drake 50, Eastern Kentucky 43, Brown 41, Chattanooga 39, William & Mary 28, Georgetown 24, Albany 19, Stephen F. Austin 18, Bryant 11, Southern Utah 11, Murray State 10, Florida A&M 10, Grambling State 8, South Carolina State 8, South Dakota State 6, Alabama A&M 5, Samford 5, Eastern Washington 5, Elon 4, Cal Poly 4, Tennessee State 2, Jacksonville 1, Massachusetts 1.

Details had not arrived as of Tuesday morning.

Rank, team, (record), first-place votes, total points, previous ranking, last week and next week’s opponent
1. Norfolk State: (9-2), (9), 106, 3 (Beat Morgan State 47-14, Open)
2. Jackson State: (8-2), (3), 92, 4 (Beat Alabama A&M 34-6, vs. Alcorn State)
3. Florida A&M: (7-3), 84, 5 (Beat North Carolina Central 31-10, vs. Bethune-Cookman)
4. Bethune-Cookman: (7-3), 83, 6 (Beat Savannah State 59-3, vs. Florida A&M)
5. Alabama A&M: (7-3), 70, 1, (Lost to Jackson State 34-6, at Prairie View A&M)
6. Alabama State: (7-3), 68, 2 (Lost to Southern 26-23, Open)
7. South Carolina State: (6-4), 32, 7 (Beat North Carolina A&T 30-22, at Savannah State)
8. Grambling State: (6-4), 30, 8 (Beat Texas Southern 29-25, Open)
9. Hampton: (6-4), 12, 9 (Beat Delaware State 42-6, vs. Morgan State)
10. Prairie View A&M: (5-5), 11, NR (Beat Alcorn State 40-14, vs. Alabama A&M)
Dropped out: Morgan State (5-5). Also receiving votes: Tennessee State (5-5) 8, Howard (5-5) 7, Morgan State (5-5) 6, Arkansas-Pine Bluff (5-5) 3.

Rank, team, total points, first-place votes
22. Norfolk State: 433
Also receiving votes: 28. Jackson State Tigers, 52; 40. Bethune-Cookman Wildcats, 8.

Rank, team, (first-place votes)
17. Jackson State
19. Norfolk State
Others receiving votes: Stony Brook; Tennessee Tech; Furman; Jacksonville State; North Dakota; Samford; Georgetown; Albany; Duquesne; Florida A&M; Eastern Kentucky; Alabama A&M.

Despite its record, and stunning alumni recall effort, Alcorn has been competitive

As an Alcorn State alumni group tries to organize what amounts to a recall campaign — yes, already — nobody is more surprised than first-year Alcorn State coach Melvin Spears.

Spears (who, you’ll remember, arrived on the eve of the 2011 National Signing Day) has seen his rebuilding team struggle to a 2-6 overall record, but four of those losses came by just one score. In fact, the Braves — despite essentially missing a year of talent infusion — have been consistently competitive.

Alcorn just needs to learn how to close out games: It jumped out to a one-score early lead against Grambling, was ahead 20-10 against Arkansas-Pine Bluff after two quarters, tied Alabama State 10-10 at the half, and was tied 14-14 through three quarters last week against Alabama A&M. Each of those contests, however, ended up as losses.

“Our team is playing very hard in every ballgame,” Spears told me. “We just need to make a few more plays to do the things we want to do. The gameplan is in tact. We still need a few more really good young players to get over the hump. That’s just the way it is.”

Spears, who played for Alcorn legend Marino Casem, returned to his alma mater after second-year coach Earnest Collins left for Northern Colorado. He was part of a group of finalists that included fellow former Alcorn football players Fred McNair, the brother of the late Steve McNair, and Dwayne White.

Spears’ honeymoon didn’t last long: The Alcorn State University Alumni Foundation has somehow already begun an effort to have him removed, releasing a letter this week outlining a goal to raise $130,000 by Dec. 10 — to be used as a warchest to buy out Spears’ contract.

Again, I say: Already?

Did anybody — even the loyalists who make up any university alumni foundation — think Alcorn was going to overcome years of mediocrity (to put it mildly) and rush past entrenched SWAC East powers like Jackson State, Alabama A&M and Alabama State … in 10 months? One of those three programs has advanced to every one of the 12 Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Games ever held. Alcorn State, meanwhile, last claimed a league crown in 1994, when members of the current team where in grade school — and five years before the title match was created.

The letter reads, in part: “We began this year with tremendous anticipation and expectations of a great season for Alcorn athletics. Alcorn hired new coaches in football and basketball, recruited a great class of student-athletes to complement those returning players, and alumni support was strong. However, the football program has turned disastrous. The relationship between the football coaching staff and parents of some student-athletes has been volatile.”

Turned disastrous? This is an instutition that, at one point, was going through head coaches like other programs go through Gatorade.

Who can forget former Alcorn athletics director Darren Hamilton firing Ernest T. Jones and his entire staff in December 2008 — then, days later, reinstated Jones’ assistants? Lawsuits, inevitably, ensued. Collins, one of the reinstated, ultimately signed a one-year contact as head coach in March 2009. Two years later, of course, he was gone.

Then there’s the letter’s last sentence, which underscores the Alcorn alumni group’s loud complaints about the departure of former starting quarterback Brandon Bridge — a standout last year who never meshed with the Spears and Co.

What in the wide, wide world of sports is going on around here? Have we gotten to the point where a new hire doesn’t even get a year to reshape a program with his own vision — even one that has woefully underperformed for a very long time? Can these boosters actually find no better use for $130K at tiny Alcorn State — a program that doesn’t even have sweatsuits for its football team, with winter upon us — than to buy out a coach who has yet to finish his initial campaign? Finally, are football staffs now clearing depth-chart changes with the alumni?

I hope not.

All of this seems so premature that you have to wonder if there is something else going on. Does this amount to sour grapes from boosters who backed one of the other finalists for the Alcorn coaching position? Or has Spears, in the flurry of activity associated with taking over at that disastrously late date, not shaken the right hand yet?

Spears, for his part, has kept his focus squarely on the field.

“We got here a day before recruiting,” Spears said, “and I thought the staff did a great job of bringing in some outstanding individuals. But there is a learning curve, and we need to keep building toward our goals. That’s all I can be concerned with right now.”

It’s far, far from over in the SWAC’s wild, wild West

Asked, the week after Grambling lost to Prairie View, if his season was over, Doug Williams was typically blunt: “We’ve still got more games to play, right? So, the season isn’t over.”

If that seemed a bit too hopeful to fans fretting over a rebuilding Grambling squad that had lost four in a row after a season-opening victory over Alcorn State, it’s become clear that the team itself bought into Williams’ message. The youthful crew at Grambling has gone on to win the next three conference contests in a row to pull even with Prairie View’s 4-3 record atop the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s Western Division standings. Prairie View, also in rebuilding mode, has skidded to three straight losses.

Then there’s Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Despite being decimated by player suspensions after a fight with Southern, the Golden Lions are lurking just one game back at 3-4 in league play.

In other words, Coach Williams had a point: This thing is far, far from over.

“I don’t think we can have a pity party over what’s happened to us,” said Arkansas-Pine Bluff coach Monte Coleman. A record of “5-4 may do in the West this year. We have to win these two football games to keep that hope alive. The West is not completely closed.”

Pine Bluff has beaten Prairie View and lost to Grambling. Even if Grambling wins out, it needs Prairie View to lose again. Still, to be in the conversation is a testament to both the resiliency of the Tigers — and the wide-open nature of the traditionally ultra-competitive SWAC West.

“We can’t get too caught up in being in the thick of it, because three weeks ago we were left for dead — and we somehow found a resperator,” Williams reminds. “It’s what I’ve been telling them from Day One: We’re all we’ve got. This is about self help. We have to do what we are supposed to do; we can’t rely on anybody helping us. If things work out in the end, so be it. If we continue to play like we can, then let the chips fall where they may.”

The season’s remaining two games will tell the tale. Grambling plays host this week to Texas Southern and then, after a bye, faces in-state SWAC rival Southern in the Bayou Classic. Prairie View, meanwhile, travels to Alcorn State than plays host to Alabama A&M. Arkansas-Pine Bluff travels to Mississippi Valley State this week, then plays host to Texas Southern.

“We’re still in the race,” Coleman adds. “If we win these two, it might be a flip of coin to get us in. Crazier things have happened. So, we’re trying finish 6-5 and see what’s out there for us as far as winning the SWAC.”