Let me tell you a story.
In 2012, I sat down with then-newly appointed USC wide receivers coach Tee Martin. Among other things, we talked about the hurdles black coaches have to overcome to rise through the ranks. So as the conversation was coming to an end, we somehow got on the topic of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
And Coach Martin said something I will never forget: “You know, the desegregation of the SEC really killed HBCU sports. No one’s really ever talked about that. But before that happened, the HBCUs were the place to be.”
As a Californian, HBCU history was unfamiliar to me at that time. I knew some schools – Mississippi Valley State, Jackson State, Florida A&M, for example – had historically significant programs, but that’s about as far as it went. But Martin’s comment intrigued me. So I said, “You know coach, if I ever go to grad school one day, I’m gonna tell that story.”
And so I did.
After a couple years of researching, I published StudentBodyLeft.com (completely shameless plug right here!), which chronicled the history of two schools: Southern University and Grambling State University.
Back then Grambling was in the headlines, but not for anything good.
Because of subpar athletic facility conditions – thanks largely impart to the side-eye worthy decision of Louisiana’s then-governor, Bobby Jindal – Grambling saw its budget slashed by 56 percent, beginning in 2008.
This all culminated in the 2013 team boycotting the season, a heartbreaking reality for a program that once was the home of titans like Eddie Robinson.
But then something changed.
Fast forward to 2016, and the turnaround Grambling has experienced is the most compelling story of this college football season that no one is talking about.
Three seasons ago, the Tigers were 1-10 and all but dead as a program. But then Broderick Fobbs replaced former Grambling head coach (and quarterback legend) Doug Williams, and a new era began for the program.
Under Fobbs, the Tigers are 27-9 since 2014, have posted back-to-back undefeated seasons in conference play and the FCS-ranked No. 14 Tigers will make their first appearance in the Celebration Bowl (which is commonly known as the “HBCU National Championship”) this weekend against North Carolina Central University.
And the Tigers aren’t just winning – they’re dominating.
They’ve outscored opponents 470-165 in wins this year, including two shutouts against University of Arkansas – Pine Bluff and Alabama State. When they beat rival Southern in the 2016 Bayou Classic, it not only gave them a berth in the SWAC Championship, but also marked their 18th straight conference win.
In fact, their only truly competitive conference challenge this season came in the SWAC Championship, where Grambling had to overcome being shutout in the first half to beat Alcorn State, 27-20.
For his efforts, Fobbs has earned SWAC Coach of the Year honors in each of his three years at the helm. He was also a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award this season, but lost out to K.C. Keeler from Sam Houston State.
And individually, his players are pretty dang good, too.
Grambling had 14 All-Conference selections, nine of which were first teamers, including SWAC Defensive Player of the Year, Donovan McCray and SWAC Offensive Player the Year, DeVante Kincade.
Kincade – a quarterback who formerly played for the Ole Miss Rebels – completely balled for the Tigers, amassing 29 passing touchdowns and 2,864 passing yards and six more touchdowns on the ground, with 348 rushing yards.
And he did it all while only throwing two picks on the season. Let that sink in.
Grambling State has undergone the most incredible transformation, by far, of any college football team in recent years. Far more compelling than Penn State rebounding from crippling sanctions a few years ago to beating Wisconsin this year in the Big 10 Championship game, and more compelling still than USC finding new life under head coach Clay Helton after several seasons of drama that would make Hollywood screenwriters salivate.
That’s because Grambling rebuilt itself with a fraction of the money and resources that the Nittany Lions and Trojans have. And they haven’t received half as much recognition for it, either.
The greater college football world may not be paying attention to Grambling. It may not notice that, if Grambling beats the MEAC champion North Carolina Central Eagles in the Celebration Bowl, it will be a defining moment for a program that almost closed its doors three seasons ago.
But in a sleepy, central Louisiana town off I-20, something special is happening again. A program that has lived in its own shadow for decades is finally remerging as something completely different than it once was, but still, it could be great.
And if they do get that Celebration Bowl win, it’ll be safe to say that the Grambling State Tigers have re-earned their stripes.