Sean Isabella and Daniel Uthman, USA TODAY Sports
GRAMBLING, La. — Hours after Grambling State University president Frank Pogue reiterated his support for the school's athletic program and football team Friday morning, only 22 members of the team showed up for their bus ride to Jackson, Miss., where they were scheduled to play Jackson State on Saturday.
Jackson State officials said at 5:30 p.m. CT that the game has been canceled and tickets will be refunded, though homecoming activities will go on as planned with the addition of an intrasquad scrimmage.
"I've been in touch with the (Southwestern Athletic Conference) and Jackson State University and this has been declared a no contest," Grambling spokesperson Will Sutton said in a statement.
Grambling athletics director Aaron James said Friday night that Grambling decided to forfeit the game at 4:30 CT and that the school will have to pay a $20,000 fine to the SWAC in accordance with league bylaws. The 22 players accounted for roughly 25 percent of the Tigers' roster.
James said the school pushed back the scheduled departure time an hour until 3:30 p.m., and that officials were hopeful the team would be on the buses. However, the buses were sitting idle and empty as of 3:35 p.m., five minutes after the university-imposed deadline for the team to appear.
Around 3:45 p.m., Grambling officials came to talk to the bus drivers, who were standing near the vehicles, hands in their pockets and looking confused. A few minutes later, the drivers loaded the buses and left without players aboard.
"Where do we go from here? We wait until Monday and see if they come to weight training," James said. "If you get 22 more to come Monday, you got 44, and now you can play a football game."
Former coach Doug Williams, who was fired from his position on Sept. 11, said in a text message to USA TODAY Sports on Friday afternoon, "I'm proud of them boys. They took a stance."
At 4:15 p.m., Grambling administrators met to determine what to do about the situation. James confirmed that an email had been sent to players stating that a revocation of scholarships was a possible repercussion of boycotting the game. "It wasn't a threat," James said. "We were just showing them that these were the things that could happen. Everybody got to realize, when there's an action there's a reaction.
"There's a clause in that if you don't go to practice, don't go to the game, your scholarship can be revoked, but we don't think we're going to enforce that today."
Pogue and James had said during a Friday morning news conference they expected the team to play Saturday. "We're going to Jackson and we're going to play Jackson State for their homecoming," said Pogue, who added he would be in the stands Saturday night.
The public appearance was Pogue's first since Williams was fired.
"We support our team when we are losing and when we are winning," Pogue said. "Our goal right now is to move forward with our academic and our athletic program. We support our men on and off the field."
Pogue's comments came amid a tumultuous week for the football program when the players walked out on a Tuesday meeting with administration, boycotted two days of practice, then witnessed interim coach George Ragsdale removed from his post. The team is upset about the firing of Williams, long bus trips to Kansas City and Indianapolis and poor facilities, including the weight room, although James said earlier Friday that the weight room will receive a $32,000 face-lift within the next two or three weeks.
"One concern was, not just the administration, but they felt that the student body and people weren't behind them," said Grambling dean of students David Ponton, who acted as a liaison. "(Thursday), a lot of those students voiced their support of the players. We're having a tough season. When you lose, everybody is against you. When you win, everybody is for you."
Grambling has lost 15 consecutive SWAC games and 18 in a row to NCAA opponents. Defensive coordinator Dennis "Dirt" Winston has been named head coach.
"I don't see the players as being in control," Pogue said when discussing the events of this past week, including the team's walkout Tuesday. "I have never lost control of an institution."
Ramogi Huma, president of college athlete advocacy group the National College Players Association, said of Grambling's players, "They've come together to identify various issues to have their voices heard."
Huma explained that his organization, which has led the "All Players United" campaign this season, doesn't advocate boycotts but does endorse college athlete solidarity. Still, Huma said, "At the end of the day, without the players, there's an empty stadium. That's the power that the players have, and at Grambling State they decided to wield (it)."
Earlier Friday Pogue, the university president, touched on the firing of Williams, which came four days after a loss to Louisiana-Monroe: "It was a difficult decision that clearly was not made overnight or over a week but frankly over an extended period time."
This week is a far cry from the glory days under the late and legendary coach Eddie Robinson, and Grambling officials said they realize it will take time to re-establish the image of the program.