Fate Tied To QBs: Championship Season Sandwiched By Inconsistency Led To Spears’ Firing At Grambling

By Nick Deriso
Updated: December 19, 2006

GRAMBLING, La. — Grambling State’s Melvin Spears got much different results without Bruce Eugene under center.

Together, they swept through the Southwestern Athletic Conference in 2005, rewriting record books on the way to an undefeated league mark.

Apart, Spears managed just nine wins over two seasons.

First, there was the 6-5 interim campaign in 2004, when Eugene was lost to a knee injury. Next came a dismal 3-8 slump in the just-completed ’06 campaign, after Eugene’s eligibility ran out.

“It was a situation where as a team, we didn’t prove we could win without Bruce,” said senior GSU receiver Henry Tolbert. “It started to seem like he was the thing that kept us above water.”

Grambling has an historical average of just three losses per year during the past 60 years — a mark that was mirrored by former coach Doug Williams, who originally hired Spears as offensive coordinator, over the 1998-2003 seasons.

During that span, GSU would win a trio of league titles in 2000-02 under Williams and then again with Spears in 2005. The Tigers were also just one win away from the title match in both 1999 and 2003.

That very consistency made Spears’ skids without Eugene all the more dramatic.

Spears cleared out his office on Monday afternoon, and took stock of his wild ride.

“I’ve been blessed to carry on the legacy of (former GSU coach) Eddie Robinson, Doug Williams and all those players who came before me,” Spears said. “We won four championships, three as offensive coordinator and one as a head coach — and we graduated a lot of players. That’s the important part.”

Grambling had only dropped as many as eight games in a single season on two previous occasions, both in the twilight of Robinson’s storied tenure.

Still, GSU kept most of its losses extremely close in 2006, falling by an average of just eight points. That had some players thinking Spears would be given another season to straighten things out.

“I just think he should have been given a chance to pull out of it,” said redshirt sophomore quarterback Brandon Landers, who took the majority of the snaps this season.

Said Tolbert: “Everyone thinks we should always win at Grambling; that’s the way it is. But how could you be in love with a coach one year and the next, he’s out the door? I can’t say I agree with it.”

Not everyone wanted Spears to stay, including those still outraged over a late-season drug-testing controversy.

Asked after the finale against Alcorn State if he would return next season, backup sophomore quarterback Al Hawkins said: “Not if he does,” referring to Spears.

Hawkins was one of several players to be tested in November, just weeks before the nationally televised Bayou Classic. Their families said they received signed letters from Spears that detailed the results, possibly violating privacy laws.

GSU quickly opened an investigation, one that focused on testing and reporting protocol. The University of Louisiana System Board, which oversees Grambling, also looked into the matter.

That, coupled with the NCAA’s ongoing probe into the football program, may have proved to be the tipping point for Spears. GSU officials are not commenting on what precipitated his termination.

D’Wayne Priestly, a vocal booster, called the testing improper and said it left Grambling with no other choice.

“As a GSU alum, I opine this termination had to be done, to maintain the credibility and integrity of the university and its administration — not for Mr. Spears’ 2006 record of 3-8, but for the misusage of drug testing practice and procedures,” Priestly wrote in an e-mail sent overnight to Grambling President Horace Judson and copied to athletics director Troy Mathieu.

Spears said he was unsure late Monday how the remaining portion of his five-year contract, signed two seasons ago, would be handled.

Spears had a base salary of $150,000, which made him the second-best paid coach in the SWAC behind Southern’s Pete Richardson.

A final three-victory season meant Spears missed out on several incentives that pushed him closer to $200,000 in 2005 — including winning a conference title ($7,500), being named national black college champion ($5,000) and winning eight or more games ($5,000).

Without Eugene, everything changed.

“At Grambling, high expectations are part of the deal for the coach — and the quarterback,” said Landers, a Carroll High product. “But from the outside looking in, people don’t know what Coach Spears meant to this team. From champions to 3-8, I know was tough. But it (his firing) came as a surprise.”

Photographs hanging throughout the Robinson Stadium Support Facility, framed in gold, feature Spears, Williams and Eugene during activities leading up to the 2005 SWAC Championship Game.

On Monday, that seemed like a very long time ago. Much longer than one calendar year.

“I’ll have to thank Doug for giving me this opportunity,” Spears said, finally. “I’ve cherished these moments.”