NEW ORLEANS — Grambling State interim coach Dennis "Dirt" Winston praises his players for "making history" with their walkout last month in protest of the conditions under which they've been forced to train, travel and play.
Now Winston and the Tigers aim for an upset of historical proportions on Saturday when they meet arch rival Southern in the Bayou Classic.
The Jaguars (7-4, 6-2 Southwestern Athletic Conference) have already won the SWAC Western Division, meaning they'll be headed to Houston for the league title game regardless of how they hold up against Grambling (1-10, 1-7).
But Odums isn't about the look past one of the fiercest rivalry games in college football.
"You lose this one, nothing else matters," Odums said. "We've got goals in place that we can achieve, but we need to win this football game."
Southern has been carried to the postseason by strong quarterback play. Dray Joseph has passed for 3,010 yards and 24 TDs, and could take home offensive player of the year honors in the SWAC. At least, that's what Odums expects.
"He's, to me, the best quarterback in our conference," Odums said. "I don't know what else you've got to do to be offensive player of the year but he's definitely a candidate."
By contrast, cash-strapped Grambling is at one of its all-time low points, far from the standard of excellence the program represented for decades under the late Hall of Fame coach Eddie Robinson.
When players walked out and refused to get on busses bound for Jackson State's homecoming on Oct. 19, their long list of complaints included a decrepit locker room and weight room, as well as anger over the university's decision to send them on long road trips to Kansas City and Indianapolis by bus instead of by plane.
The players returned to the field after the administration pledged to fast-track replacement of the weight-room floor, which has been completed, and to work constructively with donors interested in helping the football program.
The team also has begun to rally around Winston, a former NFL linebacker — and former Robinson assistant coach — who is the third coach his players have taken direction from this season. In three games under the current coach, the Tigers have won their first game of the season and scrapped through a pair of close losses.
"They're getting better," Odums said. "It looks like they care about what's going on through the effort they display on the field."
Grambling's coach to open the season was former NFL and Grambling quarterback Doug Williams, who was fired in September because of a falling out with the administration over funding and facility repairs. First, George Ragsdale was appointed interim coach, but failed to gain the support of players, so the administration reassigned Ragsdale and elevated Winston, who said he'd like to have the job permanently, even though the school is struggling to meet the costs of Division I football.
"I know these young men," Winston said. "I know what they went through."
Winston said he may play two quarterbacks against Southern. D.J. Williams, who is Doug Williams' son, started early this season but has been injured lately, making way for the emergence of Johnathan Williams, who racked up 359 total yards and three touchdowns in a 45-42 loss to Arkansas-Pine Bluff in his last start.
"Jonathan's played well," Winston said. "But see, Jonathan is no longer a surprise to people. He's going to have to step his game up."
This year marks the 40th Bayou Classic, which was started by Robinson. Historically, the game has been hotly contested, with Grambling winning 20 and Southern 19, including last year's contest, after which Odums' interim title was dropped and he was given the job outright.
"We're excited about our accomplishments and when we come in here on Saturday, we're not looking ahead or beyond, because we understand that we're playing Grambling," Odums said as his grin widened. "It's 20-19, but my vision is 20-20."