Grambling State University is a school steeped in history, with its Louisiana roots stretching as far back as the late 1800s. It was founded by a group of African-American farmers who wanted to operate a school in the northern part of the state to educate other African-Americans.
Known for a rich musical and cultural history, highlighted by its World Famed Tiger Marching Band and Grammy-winning alumna Eryka Badu, the university also sports a strong history in athletics. It’s a history highlighted by Eddie Robinson, who retired as the winningest coach in NCAA football history, and Super Bowl XXII MVP Doug Williams.
However in recent years, the Grambling State basketball program has fallen on hard times, with only one season above .500 since 2005 and only one 20-win season in program history, dating back to 1979-80. But much like the farmers who founded Grambling, the school’s current administration has planted the seeds that they hope will help the basketball program finally blossom.
The first step was to hire current head coach Shawn Walker, who had the arduous task of rebuilding the Grambling program in the summer of 2014 amid APR sanctions.
Out of 351 teams in Division I, Walker says, the Tigers may have been the worst.
It’s only natural for one to question the sanity of a coach willing to take on this grand of a task. However Walker knew what he was getting into, and comes to Grambling as one of the more educated head coaches in the country, complete with degrees in Biology and Health and Physical Education from Elizabeth City State University, plus a master’s degree in Athletic Administration from Slippery Rock.
“I’m able to impact young men and show them that academics and athletics can intertwine in one house,” he said. “I think it makes things more powerful to know your coach is not a dummy.”
The Tigers are making baby steps toward once again being relevant in the SWAC and return a solid core of veterans, highlighted by Conference Freshman of the Year Nigel Ribeiro. Ribeiro averaged 10.9 points per game last year and showed he can match-up against anybody in the conference.
Walker said his best player is senior guard Remond Brown, who is off to great a start this season, averaging 14.2 points over the Tigers’ first six games. He ranks second on the team in scoring behind follow senior guard Ervin Mitchell (16.5 ppg).
Walker understands the enormity of his challenge and unlike many other coaches in college basketball, he has a bit more of a realistic approach to his plan for his success.
“Grambling hasn’t won 10 games in a season in many years and we need to overcome that,” he said.
Then there are the SWAC standings.
“They picked us to finish last and I just don’t see how that can possibly happen,” he said. “We’re right there, ready to get over the hump and our goal is to make the conference championship tournament.”
So now it’s into the season for the Tigers, with little outside expectations, and therefore, not much to lose. Texas Southern is still the class of the SWAC, but Walker and Grambling State are finally at the point where they’ll be a challenge in the conference for most other teams.
The Tigers are still far from being relevant outside the SWAC, shown by last week’s 90-34 pasting at the hands of Virginia, but their coach and players still seemed focused on the task at hand.
“I do believe we’ve set the groundwork to have legitimate college basketball players and to get students that are going to come to Grambling, enjoy Grambling and stay at Grambling,” Walker said.