GRAMBLING’S EDDIE ROBINSON : HE MUST GRIN AND BEAR IT : Even After He Becomes the Winningest College Football Coach, He Will Know in His Heart Who’s Really the Greatest
On the late January morning in 1983 when Paul (Bear) Bryant died, Eddie Robinson cried. Now, anyone who knows Eddie can tell you that he cries often, getting all misty at weddings, coaching clinics, sad movies and sometimes even at the sight of a well-executed draw play.
But when Bear died, it seemed as if part of Eddie did, too. Even though Robinson is the football coach at Grambling State University, a predominantly black college in rural north-central Louisiana, and Bryant was not exactly a civil rights leader during his years at Alabama, they had a friendship that lasted nearly 30 years. Eddie used to chase Bear all over the country just to hear him speak at coaching clinics. Bear often sought Eddie’s advice on a variety of subjects because he knew the hardship and sacrifices Robinson had endured. Doris Robinson, Eddie’s wife, recalls times at coaching conventions when the men would be so engrossed in conversation that she left, unnoticed, and went shopping.
“I used to call him Lord,” said Eddie Robinson, whose voice starts cracking when talking about Bryant. “I had great admiration for him, and I believe he respected me.”
It wasn’t until well after Bryant’s funeral that another thought struck Robinson, one that added to his sorrow. He would never be able to fulfill one of his more cherished dreams: Lining up his Grambling team against Bryant’s Alabama team in what surely would have been a Fischer-Spassky duel of wits. They had come close once in the early ‘80s, but a scheduling conflict prevented it.
“When it looked like we were going to play, somebody said to me, ‘Eddie, he might beat you.’ I said, ‘Well, he’s beaten everybody else, so we got nothing to lose,’ ” said Robinson, his raspy laugh filling the room.
Lately, Robinson has been thinking about Bear a lot, and when he isn’t, other people keep bringing him up. It is only natural, since Robinson enters the 1985 season, his 44th at Grambling, needing only four victories to break Bryant’s record for most career wins by a college football coach. At present, the list shows Bryant with 323 wins, Robinson with 320, Amos Alonzo Stagg with 314 and Glenn (Pop) Warner with 313.
Some time this fall--it could happen as early as Oct. 5 when Grambling meets Prairie View at the Cotton Bowl--Robinson finally will have tracked down the Bear. Although some might contend that Robinson’s achievement should be accompanied by a footnote because Grambling (currently Division 1-AA) has been classified as everything from small college to major college over the years. The NCAA record book will simply show that he is the best.
But Robinson, consistent with his unpretentious personality, still won’t concede that. To Eddie’s way of thinking, Bryant will always be college football’s greatest coach, no matter how many more wins he gets at Grambling.
Robinson talks about Bryant the same way others now talk about Eddie.
“The guy was in a class by himself, that’s it,” Robinson said. “You ain’t going to catch him even if you do get more wins than him. When I asked Bear about all those victories a few months before he died, you know what he told me? He said the hardest thing for him at that age was just to get to the practice field.”
These days, Robinson also has problems making it to the practice field on time. It has nothing to do with his health. Robinson, 66, still shows blocking techniques to players and walks briskly around campus.
But there is so much to do, so many obligations, and so little time in which to do it. On this day, Grambling’s morning practice had been canceled because of student registration, and it was eating away at Eddie. Walking slump-shouldered around campus, he kept muttering, “Lord, I wish we coulda got out there.”
But the morning was anything but wasted. Robinson checked on the academic progress of a few of his players, presided over a brainstorming session of his coaches and talked to a few reporters. Normally, Eddie squeezes in interviews around practice, but he always finds time to talk. Coaching and talking are what Robinson does best.
With Bryant’s record close to being broken, the national media has descended upon this small college in the Louisiana hills that has produced more professional players than any other school--211. Now, they are taking a closer look at the man who coached such notables as Willie Davis and Willie Brown, both in the Hall of Fame, Tank Younger, Buck Buchanan, Ernie Ladd, Charlie Joiner, Doug Williams, James Harris, Trumaine Johnson . . .
What they find is a refreshingly different situation and a man running it you can’t help but like. Grambling’s program is as far removed from the so-called football factories as the campus is from any of Louisiana’s metropolitan areas. Where else can you find the basketball coach/associate athletic director vacuuming the carpet in the lobby of the athletic department?
Located in a lush, hilly part of the state, Grambling is not much more than another off-ramp on I-20, which links Shreveport and Monroe. The town, population 10,000, was built primarily to accommodate the university, enrollment, 4,500.
The campus isn’t one of Robinson’s best recruiting enticements. It basically is a series of two- or three-story brick buildings, which looks as drab as it sounds. There are no ivy-covered walls, no clock tower and bells, and the grass tends to be more brown than green. A few grocery stores, cafes and Laundromats border the dorms. On one end of town, there is the New Rocky Valley Southern Baptist Church. On the other, there are a few blocks of housing tracts.
That’s all there is to Grambling, except, of course, for Robinson Stadium, which stands as a monument to the only football coach the college has had. The fact that the stadium is located across the street from the rest of campus is only one reason why it stands out. Built in 1982 with state funds, Robinson Stadium is a beautiful structure that cost $7.5 million and seats 22,000--twice the town’s population.
During his short drive home for lunch one recent day, Robinson proudly pointed to the stadium even though there was no possible way anyone could miss it. The only thing Eddie can’t figure out is why they called it Robinson Stadium. “Don’t you have to be dead or something to have a stadium named after you?” he asked.
Either dead or a living legend, but Eddie doesn’t consider himself either. Robinson’s humility and personality is genuine. They may call Eddie “The Legend” in these parts, but he hates that and won’t let anyone make a fuss over him.
He has a warm, infectious smile and laugh, which is a distinct contrast to his sad face and furrowed brow. When Eddie shifts into his story-telling mode or lectures his players about football and life, he reaches such a fever pitch that he sounds like a Baptist minister preaching hellfire and damnation. Truth is, Robinson has always tried to be part coach, part preacher and, yes, part father to his players.
It’s not just a figure of speech when Eddie refers to his players as his sons.
While the past or present professional football players Robinson has coached numbers more than 200, the number of upstanding citizens and business leaders he has helped develop has to rate in the thousands.
Jimmy Jones is one. Jones, the basketball coach at Carroll High School in Monroe, La., played baseball for Robinson in the ‘50s. After his freshman year at Grambling, Jones wanted to drop out because school was difficult and he had no money. “Eddie saved me,” he said. “He personally took care of me. I don’t know where I’d be today without Coach.”
So, when Jones’ son, Al, was deciding on a college, he looked no further than Grambling, where he is one of many walk-ons trying out for the Tiger football team.
“If some boy I coached writes me a letter or publicly says that our relationship meant something to him, well, that’s enough for me,” Robinson said. “If you don’t help boys, you might spend more money keeping them in prison. A lot of coaches say they don’t have time. You’ve got to make time. If you don’t have students, you don’t have a school. I walk around with all my players’ updated grades in my briefcase. I check them daily. And I’ve told the NCAA that if a boy comes up to me and says, ‘Coach, my mamma died and I need to get home,’ I won’t care about no rules. I’m going to get him home even if I have to carry him on my back. I might get caught helping a boy put shoes on his feet.”
Robinson and his program appear about as clean as they come. The coach doesn’t smoke and the hardest thing he drinks is Tab. The football program doesn’t have sufficient funds to get involved in big-money bidding wars for top recruits. But since many of Robinson’s players come from poor or disadvantaged families in small southern towns, he helps them in spiritual, educational and sometimes monetary ways.
To ensure that all his players attend church on Sunday, Robinson passes out their weekly scholarship allowance there and only there. Some coaches say they can’t run around checking to see if players attend classes. Robinson does. Robinson also coaches players on proper table manners and the way to act in hotels, among other things.
One time early in his career, when a player approached Robinson and told him that he had to miss a game because his daddy needed help picking cotton, Robinson gathered the rest of the team and all headed to the fields to help out.
These are things Robinson started doing in the ‘40s, and he continues to take a personal interest today. While admitting that his players sometimes laugh at him and call him a dinosaur, Robinson says many others thank him later.
“When we go to a meeting, we talk about football, sure,” Robinson said. “But we also talk about how to treat girls. You know on the road how some boys take girls to their rooms and three or four boys come in, too. We ain’t gonna do that. And if you’re married, you sure aren’t going to do that. It really gets to them when I tell them it could be your buddy’s young, pretty mamma they’re snatching from the hotel hallway.
“I don’t think kids today are hoodlums or anything. But I think they still want and need discipline.”
Even though Eddie’s morals have remained rigidly constant over the years, his football philosophy has been flexible, never outdated. Grambling’s main offense is the Wing-T but, depending on personnel, the Tigers have used the single wing, pro set and a flanker-oriented offense. A rival coach once said that Eddie can “bring out the old things and they’re new to us.”
Melvin Lee, Grambling’s offensive coordinator for 25 years and also a former Tiger lineman, said Robinson has adapted to changes.
“He’s adjusted to time and players’ attitudes because he’s had to,” Lee said. “When I played (in the ‘50s), the players were the type where they had no other alternative because of segregation. It was either Grambling or Southern University (near New Orleans). Discipline was easier, but the basics are still there. Eddie realizes now there are greater variations of people. Before, we were all in the same situation.”
Added Fred Hobdy, who also played for Robinson and took over for Robinson as basketball coach in 1956: “If I had to rate the man, I’d give him even higher marks as a humanitarian than a coach. And he’s won a lot of games. I don’t think I’ve known a stronger person than Eddie. He’s a leader not only at Grambling but for all blacks.”
There are nights, even now, when Robinson wakes up in a cold sweat and wonders how his life would have turned out if he hadn’t become Grambling’s football coach in 1941 at age 22.
Probably, he would have continued working at a feed mill, earning barely enough for him and Doris to survive, despite the fact that both had degrees from all-black Leland College (now defunct) outside Baton Rouge. If Eddie had been white, doors would have been open for him. Instead, they were slammed in his face.
When Eddie and Doris attended their senior banquet at Leland, they eagerly anticipated receiving a slip of paper delivered to every graduate by a teacher and prophet named Mr. Owens. It wasn’t the diploma. Rather, it was a prediction of what that student would amount to in life.
“It was supposed to be a fun thing that everybody treasured, but I was really worried about it,” Robinson said. “I got in the door and they handed it to me. Mine said, ‘You’re a big noise and they’ll find you out.’ That hurt me so bad. I could’ve cried right there. So, I took that paper, folded it back up and exchanged it for somebody else’s message. I would recall what that said, but I felt better.”
A short time later, when one of Robinson’s relatives told him about an opening for a football coach up north at Grambling (then called Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute) he applied, hoping they didn’t already know his reputation as a big noise.
Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, the school’s president from 1936 to 1977, gave Eddie the job. Several jobs, in fact.
“At one time early on, I was coaching football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and boys and girls high school basketball,” said Robinson, who earned only $63.75 a month at the start. “It was a challenge.”
As the Tigers’ athletic director and football coach, Robinson now earns a little more than $50,000 and lives in a spacious, comfortable house on the outskirts of town. But Eddie seems to enjoy himself most recalling the old days and old coaches. Even when he recounts some of the more horrifying aspects of his experiences with racial prejudice, there’s not even a trace of bitterness in his voice.
“You know, I’ve lived so long,” Robinson said. “I’ve seen a lot. I have ridden on the back of the bus. I’ve ridden on the street car when you get on you’d have white and colored sections. I’ve drank at segregated fountains. But I ain’t trying to make nobody pay. All I wanted was an opportunity to prove that I can do what other people can do. I got that at Grambling.”
A younger, rebellious Eddie Robinson used to cry out about the injustices against blacks in the south. Growing up near Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Robinson learned early that he would never be able to attend that school or even watch football games at the stadium simply because of the color of his skin.
The attitude that blacks were inferior was literally pounded into him. One day, Eddie tried to sneak through the fence and watch an LSU game. He was caught and beaten.
“I got a clubbing,” Robinson said. “Colored people couldn’t pay and watch a game when I was growing up. But you could work at the stadium before the games and then you could watch. So, I woke up at 5 a.m. each Saturday and worked until the game so I could watch football.”
That was when Robinson learned that he might accomplish more by working for change within the system rather than rebelling against it. It is an attitude he carried with him throughout his years at Grambling.
As Collie Nicholson, Robinson’s close friend and former publicity director likes to say, Eddie is strong on black pride, but not on militant black power. So, even during the turbulent ‘60s, Robinson ordered his teams to stand at attention during the national anthem and respect the flag.
During that period, some black leaders may have been irritated with Robinson for not taking a stronger stand against racism. But, somewhat anonymously, Eddie became a civil rights leader simply by putting winning Grambling teams on the field.
Even after segregation in southern colleges ended in the mid-60s and Grambling no longer had a monopoly on all the good black players, Robinson continued winning and helping young blacks mature.
“You know what? In the ‘60s, I decided something very important. I decided I was as much an American as anybody in this country. You shouldn’t say you’re a black American, brown American, white American. I’ve always had faith that this country was the best country in the world. I still think there are some things this country has to rise to, to take the leadership it should. But I believe this business about George Washington cutting down the cherry tree because my teachers taught me that.”
It was Eddie’s high school teacher who convinced him that he could rise above the oppressive conditions. They told him about successful black men such as Bill (Bojangles) Robinson and pitcher Satchel Paige.
“One of the best moments of my life was when we played at the Sugar Bowl (in 1974 against Southern),” Robinson said. “When I was in college, no blacks could play there or watch games there. Up pops 1974 and we (Grambling) go to the Sugar Bowl and we had 76,000 people watching us. I’m standing there on the field, crying because I remember what it was like. For the players, it was a game. For me, it was walls falling down.”
When Grambling’s program became high profile in the late ‘60s--the Tigers took their act on the road, playing in New York’s Yankee Stadium and other major cities--Robinson became well known to sports fans and black leaders nation-wide. Although his grammar is sometimes poor, Robinson is very intelligent. He often quotes Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bear Bryant both at practice and during interviews.
There isn’t enough space at Robinson’s house to put all the awards and keepsakes he has acquired over the years, so Doris has resorted to hiding things behind the couch, under the bed and sticking the rest on the shelves. Doris proudly shows photographs of Eddie with Presidents Ford and Reagan; Eddie with Jesse Jackson; Eddie with Bill Cosby; Eddie with Louisiana’s governor; Eddie with Bear.
Doris, knee deep in scrap books, came across one yellowed photograph of Eddie as a young man. He was standing on the sidelines during a game, wearing a baggy suit and hat.
“You know,” Doris said, grabbing a reporter’s arm. “I forgot what a handsome man he was.”
“Was?” screamed Eddie from the other side of the room.
In 44 years at Grambling, Robinson has never taken a real vacation. Sure, he and Doris have traveled everywhere from New York to Tokyo, but it was always for a football game or coaching clinic.
Burnout, that condition that often afflicts modern football coaches, has never struck Robinson. The man is tireless. During an insufferably hot and humid day recently, he was stalking the practice field, barking instructions to his players.
“No, no, son, that’s not the way you do it,” he yelled at a quarterback. “It may be Hut, Hut, Hut in the NFL, but here it’s Hut One, Hut Two, Hut Three.”
Watching Robinson at work, it seems silly to bring up the subject of retirement. But Louisiana law states that a person cannot teach or coach past age 70, which gives Robinson only four more seasons. By that time, Robinson’s victory total could be up to 350, making it seem that no one will break his record.
But Eddie just wants to keep coaching because he loves it, not merely to pad records.
“It’s like I’m 18-years-old, at the prom, dancing with the prettiest girl,” he said. “All your teammates are on the side, waiting for the song to stop. And I don’t ever want the music to end.”
The music is blaring as loud as ever inside Robinson. He admits that all the attention about breaking Bear’s record has him more eager than ever to begin the season.
Eddie says he doesn’t know how he’ll react when he finally breaks the record, but you can bet your season tickets that he will cry. Eddie always cries.
In 1982, when Eddie won his 300th game in Florida, he got all choked up on the field afterward, during the press conference and when meeting with his team in private. The next day, he was still crying when Grambling students, faculty and residents lined the streets and gave Robinson an impromptu victory parade.
Before Robinson was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame earlier this summer, Doris suggested that Eddie try hard just this once to make it through a speech without crying. Two minutes into his speech, Eddie was blubbering like a baby.
Doris now tells Eddie that Bear Bryant, that old curmudgeon, rarely cried, certainly not in public. But that hasn’t helped dry up Eddie.
But Robinson is sharing Bryant’s attitude on how to handle all the publicity and praise.
“Bear never bragged about it, never talked about it,” Robinson said. “It ain’t nothing to really talk about. What are you supposed to do, stand up and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to get a record’? Let’s just let time decide what your merits are.”
No doubt, Eddie Robinson will be remembered, at the very least by his former players, as far more than college football’s most successful coach.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL’S WINNINGEST COACHES
A list of all football coaches in NCAA history who have won at least 200 games at four-year colleges, regardless of whether the college was as an NCAA member at the time. Ties are computed as a half win and half loss. Totals include bowl games. Source: 1985 NCAA Football Guide.
NO. COACH YRS W L T PCT. 1 Paul (Bear) Bryant 38 323 85 17 .780 2 Eddie Robinson 42 320 106 15 .743 3 Amos Alonzo Stagg 67 314 199 35 .605 4 Glenn (Pop) Warner 44 313 106 32 .729 5 Woody Hayes 33 238 72 10 .759 6 Arnett Mumford 36 233 85 23 .717 7 John Merritt 31 232 65 11 .771 8 John Gagliardi 36 231 78 7 .742 9 Fred Long 45 227 151 31 .593 10 Jess Neely 40 207 176 19 .539 11 Jake Gaither 25 203 36 4 .844 12 Warren Woodson 31 203 94 14 .675 13 Eddie Anderson 39 201 128 15 .606
NO. WHERE COACHED 1 Maryland (1945); Kentucky (1946-53) Texas A&M; (1954-57), Alabama (1958-82) 2 Grambling (1941-42, 1945- ) 3 Springfield (1890-91); Chicago (1892-32); Pacific (1933-46) 4 Georgia (1895-96) Cornell (1897-98, 1904-06); Carlisle (1899-1903, 1907-14), Pittsburgh(1915-23); Stanford (1924-32); Temple (1933-38) 5 Denison (1946-48); Miami, Ohio (1949-50) Ohio State (1951-78) 6 Jarvis (1924-26); Bishop (1927-29); Texas Coll. (1931-35); Southern (1936-42, 1944-61) 7 Jackson St. (1953-62); Tennessee St. (1963-83) 8 Carroll, Mont. (1949-52); St. John’s, Minn. (1953- ) 9 Paul Quinn (1921-22); Wiley (1923-47, 1956-65); Prairie View (1948); Texas Coll. (1949-55) 10 SW Tennessee (1924-27); Clemson (1931-39); Rice (1940-66) 11 Florida A&M; (1945-69) 12 Conway St. (1935-40); Hardin-Simmons (1941-42); Arizona (1952-56); New Mexico St. (1958-67); Trinity, Tex. (1972-73) 13 Loras (1922-24), DePaul (1925-31), Holy Cross (1933-38, 50-64); Iowa (1939-42)