Eddie Robinson Is One Up on The Bear
In explaining the reason he turned first to the sports section of the newspaper, former Chief Justice Earl Warren once said: “The sports page records people’s accomplishments; the front page nothing but man’s failure.”
If he were reading the sports section today, he no doubt would be disturbed to find stories of drug trials in Pittsburgh, point-shaving indictments in New Orleans and college football scandals at SMU and TCU, church schools.
But today, sports sections throughout the country will tell the story of a former Louisiana sharecropper’s son who rode buses through the Deep South on the road to history.
At the Cotton Bowl Saturday night, Grambling State’s Eddie Robinson won for the 324th time, giving him more victories than any other man who has ever coached college football.
The final score was Grambling 27, Prairie View A&M; 7. But even though Robinson, 66, insisted all week that the game was the thing, it will be nothing more than a footnote in his remarkable career, which is in its 44th year and counting.
The final play of the game was an interception by Grambling’s Robert Goins in the end zone, but Robinson did not see it, having already been swallowed by a mob of well-wishers.
President Reagan was expected to send his congratulations by telephone, but he sent his regrets because of the lateness of the hour and promised to call this morning.
Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards called, proclaiming Saturday “Eddie Robinson Day” in the state. As it was almost 11 p.m., it was more like “The Eddie Robinson Hour.” But Robinson had no complaints.
With his wife clutching his left arm and a state trooper the right, Robinson’s first thoughts after the game were for his players. He apologized for becoming the center of attention.
“I’m glad it’s over, so we can get down to our team goals,” he said. “It’s been pretty hard to do that. I told them how sorry I am. I’ve been late more this year than I have been in the last 43 years. I think they understand that.
“This whole thing is Grambling. Whatever the record is, it belongs to Grambling.”
Someone held up a T-shirt that read: “324. I Was There. Oct. 1985.”
There was not an exact date. They were taking no chances.
“That’s not the record,” Robinson said. “Forty-four years at the same school, one job and one wife, that’s the record.”
The only discouraging words heard were from those who contend Robinson’s victories do not belong in the same record book as those of Bear Bryant, who retired in 1982 with 323.
Bryant’s victories came in college football’s high-rent district, Division I-A, Robinson’s along the country roads of Division I-AA, where his teams have a 324-106-15 record. But Robinson does not apologize. In the lexicon of a football coach, he took what they gave him.
“When I was growing up in Louisiana, they told me where to go to elementary school, where to go to junior high, where to go to high school and where to go to college. When I went into coaching, they told me who to play.”
There was no trace of bitterness in his words. It was the voice of a man who has seen it all, from 1941, when Grambling was known as Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, and he, for $63.75 a month, taped the players before the game, coached, directed the drill team at halftime and wrote the local newspaper’s game story, to 1985, when he is welcome at the White House.
“It’s an American record,” Robinson said. “It’s not a black record. It wasn’t a white record. It’s American football. That’s the way you have to see it. That’s the way I explain it to the team.
“I decided in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s it was as much my America as anyone else’s. I pay taxes. I have obligations. I felt better when I made that decision.
“I understand how (black) people will feel proud. But in my heart, I want it to be the same thing it was for Amos Alonzo Stagg, Pop Warner and Bear Bryant. If it isn’t, it’s worthless.”
Robinson has coached more than 200 players who at one time were on professional rosters, including Tank Younger, the first NFL player from a predominantly black college. He coached two members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Green Bay defensive end Willie Davis and Raider defensive back Willie Brown. All three were on the sideline Saturday night.
But Robinson said he is not as proud of that as he is of the fact that 95% of his players have earned degrees. Twenty of his players have been on the National Honor Roll, which recognizes exceptional students. Grambling State’s president, Dr. Joseph B. Johnson, is a former player.
“I get to the dorm at 6:15 every morning and ring a bell,” Robinson said. “If you stay in bed, I’ll ring the bell in your ear, and the only way you can get me to stop is if your feet hit the floor.
“I don’t make you go to class, but I make you go to breakfast. There’s a coach at the door to check roll. I figure if you get up to go to breakfast, you’ll figure you might as well go on to class.
“It may be crude, but it works.”
When Robinson was in elementary school in his hometown of Jackson, La., he said his hero was the mailman.
“I looked up to anybody who had a job,” he said.
He has remained unpretentious, even through his 324th victory.
“I’m proud anything I’ve done is accepted as exceptional,” he said. “I’m like the lady who’s a private dancer. When she was asked what music should be played, she said, ‘Any ol’ song will do.’ I’m a football coach. Any ol’ win will do.”
When he had finished speaking to the media, Robinson climbed back onto the bus with his players, and they began the four-hour journey back to Grambling. His post-game celebration would consist of listening to Dave Brubeck on a portable cassette player.
“We’ve got to get home,” Robinson said. “We’ve got Tennessee State next week.”