Eddie Robinson (born 1919) brought Louisiana's Grambling State University eight black college football championships during his 56 seasons of coaching. At the time of his retirement, the legendary Robinson had won 408 games, more than any other football coach in history, college or professional.
The son of sharecroppers, Eddie Robinson was born in Jackson, LA, but grew up in Baton Rouge. Across the street lived the Williams family, whose son John, 15 years younger than Robinson, would later become the mayor of Grambling. Young Eddie organized sandlot games and was fascinated from an early age with coaching. His heroes were legendary college coaches Bear Bryant and Amos Alonzo Stagg. "Being coach, it's all I ever wanted to be, " Robinson later said.
Putting Grambling on the Map
Robinson completed his bachelor's degree from now-defunct Leland College in 1940. He got a job at a feed mill for 25 cents an hour. Later he would complete a master's degree in science from the University of Iowa. In 1941, Robinson married his college sweetheart Doris and landed the job of his dreams. That year, he coached his first football game at the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute in the little northern Louisiana town of Grambling. The school's name was later changed to Grambling State.
In those days black players weren't allowed on most white college teams, especially in the segregated South. The school's president, Ralph Jones, wanted the tiny, underfunded college to gain a national reputation through its football program. That way it would be able to recruit nationwide and survive. Jones and Robinson worked together at this goal for decades.
Robinson became vice-president of athletics and built a strong athletic program from scratch. At first, Robinson coached football, basketball and baseball, for a monthly salary of $63.75. He led the drill team at halftime of football games, put the chalk lines on fields himself, and even wrote game stories for the local paper.
In Robinson's second season, his football team went undefeated and held its opponents scoreless in all nine games. Jones soon succeeded Robinson as baseball coach and created a school band. Robinson was left to concentrate on football, but it wasn't always easy fielding a team. Once, two brothers who were his star players had to leave the team to help their family pick cotton. Robinson and the rest of his players pitched in to help them.
From the start, Robinson stressed a well-rounded education. "The first thing he'd do, he'd assemble the players, tell them they had to get their education, had to get more out of this than football, " recalled Fred Hobdy, who played for Robinson in the 1940s and was his athletic director from 1989 to 1996. Robinson inaugurated an Everyday Living course at the college to teach the unsophisticated students the manners of social life.
With the help of school sports information director Collie Nicholson, Grambling soon became a byword in the national black media. Grambling played games all over the country and as far away as Tokyo. In 1968 in Yankee Stadium in New York, the team drew a crowd of 60, 000 people. "The Grambling mystique developed until we really did have a national black following, " Nicholson said. "President Jones was a genius at opening doors. Of course, the doors wouldn't have stayed open for anybody if Eddie hadn't won."
Throughout his long career, Robinson remained eager to learn. He attended one to five coaches' clinic each season for 57 years. He borrowed plays liberally from others and drilled his team endlessly to perfect them. Robinson did more than win games. He helped put Grambling on the map and helped put scores of black football players in the professional ranks. And he educated countless youngsters to become constructive citizens. He claimed an 85 percent graduation rate among his players, and coached an estimated 4, 500 students.
Robinson groomed more than 200 Grambling players who went on to professional careers in the National Football League, including four Hall of Famers: Buck Buchanan, Charlie Joiner, Willie Brown, and Willie Davis. Seven of his players were first-round draft picks by NFL teams.
Robinson's coaching style was full of emotion. "Robinson was always a master motivator, theatrical and preachy, " wrote Richard Hoffer of Sports Illustrated. Doug Williams, a Grambling star who became an NFL quarterback and later coach at Morehouse College, recalled: "He'd cry before a big game. He'd cry so hard that you'd be crying. Oh, would he cry." Williams was the first black quarterback to be named Most Valuable Player in a Super Bowl. Robinson had also coached James Harris, the first black man to be a quarterback on any NFL team.
Robinson believed in practice rather than theory, and he always interacted closely with his players. "He's as hands-on as you can get, " noted Hoffer. "He takes a player aside to teach him the proper footwork. He makes the offense run Merry-Go-Round, a carnival play that involves three reverses and a pass, over and over." His teams were always squeaky clean. Robinson forbade profanity and made players run sprints if they used any words he considered inappropriate.
During his career, Robinson's Tigers won or shared 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference championships. Among black colleges, Robinson's football teams were dominant for decades. Grambling's growing national reputation attracted star athletes, but Robinson himself was the key. As a recruiter, he was a superb salesman for his college's program.
The small town of Grambling was a family place, and despite his growing national reputation, Robinson never had any desire to go anywhere else. He and his wife Doris had two children: Lillian Rose and Eddie Jr. His son eventually joined him as an offensive and backfield coach, serving as his assistant for 15 years.
"Grambling, " wrote Bill Minutaglio of the Sporting News, "has always been defined by Eddie Robinson…. Every year-with one raw young man after another nervously stepping off the bus from … all the rural outposts buried in every corner of Louisiana. For decades they have come to the hidden town of 4, 000 because of Eddie Robinson. In the segregated South, Robinson had a sanctuary. And, because the pro scouts also knew their way, Robinson had the promise of a way out."
Robinson never wanted to do anything other than coach football at Grambling, and in his advancing years he refused to even consider stepping down. The result was a controversial final few seasons. Because he had opened so many doors for black athletes, Grambling was no longer the only opportunity for talented high school players. The program began to lose some of its luster. The 1994 season ended with a loss to South Carolina State in the Heritage Bowl, a post-season event Grambling always had dominated. The next year, his players threatened to walk out because they hadn't received their Heritage Bowl rings.
In 1996, some Grambling alumni, including some of his former players, launched a movement to get rid of Robinson, whom they felt had lost his grip at age 77. Many observers agreed that Robinson stubbornly had stayed on too long. For the first time in his tenure, Robinson's team had suffered two losing seasons in a row. Five Grambling players pleaded guilty to lesser charges after being accused in the rape of a teenage girl after a game. Grambling was under investigation for the fixing of football players' grades. The program was put on probation for two years for minor infractions, including violations by Eddie Robinson Jr.
Robinson asked for one more season to clean things up and end his career on a better note, and university president Raymond Hicks obliged. "I want to prove I can still win at this age, " Robinson told Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated. "I ain't ready to sit in a rocking chair and wait for death to come calling on me."
Frank Lewis, a Robinson player who went on to the Pittsburgh Steelers, told Minutaglio: "I don't think he ever had, in his dreams, the thought of retiring. He was going to coach until he passed away." Lewis said Robinson did more for black athletes than anyone would ever know. "With all the good and wonderful things this man has done, he should have been able to set his own date for leaving."
Asked if he was bitter at being turned out of his long-time job, Robinson told Minutaglio: "I have been here all my life. I have had one job, one wife. I had a chance to coach some of the finest players who ever played the game. I've been working at Grambling for 56 years and my paycheck has never been late. Do I need to say anything else?"
Robinson's last game was a 30-7 loss to Southern University in the Bayou Classic on November 29, 1997. He finished with a record of 408 wins, 165 losses and 15 ties. "These 56 years, I've been about the happiest man in the world for coaching the best athletes in the world, " Robinson said at a press conference after his final game. In 1997, the Football Writers Association of America renamed its college coach of the year honor the Eddie Robinson/FWAA Coach's Award. Robinson will be remembered among the greatest football coaches in history.
Further Reading on Eddie Gay Robinson
Hawkins, Walter L., ed., African American Biographies, McFarland & Co., 1994.
Porter, David L., ed., African-American Sports Greats, Greenwood Press, 1989.
Jet, October 20, 1997; December 15, 1997.
Sporting News, October 2, 1995; August 25, 1997.
Sports Illustrated, December 23, 1996; December 1, 1997.