Robinson's life leaves lasting lessons

Eddie Robinson won a mind-boggling 408 games, but numbers don't begin to capture the impact of his legacy, writes Gene Wojciechowski.

Originally Published: April 3, 2007
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

The sadness comes not from the news that Eddie Robinson died, but from the fear that not enough coaches, players and college football fans know how he lived.

Robinson suffered from the cruelty of Alzheimer's disease. He couldn't remember. His memory committed treason. And late last night, shortly before April 3 became April 4, his body decided it wasn't worth the effort to keep trying.

Coach Rob -- that was the Grambling State shorthand for him -- was 88. It was a full life, maybe the equivalent of two. But longevity isn't his legacy. Instead, it's what Robinson did during a 57-year run at a place that white America hardly knew existed. Nor, for years, did it care.

Eddie Robinson
AP Photo/Eric GayEddie Robinson guided Grambling State to 408-165-11 record over his 55 seasons with the Tigers.
Robinson had his own family, beginning with wife Doris, but he also had a football family. The roots of that particular family tree plunge deep into the Grambling, La., soil, and the branches stretch from one side of the country to the other. If you measure a man's life on the lives he touched, then Robinson played tag with hundreds … thousands of futures. And, oh, he won 408 football games.

He began his coaching career in 1941 at the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. The name itself tells you all you need to know about the country's racial divide. Fifty-seven years (and a university name change later), Robinson left Grambling as a transcendent figure. Yes, even a hero.

The mistake we make when capsulizing Robinson's life is to regard it as a series of numbers. The mind-boggling 408 victories. A college coaching career that had its start, middle and ending at one university. The 200-plus players he sent to the NFL. The four Pro Football Hall of Famers. The hundreds and hundreds of players who received diplomas during his watch.

But Robinson's impact also could be felt on a societal level. As the number of victories increased, so did the attention paid to a predominantly black college in Louisiana, and to a black coach who eventually would pass the legendary and very white Bear Bryant in neighboring Alabama. And when it happened, when Robinson became college football's winningest coach, America discovered a man whose record-setting numbers were achieved with dignity, integrity and respect. After all, it was Robinson who kept a signed picture of Bryant in his coaches' meeting room.

This is a black-white issue only because we are still a black-white country. The divide was more pronounced when Robinson arrived at Lousiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, but it remains. Robinson helped reduce the distance between black and white through something as inherently American as football.

I don't want to put too fine of a point on it, but he just happened to die the day before the 39-year anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. In their own ways, the two men shared a common goal: a world where men would be judged by the depth of their character.

Robinson had character. He also had the respect of those who draw X's and O's for a living. The accolades and remembrances have been pouring in all day. It's as if football's pope died, as if a head of state expired.

"There is no doubt in my mind that in the late 1960s, when they started integrating Southern college football, nobody played a bigger role than Eddie Robinson and [former Florida A&M coach] Jake Gaither," said Florida State's Bobby Bowden, the all-time winningest Division I-A coach. "They were pioneers. It wouldn't have been successful without Eddie Robinson and Jake Gaither. At the time, their schools had it made. Their schools were all African-American and they'd been going undefeated every year. LSU couldn't get African-Americans in school. Tulane couldn't get African-Americans in school. We couldn't get African-Americans in school. Even though they were about to lose a lot of their kids, they helped it be successful, telling people how to act and what to say and to be patient. They made it a wholesome process."

Bowden first met Robinson in 1968. Bowden was a little-known West Virginia assistant coach. He drove to Uniontown, Pa., to hear the Grambling coach speak. Years and years later, at a coaching clinic in Houston, Bowden was asked to address about 2,500 coaches.

"Sitting in that dadgum first row [was] Eddie Robinson, who was 75 years old," said Bowden. "Some coaches wouldn't even come to the clinic because they didn't care about it. And here was a guy who was 75 years old and who had probably been coaching for 50 years and he's still in there trying to learn more about football."

Robinson kept football in perspective. It was a game, a business (as he found out when he had to fight for his job late in his career), a test of wills, both mental and physical. But the quote I like best from Robinson is the one where he said, "A young man may not make the team, but he might go on to be one of the guys that might change the course of the world. We have to give something back."

Coach Rob gave something back. He never quit giving. That's why we can't afford to suffer from a case of self-imposed Alzheimer's. We can't celebrate Robinson's legacy politely for the next few days and then, after the funeral, slowly forget why he was important.

A memorial patch on every uniform jersey of every Division I-A, I-AA, etc., football player would be nice a place to start. A moment of silence in his honor on college football's opening weekend would be another proper NCAA gesture. A bowl game with his name permanently attached would be appropriate.

But these are gestures. It is one thing to recall his life. It is another thing to learn from it.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

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