Commentary

Eddie Robinson Museum fitting tribute

Grambling coach stands among civil rights greats who made difference with sports

Updated: February 12, 2010, 3:19 PM ET
By Richard Lapchick | Special to ESPN.com

It could not be more appropriate that the Eddie Robinson Museum opens in Grambling, La., right in the middle of Black History Month 2010.

[+] EnlargeEddie Robinson
US Presswire"Leadership, like coaching, is fighting for the hearts and souls of men and getting them to believe in you," coach Eddie Robinson said.

The grand opening on Saturday will be preceded by a huge banquet in Coach Robinson's honor Friday night with keynote speaker Mike Tomlin, who knows he wouldn't have been coach of the 2009 Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers without Robinson.

It has been almost three years since Robinson died in April 2007. He led a life so extraordinary that it was worthy of a museum. When I think of iconic African-American sports figures who changed America, I think of Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Eddie Robinson.

The Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky., opened in 2005. Rachel Robinson, the amazing wife of Jackie Robinson, continues the final stages of fundraising to open the Jackie Robinson Museum in New York. And someday, I assume, there will be more than the Arthur Ashe statue in Richmond, Va. But this is Eddie Robinson's time.

His achievements were unparalleled. When he retired, he had more wins than any coach in the history of Division I football, had sent more of his players to the NFL than any other coach, had a team graduation rate of nearly 80 percent in a sport in which it hovered around 50 percent nationally, and never had a player get in trouble with the law until his last and 57th year as head coach of Grambling.

Raised in Baton Rouge, La., Coach molded men. When I was asked to coauthor his autobiography, I dropped a book I was writing and wholeheartedly agreed because of the reverence in which I held him. Although he was perhaps the best known active sports figure in the African-American community in his time, Coach Robinson was not as well-known to other Americans. I took it as a mission that the book and time would change that.

Throughout the 10 years I knew Coach Robinson, we became friends and had regular contact long after the book was published. It was with a profound sadness but with joy for the life he led, that I spoke at Coach's funeral in Grambling. I will always remember Willie Davis, one of his former great players, saying in the Grambling Convocation Center, "Would all the men who played for Eddie Robinson, please stand up." Some 2,000 men stood tall, proud of being part of Coach's legacy. There were players from the 1940s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s who had come to Grambling that day to thank the man who had meant so much to them.

Coach Robinson told me the first time I scheduled a visit, "You really have to want to go to Grambling to get to Grambling." I did not know what he meant until I went and realized that the home of one of the great historically black educational institutions in America is in deep, rural Louisiana. Nonetheless, in the ultimate tribute to his legacy, all those men came there to say goodbye to their coach at his funeral, and many are returning this month (the banquet sold out weeks in advance).

The first time I walked into Eddie Robinson's house in 1997, his loving wife, Doris, said to me, "Rich, we have so much stuff in here from all of Eddie's life. We really need a museum to contain it." There were pictures, trophies, letters, artwork and a rich treasure of memories. The Robinsons kept everything in humble acknowledgement of everyone who ever took the time to say something nice about their lives or to pay tribute to what they did for America.

As an 18-year-old boy, Coach tried to buy a ticket to an LSU game in Baton Rouge where he was raised. He had been a successful high school football player and had already made up his mind that he wanted to be a coach. The man in the ticket booth told Eddie in less polite terms that they didn't sell tickets to black people in this stadium.

Decades later, the life he led had profoundly changed how people in his home state view African-Americans to the point that the state of Louisiana had his body lay in state in that same Baton Rouge where he couldn't buy a ticket to a college football game. More than 7,500 people walked by his casket to thank Coach.

Now, all of the items that Doris and Eddie gathered during his 57 years as coach at Grambling State University will be on display. Visitors will see the life of this man who grew up in a racist, segregated South that denied him and his people so many opportunities that equally successful white people received. Despite that, Coach told me and almost everyone he met that "I am a proud American." Every autograph I saw Coach sign -- and he never turned down anyone -- would say "Eddie Robinson" and underneath it, "A proud American." Getting to know him, I learned why: Robinson knew that it was his role and the role of others to chip away at the stereotypes and hatred to build respect and friendship.

[+] EnlargeMike Tomlin
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesMike Tomlin is able to focus on reaching the Super Bowl every year because of the path cleared by Eddie Robinson.

Jackie Robinson and Ali spoke out emphatically against the evils restricting their people, keeping their people in literal and figurative bonds and chains. Eddie Robinson lived a life and taught other men to live such lives that there would be no way that society could view them without finally realizing how absurd Jim Crow laws were and how opportunity needed to be made available for everyone, irrespective of the color of their skin.

This year, I was honored to be invited by President Obama and Michelle Obama to the White House for a celebration of Black History. It ended up being snowed out, but I had looked forward to talking there with the civil rights leaders about Coach Robinson. He is never far from my mind, and with the museum opening he was very much on my mind this week. Anyone involved in the struggle for civil rights knew that this man, like Ali and Jackie Robinson, made America a different country. They knew that these men and the world of sports helped make an African-American president possible.

So I urge people from all across the land to decide they want to "go to Grambling so they will get to Grambling" and see the rich history on display in the Eddie Robinson Museum now open to be shared by all Americans.

Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 14 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He coauthored the autobiography of Eddie Robinson with Coach Robinson. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.

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Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com