Coach Robinson was a blessing to America

Updated: April 4, 2007, 4:45 PM ET
By Richard Lapchick | Special to ESPN.com

I am a blessed man. I was asked to write the autobiography of coach Eddie Robinson with coach Rob in 1996. I did not know him personally before that, but enthusiastically agreed because of the incredibly high regard in which I held him after following his legendary career. Eddie Robinson was a rare gift to humanity.

We called it the autobiography, "Never Before, Never Again," because there never was nor will be another man like coach Robinson.

Ten years ago this month, I flew to Monroe, La., and drove to Ruston right outside of Grambling to meet Coach for the first time. In my phone call setting up the meeting, Coach told me, "No one goes to Grambling unless they plan to go there." I understood what he meant when I arrived at the Holiday Inn in Ruston deep in the Louisiana countryside.

It was the night Major League Baseball gave its tribute to Jackie Robinson on the 50th anniversary of his breaking baseball's color barrier. We watched the TV in the hotel lobby, then went to my room to start the interviews. At 2:30 a.m., the 78-year-old coach was still going strong but I suggested we pick it up again the next day.

I always will remember calling my wife at that late hour and telling her she would meet someone so much like my father, Joe Lapchick. My dad was a legendary basketball coach. He died before I met my wife. Not only did she get the chance with Coach, we also became good friends with Coach's wife, Doris, who reminded us so much of my mom. Thus began 10 years of treasured family friendships.

Eddie Robinson
AP Photo/Dave MartinGrambling State football coach Eddie Robinson was a mentor, role model, father and counselor to his players.
In the course of the next year, coach Robinson told me more than 50 stories about his amazing life. We decided to stop the interviews and write the book, which was published in 1999. I was in touch with Coach and Doris every couple of weeks since the publication. Before the Alzheimer's started to wear on him, Coach told me another 20 or more stories worth including in a book.

I did nearly 100 hours of interviews on the phone. I took notes and taped his words for three hours at a time. My wife, Ann, is not a big sports fan but she often sat on the floor in the home office listening to Coach talk, mesmerized by his wisdom and philosophy. He talked around four themes.

The first was his love for Doris. They always held hands, even after nearly seven decades of marriage. He wanted his players to see a happy home so it could be envisioned as the center of their future lives. This was a real-life love affair.

During the interviews, Coach often said, "Listen, Rich, I have to go now to have lunch with Doris," or, "It's time for dinner with Doris." At first I thought he might just be tired from hours of talking to me, but then we would pick it up at 10 p.m. and go until 1 a.m. For years I believed I didn't know any man who loved his wife as much as I did. I might have met him that first night with Coach.

The second theme was the role he played in American race relations. Never a public crusader for civil rights, Coach courageously challenged racism in his own way by proving that a black man could be a great football coach and, simultaneously, build the tenacity and determination of those in his charge as he led adolescents into manhood. I think of coach Robinson as every bit the barriers breaker that Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali were.

Coach said in "Never Before, Never Again" that in looking back at the issue of race, "We made extraordinary statements to break stereotypes: … Grambling won 17 SWAC championships and nine National Black Championships. The Howard Cosell documentary on Grambling in 1968 had black and white sports fans calling me a 'great football coach.' As we traveled across the South, we tried to use Grambling green (dollars) to quietly integrate hotels and restaurants. None of my players or coaches were seen at demonstrations in the 1960s. We made our own. The civil rights movement was helping to change the laws. Our goal was to help to change attitudes."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson told me, "Eddie Robinson has always been a hero in my eyes. Without question, he is an ambassador for our people, not only African-Americans, but all Americans. That's why I have such respect for coach Robinson."

The third theme was Eddie Robinson, the coach. His career at Grambling State is all over the news today. It lasted through 11 presidents and three wars. Grambling State was home to Coach and his wife for more than 65 years. They were married that long and he coached for 56 years -- all at the same institution. In spite of having more wins than any other coach, sending more than 300 players to NFL camps, having a graduation rate of 80 percent when football graduation rates were around 50 percent, and never having a player get in trouble with the law until his 56th year of coaching, Robinson was never even offered an interview for a Division I-A university head coaching job. I do not think he ever would have left Grambling State, but he told me he would have liked to have been asked.

When he retired in November 1997, too many people in America stood up and took note for the first time of the winningest coach in the history of college football. He was very likely the best known coach in America in the African-American community and was surely the most beloved. However, many of society's racial barriers kept Robinson a secret from most of white America outside of the world of sports. Robinson, who began his career in a segregated society, helped football transcend race in the America he loved and treasured. I co-authored his autobiography in the hopes it would help Americans of every color discover this great son of America. Seeing the morning news 12 hours after his passing filled with tributes made me smile through my sadness. America does know Eddie Robinson.

That was the fourth theme: Eddie Robinson was a proud American. That night in the Holiday Inn, there was a table filled with six older white men about Coach's age. They kept coming by us, shaking his hand, hugging him, asking how Doris was. I could have believed that these same men were raised in a racist, segregated South which Ruston, La., was surely part of in their younger days. But Robinson had regularly walked that part of the earth and forced them to see a great American who happened to have black skin. He broke big barriers and smashed stereotypes along the way.

Coach Robinson told me he had never been called "an American" until he took Grambling State to play in Japan in 1976. He confronted segregation in his life. But Eddie and Doris Robinson would stand still for the national anthem, their eyes fixed on our flag. Often you would see tears in his eyes when the singer hit "the land of the free." This was a great American leader who happened to be a coach and happened to be African-American. He was proud of his country and always tried to make it better.

He was so humble. How often do we hear coaches and players seem ready to extol their own virtues? I had to drag game stories out of him because he wanted to talk about his players and fellow coaches as men. Getting him to talk about himself was never easy, which made writing his autobiography with him a challenge. But it was pure joy for me to get to know Coach and Doris.

After achieving one of sports' most incredible records with his 400th win in 1995, Coach said, "I wish I could cut up all of these victories into 400 pieces and give them to all the players and assistant coaches I have had. They are the ones who truly deserve the credit." Straight from his heart.

Coach told me, "They said I would never be able to reach my third-grade dream of coaching football. I saw a coach then, he looked so good and his boys seemed to worship him. The fact that he was their hero was written all over their faces. That was the life I wanted. Seventy years later I ended a 56-year ride as a college head coach!"

Coach has proved the power of an individual to make a huge difference in the lives of young people. He tried to prepare a new generation of coaches to help today's youth because he knew life had changed dramatically in America. Coach said to me, "I know life isn't easy for young people now. They face all these challenges that my generation didn't have. When I was growing up in Jackson and Baton Rouge, children weren't killing each other; crack didn't exist; I never heard of steroids; most families had a mother and father. Many of today's student-athletes were raised in poverty and despair. They know that some white people will decide who they are just because of what they look like. Yes, indeed, life is hard today."

That is why he assumed the role of mentor, role model, father and counselor to his student-athletes, on and off the field. Grown men who are leaders across our nation are calling each other remembering this man who helped change lives. I am lucky to be one of them, a better man for having known coach Eddie Robinson.

Coach ended the book with, "If I had the chance, I would call for an instant replay of my entire life -- in slow motion -- so I could savor every second as I continue to work on the next stage of my life. If I could have created a game plan for my own life, I'd want to be born in America to my same parents, marry Doris, go to work for Grambling and have Eddie and Lillian as our children, their children as our grandchildren, and their children as our great grandchildren. I have a great life."

Coach Robinson had a great life. He loved his God and the next stage will be with Him. May God bless you, Coach.

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. The author of 12 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport. Lapchick co-authored the autobiography of Coach Eddie Robinson.

Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com