Commentary

Players, friends pay tribute to Robinson

HBCU Hall of Fame to induct 'Coach Rob,' 10 others

Updated: February 19, 2010, 8:37 PM ET
By Graham Watson | ESPN.com

EDITOR'S NOTE: It's been nearly three years since Eddie Robinson's death. This month -- Black History Month -- marks two important tributes to one of college football's winningest coaches. Last week, Grambling State honored Robinson with a memorial museum. This weekend, he will be inducted into the inaugural class of the Black College Football Hall of Fame, along with 10 others. ESPN.com college football blogger Graham Watson collected anecdotes and wrote this tribute.

[+] 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.

In 2003, I made my first trip to Eddie Robinson Stadium in the Louisiana piney woods. To me, Grambling seemed larger than life. I'd heard stories, but I grew up in suburban Southern California, far from the Deep South. By the time I was born, major college football programs had opened their doors to African-American athletes, giving black athletes other options besides historically black colleges and universities like Grambling State, Florida A&M, Tennessee State and Morgan State.

I wasn't born yet during most of Robinson's 27 consecutive winning seasons coaching the Grambling Tigers. I was only 17 when he retired in 1997 and had not yet begun working as a reporter, so I never covered Robinson during his coaching career. I hadn't started with ESPN.com by the time he died. But I'd heard plenty about his 56 years at Grambling State, his overall 408-165-15 record and the more than 200 players he helped send to the NFL. Yet Robinson, one of the greatest football coaches of all time, was as much a mystery to me as the town of Grambling itself.

So at 23 years old, six years after Robinson's retirement and four years before his death, I stood on a concrete slab overlooking the stadium. My hands clasped the chain-linked fence and I watched, fascinated. I could feel the legend, the history, and almost see the ghost of Robinson walking the sideline of this stadium for the final 16 years of his career.

I turned around. Behind me, all the way across campus, was where the real history was made. That's where the original Grambling Stadium stood. That's where Robinson reigned over one of the greatest eras of not only Grambling history, but college football history in general. That's where my history lesson began.

The day a 22-year-old Eddie Robinson was hired out of a feed mill, college football changed. America changed.

And in reporting this story, I changed.

Seven years after I made my first trip to Grambling, I called on my friend Bill Campbell, who covered the team for The News-Star in Monroe, La., in the '80s. Campbell and former players, coaches and journalists offered these anecdotes to help me learn about the man they knew as "Coach Rob" the week before the Eddie G. Robinson Museum was opened on the Grambling campus during this Black History Month.

Robinson will be inducted into the inaugural Black College Football Hall of Fame this weekend in Atlanta with 10 others.

Black History Month

ESPN celebrates Black History Month by showcasing the stories and contributions of sports' biggest athletes from the past, present and future. More

With so many years to draw on, no one knew where to begin, but as they started speaking the stories came fast and furious. And as they remembered, they laughed and they sighed and they became quiet. The realization that Robinson's gone is still hard to comprehend.

Each person gave me the Grambling experience I'd never had and one that anyone -- black or white -- can appreciate.

This isn't a lesson in black history; it's a lesson in American history. It's one that took me more than seven years from that initial Grambling visit to truly appreciate.

"He's one of the most remarkable people I've ever met, and made as big of an impression as anybody I've ever met," Campbell said. "Somewhere in there you've got to use the word 'magic,' because I think that's what some people felt. He was remarkable."

Square dancing

When Robinson started at Grambling in 1941 (at that time the school was called the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute), he spent some of those early years coaching men's and women's basketball. He also taught tap, folk and square dancing. Former assistant coach Doug Porter said Robinson especially liked the square dancing because he liked yelling out the calls.

Robinson's love of America came up more in interviews than anything he did on the field, which I found surprising since he was coaching in the middle of the Jim Crow South. It was hard for me to understand how a man could love a country that didn't seem to love him back.

But the way Robinson saw it, America allowed him to coach at Grambling State.

"Let me tell you about Coach Rob, and he'd tell you, bless his soul, I was probably on Coach more than anybody about waving the American flag," said Doug Williams, who was Grambling's quarterback in the mid-70s and went on to become MVP of Super Bowl XXII. "I can't think of nobody that could out-American Coach. He believed in that American flag. He had good reason to believe in it, because it allowed him the opportunity to accomplish the things that he did. And he used to always say, 'Hell, America, you can't do it nowhere else like this.'"

In the late '60s and '70s, America returned Robinson's love when the team played on nine occasions at Yankee Stadium.

In 1971, more than 65,000 fans showed up to watch Grambling defeat Morgan State 31-13. It was the largest crowd ever to see two historically black colleges play, and it was the first nationally televised game for historically black colleges.

Buddy Davis, who covered Robinson for more than 30 years for the Ruston (La.) Daily Leader, remembered the coach answering questions from the media for more than two hours after the game. By the time Robinson was finished, the team buses had left for Manhattan, stranding Robinson, quarterback and game MVP Matt Reed, assistant coach George Glenn and Davis, who traveled with the team. So the group jumped on a subway to Manhattan at 1 a.m.

[+] EnlargeEddie Robinson
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesEddie Robinson won 408 career games during his 57-year stint on the Grambling State sideline.

"The minute we stepped on the train, at that time of the morning, 'Coach Rob' was instantly recognized and several folks started cheering and shaking his hand," Davis recalled. "All the while, just as he had done with the media, he took the time to talk with his fellow riders. And Reed sat there mesmerized as much as anybody, even though he was playing for the famous coach and realizing the impact he had on so many people. It was that way all the way into Manhattan.

"It was an amazing sight to see in that situation, at that time of the day and being thousands of miles away from home. But it demonstrates the far-reaching respect that people in all walks of life had for Coach Robinson."

Reveille

Some players remember it being 6 a.m., others 5, some 4:30 a.m., but all remember Robinson walking up and down the halls of Pinchback Hall ringing a cowbell to wake them up for practice and breakfast.

It was a rite of passage for any new Grambling football player, and the reason several players in the '70s and '80s ended up moving off campus.

In those days, there were no NCAA rules about the amount of hours players could practice. Sometimes Robinson would wake them up early, have a brief practice and then send players off to breakfast and class. After class they'd be back on the field for another three hours before dinner and then come back for meetings.

Pinchback Hall was an all-athlete dorm, and the football players all stayed on the same floors. The dorm was about 50 yards from Robinson's office in the men's gym, and about another 50 yards from Grambling Stadium.

In those days, the stadium was on the other side of campus where the track is now, so players didn't have to go very far to get some in extra conditioning before bed.

[+] EnlargeEddie Robinson
AP Photo/Eric GayThe late Eddie Robinson had 27 consecutive winning seasons with Grambling State.

"Back when I was there in 1973, '4, '5, '6 and '7, we were on the practice field at 5:30 in the morning," Williams said. "So at 4:30, he was through that hall. Can you imagine what that was like at 18, 19 years old?"

Every player laughed when I brought up the cowbell. It seemed to bring back those memories of being a freshman and not realizing exactly what you were in for. And each one made sure to note that no one else ever rang that bell. It was Robinson's duty, and he coveted it.

After a few interviews and some old pictures, I realized that Robinson was a little bit of a control freak, but he was also a learner. He went to at least one coaching clinic in almost every year of his career. When players would come back to visit Grambling after spending time in the NFL, Robinson would ask them to teach him the plays that they learned.

"If you played professional football, when you'd come back he always wanted to know what the Rams were doing, and Willie Davis, who played with the Green Bay Packers, he'd say, 'Show me that Green Bay sweep that Paul Hunter's running.' He'd get into practice and once he'd get it down he'd run it 10 or 12 times. He probably would never run it in a game," said Henry Dyer, a running back under Robinson in the mid-60s, who went on to play in the NFL. "He just wanted to know. He coached every position. Sure, he had position coaches, but he could always be seen riding the tackling sled, teaching the three-point stance and showing the punter how to punt. I couldn't even imagine a head coach taking the time to do that stuff now."

But Robinson had promises to keep, and his recruiting pitch never changed. He promised parents that their sons would be better people when they left Grambling State. They'd be disciplined, educated and ready for the world.

It's one of the things that struck James "Shack" Harris -- the Tigers' QB from 1965-68 -- when he decided to go to Grambling. And on the day he stood in line to register for classes as a freshman, Robinson was right there next to him.

"When you register, and he's promised your parents that you're going to get a degree -- that means a lot to him," said Harris. "On registration day, he was there. No school, I would bet, had the head coach around when it was time to register. He was there, and to me that just showed how concerned he was about guys being there."

Yes, his players won, but they also graduated. Robinson never yanked a scholarship, even if a player had no hope of playing. He allowed that player a chance to be a part of a special time in college football and finish his degree.

More than wins and losses, it was about making the young men he mentored believe they could be more than what society -- especially Southern society -- said they could be.

"He not only coached the game, but he promoted the game, and at the same time he put a lot of men into the world who were productive citizens," Dyer said. "At one time when he coached, Grambling had more guys in the pros than even Notre Dame.

"He probably could have gone to some other school and probably been one of the first blacks to coach in the NFL or the first black to coach at a major college, but he wouldn't leave dear old Grambling."

Track of my tears

Eddie Robinson was never afraid to cry. He used to cry after a win, cry after a loss, cry just talking to the players while getting them riled up for the game. That was his way of motivating them, and there were times when his players cried with him.

But more tears were shed in the late '80s and '90s when recruiting started to slow and Robinson's old style of coaching was no longer appealing. He wasn't getting the same players he was getting in the '60s and '70s because the opportunities for black players at Division I-A schools started to grow. More kids were opting for the Tigers from LSU instead of the ones from Grambling.

[+] EnlargeEddie Robinson
AP Photo/Eric GayThe late Eddie Robinson is one of 11 to be inducted into the Black Colleges Hall of Fame this weekend in Atlanta.

No one really wanted to talk about those final years; it was almost too hard. It was only after his retirement in 1997 that Robinson was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, but people saw the signs, and few could bear to watch a once-immortal man face his own mortality.

The game was changing, and he wasn't changing with it. Robinson had 11 losing seasons in his 56 years, but five of them came from 1987 to the time he retired.

And in that decade, fans and boosters turned against him. The man that had put Grambling State on the map was now being pushed out the door.

Robinson fought. In those final 10 years, he won one more SWAC title and one more black college football national championship.

His final game was Nov. 29, 1997, a 30-7 loss to Southern, which was beginning to dominate a series Robinson once owned.

The ending didn't tarnish his legacy, and it shouldn't allow people to forget what Robinson did for college football and the opportunities he created for black players in the NFL.

His 408 wins are more than those of former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden or Penn State coach Joe Paterno.

College football is full of success stories, but rarely does one touch so many people in so many different walks of life; a story that makes people laugh and cry and smile at the mere mention of its protagonist's name.

Eddie Robinson was that man. He wrote his own page of college football history, black history, American history. He embodied the American spirit as he rose from humble beginnings. He taught those he encountered to be educated, to be proud, and to do what they love for as long as they possibly can.

Seven years after taking that first trip to Grambling, I can finally appreciate that lesson.

Graham Watson covers college football for ESPN.com.

Graham Watson | email

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Watson joined ESPN.com in 2008 after four seasons covering the Missouri Tigers and the Big 12 Conference for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She also covered college football recruiting for the Dallas Morning News.