Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Last Of The Legends: Eddie Robinson

APROPOS-The coach is made into a literal work of art.
A Limelight Exclusive

By Byron Lee

"The real record I have set for over 50 years is the fact that I have had one job and one wife."

A LASTING LOVE-Eddie with Doris, his wife of 67 years.
This quote perfectly encapsulates the philosophy of late coaching legend Eddie Robinson. The statement, referenced in a recent retrospective article by the Associated Press, has clear implications of passion and loyalty that no doubt were the foundation of his legacy.

He is one of the most victorious coaches in college football history. He gained immense respect from those outside of his community. For this edition of the limelight, we will profile former Grambling Football Coach Eddie Robinson.

IN ACTION-Coach Robinson calls a play.
As he grew up, Robinson, born February 12, 1919 in Jackson Louisiana, became known as someone who would put his nose to the grindstone. Raised by a sharecropper dad and a domestic worker mom who divorced when he was ten, he credited his maternal grandfather for instilling that value in him. During his youth in Baton Rouge, he worked as a shoe shiner and as a newspaper distributor.

Even before his high school years, Eddie believed that he had found his calling. He would watch the McKinley High School Football team practice under coach Julius Kraft. "I saw the way they were calling him 'sir' and 'coach,' the way he built his players up," Robinson said in a 1985 interview with the New York Times. "And he had a mean streak in him. He'd smile, then he'd stop smiling and you knew it was time to win. I was drawn to that."

IN COMMAND-Robinson surveys the field.
He was a star player a few years later, when he attended McKinley, and he was equally impressive at Leland College (which was later incorporated into Southern University.) During his time at Leland, Robinson came closer to his dream when Baptist preacher Reuben Turner, Robinson’s coach, familiarized the young man with the act of calling plays.

GRASS ROOTS-In the beginning, Robinson had to perform many tasks other than coaching.

After graduation, Robinson got married. Soon to be a father, he worked in a feed mill and on an ice wagon to make ends meet. "He was always working," said Doris, his wife of 67 years, "and he was so serious…about everything he did."

In addition to all of his hard work, a connection, a chance at opportunity, was essential in Robinson getting the job that would change his life forever. "My wife Doris's sister knew the family of the Grambling president, Dr. Ralph W. E. Jones," he told Sports Illustrated in 1985. "That's how I got to meet him, and that's how I got the job.” Robinson showed the gratitude of a man wise enough to know that no one truly makes it without the help of others. “I don't know what would have happened to me if Dr. Jones hadn't hired me," he continued. "That man made more of an impact on me than anyone except my father."

Coach Robinson had to do much more than coach football in the beginning; he presided over the school's athletic department, tended to the football field, and even coached Grambling's basketball team.

During WWII, Robinson, like many coaches, experienced a phenomenon that could have wrecked many programs: he lost many players to military service. Instead of letting the program, and himself, lie dormant, he coached the Grambling High School team and won the championship. (He claims that he got the team used to working hard by having them pick cotton for his father.) He also used the rebuilding time wisely, watching black high schools for prospects. When his older players came back from combat and joined the crop of new players, the time was ripe to compete successfully. It is apropos that during this period the team's intuition ceased being the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute and became simply, and powerfully, Grambling College.

The program would gain much of its early national coverage through the ascension of running back Paul "Tank" Younger. The team had triumphant seasons during Younger’s time there (1945-1948) and, in 1948, Younger became the first black player from an all-black college to be drafted by an NFL team (The Los Angeles Rams). Other players such as Ernie Ladd, Willie Davis, and James Harris also made it to the pros.

LEADING A POWERHOUSE-Through Robinson's shrewd marketing, Grambling's greatest was recognized by the nation.
The program would continue to thrive during the 50’s, holding their own against respected black college powers and getting more attention after soundly beating Florida A&M in the Orange Blossom Classic following the 1955 season. They were recognized in a major way in 1958, when they were allowed entry into the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

Robinson’s competitors were dumbfounded, mainly due to the fact that the coach used a simple plan of attack. "Eddie doesn't try to fool you," Marino Casem, the head coach at Alcorn State, told the Times in 1985. "He'll run four basic plays and four basic pass patterns. You don't know when they're coming and sometimes when you do, ain't a damn thing you can do about it. He believes in doing it right and doing it over and over and over again."

Wisely realizing that the team's prospects for widespread national attention were limited by its location, Robinson started touring the team in 1968 and kicked publicity for the team into overdrive. The documentary “Grambling College: 100 Yards To Glory” (co-produced by Howard Cosell) was filmed, and the three major networks started giving the team, and their school, exposure. The following year, the team played before nearly 300,000 paying customers in 11 games.

ONLY ONE HOME-Robinson repeatedly stated that he could never leave Grambling.
Robinson seemed especially moved by an occurrence that happened a few years later: the team played a regular season game in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Robinson said that he remembered “when blacks couldn't even sit in the Sugar Bowl."

Wanting some of the coach’s success to rub off on their programs, many southern white schools started showing interest in black players, limiting Robinson’s talent pool. Eddie reacted with the mix of pragmatism and tenacity for which he was known. "The way it is today is the way it should be...Blacks [have] made progress and the only way to do that is to understand the system,” he told the Washington Post in 1983, “The whites put the system together. So adapt to it…Get under the American flag and go to work, boys. Go to work." He has also stated that once he claimed an American identity, he realized that there were "no excuses--no excuses for failure."

RECORD HOLDER-Robinson held the record for winningest coach in college football from 1985-2003.

The rewards that come with hard work were soon distinctly quantified. Robinson earned his 300th college victory in 1982 and became the winningest coach in college football history in 1985, getting his 324th win against Prairie View. (Robinson remained the most victorious college coach until John Gagliardi of St. John's replaced him in 2003.) The program went on to win nine national black college championships and 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles.

MORE TO PROVE-Robinson's players had to demonstrate aptitude off the field, as well.
Despite the success of his program, Robinson was still all-too-aware of the stereotypes that were still prevalent in society. He spoke to this reality at a luncheon in 1974, saying "Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I say we do have things to prove. I say we have to prove we're articulate; we have to prove we don't steal towels from hotels; we have to prove we can eat. I just talk from experience. I still know black players who won't eat at hotels because they don't know how to eat."

Robinson had much affection for his players and their institution. This feeling was best exemplified when Robinson was offered an assistant coaching position with the Los Angeles Rams in 1977. Robinson told the Washington Post in 1983, "Money never could buy me happiness. I thought about all those years at Grambling, about my friends here in town and my family and all the hard work I'd put into this school...There was no way I'd leave Grambling. It was always like being at one big picnic."

The program fell on hard times during the mid 90's, with the team winning only 3 wins in Robinson’s final season in 1997 and facing various off-field allegations. Reportedly being influenced by boosters, Grambling relieved Robinson of his duties and replaced him with former pupil, and Super Bowl XXII MVP, Doug Williams. Robinson was informed soon after that he had Alzheimer’s.

A BELOVED FIGURE-Robinson became a cherished presence both on Grambling's campus and in his players' lives.
Robinson ended his 57 year career with a record of 408-165-15. To hear him tell it, the program's success was due to one ingredient. "Coaching is a profession of love," he said,”You can't coach people unless you love them." Everson Walls, who played for Robinson in the 70s and went on to play for the Dallas Cowboys, said, quoted for the Times piece, that they "didn't have the best conditions, and Coach Robinson knew that, but said that, in the long run, this is one of the best things we could go through, because we'd have to face less than ideal situations in the real world." Doug Williams, speaking with the Times, said that Robinson "could build you up and make you feel like you could do anything. He never told us that life was unfair and that we'd have to be ready for it. He always told us that this was America, and we could be anything we wanted to be." Paul Younger told Sport Illustrated in 1983 that, "Because of Eddie's rules and regulations, the average guy you see from Grambling is a pretty good person."

He showed his love for his players by teaching etiquette and helping his players get jobs after graduation; Robinson's players have responded in kind. The players speak of him with great respect and, in his final years, many of them frequently visited him at his home.

IN TWILIGHT-In 1997, Robinson was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
The public was highly reverential as well. After his death, he was only the fifth person to lie in repose at the Louisiana state capitol.

It is rare that a human being receive such accolades. In this and other ways, Eddie Robinson was a very fortunate man. Judging by the words and actions of his life, he was fully aware of it.

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