Eddie Robinson used to say that he coached each of his players like he wanted them to marry his daughter. On Wednesday, one of those players, Super Bowl MVP quarterback Doug Williams, announced that the history-making former head football coach of Grambling State University had passed away at the age of 88.
“For the Grambling family, this is a very emotional time,” said Williams, who succeeded Robinson as head coach at Grambling. “I’m thinking about Eddie Robinson the man, not in today-time, but in the day and what he meant to me and to so many people.”
Robinson’s career spanned 57 years, 11 presidents, several wars and the civil rights movement. During that span, he sent more than 200 players to the National Football League and won 408 games.
His older records were what people remembered: In 57 years, Robinson set the standard for victories, going 408-165-15. John Gagliardi of St. John’s, Minn., has since passed Robinson and has 443 wins.
“The real record I have set for over 50 years is the fact that I have had one job and one wife,” Robinson once said.
He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s, which was diagnosed shortly after he was forced to retire following the 1997 season, in which he won only three games. His health had been declining for years and he had been in and out of a nursing home during the last year.
Robinson said he tried to coach each player as if he wanted him to marry his daughter.
He began coaching at Grambling State in 1941, when it was still the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, and single-handedly brought the school from obscurity to international popularity.
Grambling first gained national attention in 1949, when Paul “Tank” Younger signed with the Los Angeles Rams and became the first player from an all-Black college to enter the NFL. Suddenly, professional scouts learned how to find the little school 65 miles east of Shreveport near the Arkansas border.
Robinson sent more than 200 players to the NFL, including seven first-round draft choices and Williams. Other Grambling players went to the Canadian Football League and the now-defunct United States Football League.
Robinson’s pro stars included Willie Davis, James Harris, Ernie Ladd, Buck Buchanan, Sammy White, Cliff McNeil, Willie Brown, Roosevelt Taylor, Charlie Joiner and Willie Williams.
Robinson said he was inspired to become a football coach when a high school team visited the elementary school he attended.
“The other kids wanted to be players, but I wanted to be like that coach,” Robinson said. “I liked the way he talked to the team, the way he could make us laugh. I liked the way they all respected him.”
Robinson was forced to retire after the 1997 season, after the once perennial powerhouse fell on tough times. His final three years on the sidelines brought consecutive losing seasons for the first time, an NCAA investigation of recruiting violations and four players charged with rape.
As pressure mounted for him to step aside, even the governor campaigned to give him one last season so he could try to go out a winner.
But 1997 produced only three wins for the second straight year.
Robinson’s teams had only eight losing seasons and won 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles and nine national Black college championships. His den is packed with trophies, representing virtually every award a coach can win. He was inducted into every hall of fame for which he was eligible and he received honorary degrees from such prestigious universities as Yale.
In 1968, because of a tiny home stadium on a hard-to-reach campus, Robinson put Grambling’s football show on the road, playing in all the nation’s biggest stadiums.
That same year, Howard Cosell and Jerry Izenberg produced the documentary, “Grambling College: 100 Yards to Glory,” Robinson became vice president of the NAIA and all three major television networks carried special programming on Grambling football.
A year later, Grambling played before 277,209 paying customers in 11 games, despite the home field that seated just 13,000.
Robinson had an autographed portrait of Paul “Bear” Bryant, the late University of Alabama coach, hanging in the Grambling conference room, where the coaches worked out game plans. Robinson’s record eclipsed his old friend’s 323-85-17.
“If the Bear were alive, I’d still be chasing him,” Robinson said as he entered his last season. “I’m no better than any other coach. But I’ve heard the best coaches in America and learned from them for close to 60 years.”
When he began his career, Robinson had no paid assistants, no groundskeepers, no trainers and little in the way of equipment. He had to line the field himself and fix lunchmeat sandwiches for road trips because the players could not eat in the “White only” restaurants of the South.
He was not bitter, however. “The best way to enjoy life in America is to first be an American, and I don’t think you have to be White to do so,” Robinson said. “Blacks have had a hard time, but not many Americans haven’t.”
Robinson said he tried to teach his players about opportunity.
“The framers of this Constitution, now they did some things,” Robinson would say. “If you aren’t lazy, they fixed it for you. You’ve got to understand the system. It’s just like in football, if you don’t understand the system, you haven’t got a chance.”
Neither of Robinson’s parents graduated from high school. He was the son of a cotton sharecropper and a domestic worker and they encouraged him to stay in school and get a college degree. Robinson was a star quarterback at Leland College under Reuben S. Turner, a Baptist preacher who introduced Robinson to the playbook and took him to his first coaching clinic.
After college, Robinson took a job at a feed mill in Baton Rouge, earning 25 cents an hour. He learned through a relative that there was an opening at Grambling.
His first season, Robinson’s team went 3-5. His second year Grambling was 9-0, not only unbeaten, but not scored on.
In 1943 and 1944, there was no football at Grambling because of World War II. Robinson coached at Grambling High School those years and won a high school championship.
“A daddy pulled my best running backs off our team and said they couldn’t play anymore because they had to pick cotton,” Robinson said. “So I got all the boys on the team, we packed up and went out there to pick the cotton, then went on to win the championship.”
The same year Robinson started coaching at Grambling, he married his high school sweetheart, Doris, whom he courted for eight years.
Robinson is survived by his wife Doris, son Eddie Robinson Jr., daughter Lillian Rose Robinson, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
— Associated Press
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