By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 5, 2007
Coach Eddie Robinson won nine black college national championships and 408 games at Grambling State University, but following his death at age 88 late Tuesday night, he was remembered most as a pioneer whose legacy extended beyond sports.
Robinson, who died in Ruston, La., after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease, became the coach at what was then known as the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute in 1941, when his duties included washing the team's laundry and driving the bus. He set about, as he once wrote, challenging "racism by proving a black man could be a good football coach."
During Robinson's 57-year tenure, the football program helped elevate the school in northern Louisiana from obscurity to national prominence, and the man who regularly corrected his players' grammar on the practice field graduated 80 percent of his players and sent more than 200 to the National Football League.
"There is no question that Eddie Robinson was a figure that was larger than life for most African American young men of that era," said University of Washington Coach Tyrone Willingham, the first African American football coach at Notre Dame. "At that time, Grambling was the program and Eddie Robinson was the man. . . . He stood for all the right things. He was a man of extreme character and integrity both as a coach and as a person."
Robinson's former players included Paul "Tank" Younger, who in 1949 became the first player from a historically black college to sign with the NFL, and Doug Williams, who in 1988 with the Washington Redskins became the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl game.
"For the Grambling family, this is a very emotional time," Williams said. "But 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."
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco issued a statement yesterday that read: "Coach Robinson elevated a small-town program to national prominence and tore down barriers to achieve an equal playing field for athletes of all races. Generations of Louisianans will forever benefit from coach Robinson's fight for equality."
Robinson's Alzheimer's was diagnosed shortly after his retirement in 1997. He had been in and out of a nursing home in the past year and had been admitted to Northern Louisiana Medical Center on Tuesday afternoon.
Born in Jackson, La., Robinson was the son of a cotton sharecropper and a domestic worker. When he was named the school's head coach in 1941, it had no locker room or weight room. Robinson mowed and lined the field and filled coffee cans with cement so players could lift weights. He also coached the men's and women's basketball teams.
Grambling did not field teams in 1944 and 1945 because of World War II, so Robinson coached at Grambling High School.
Younger's signing with the Los Angeles Rams brought national attention to Robinson, who would go on to produce seven first-round NFL draft picks and four future Hall of Fame inductees: Younger, Willie Brown, Buck Buchanan and Willie Davis.
Buchanan played 13 seasons in the NFL, but Robinson took particular pride in the fact Buchanan returned to Grambling to earn his degree. Robinson believed society did not always "ask [student-athletes] to be smart enough."
"If a boy can't tackle, we show him how," Robinson wrote about society's general expectations of a student-athlete. "I sometimes wondered if anybody cared enough to teach him to read."
Robinson made sure players valued education and discipline. He carried players' updated grades in his briefcase. He required players to wear suit coats and ties to interviews with reporters. In an old office, Robinson once found an assortment of earrings in his desk; he didn't allow his players to wear jewelry.
He remained committed to academics even in his mid-70s, when he rang cowbells at 6:30 a.m. to make sure players rose from bed, ate breakfast and attended class. If a player missed class, Robinson would force him to run up and down bleachers repeatedly or would take away his meal card for the day.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote in Robinson's 1999 autobiography, "Never Before, Never Again," that Robinson "developed minds before he developed muscles. The breakthroughs provided by the work of Coach Robinson might have been less dramatic than the day Jackie Robinson donned the Dodger uniform. However, they were no less meaningful. Two men named Robinson changed American life forever."
In the same book, New York Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner called Robinson the "greatest American I have ever known." And Muhammad Ali credited Robinson for "turning boys into men," calling him a "credit to his sport as well as a credit to humanity."
Robinson enjoyed competitive excellence throughout his career. In 1942, Robinson was 23 when he coached a team that was undefeated and unscored upon.
In 1985, Robinson passed Paul "Bear" Bryant as the winningest college football coach when Grambling beat Prairie View A&M, 27-7. What Robinson said he cherished most about that team was that 20 players made the honor roll. (Coach John Gagliardi of St. John's, Minn., passed Robinson in 2003 and has 443 wins.)
At age 75 in 1994, Robinson led the Tigers to a share of the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship and was named the league's coach of the year. On his last team, Robinson savored the fact that he coached nine sons of his former players.
But Robinson always felt that family came first. He had said he didn't manage to coach for 60 years, but he was hoping to celebrate a 75th anniversary with wife Doris in 2016.
"People talk about the record I've compiled at Grambling, but the real record is the fact that for over 50 years, I've had one job and one wife," Robinson said. "I don't believe anyone can out-American me."
Robinson is survived by his wife, son Eddie Robinson Jr., daughter Lillian Rose Robinson, five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
"Our love and admiration for Eddie were unyielding, as was Eddie's for his immediate family and his extended Grambling family," Doris Robinson said in a statement yesterday. "Eddie was the consummate husband, father, teacher, leader, role model, and, most of all, the greatest of Americans. Words cannot express the loneliness that I will feel without my beloved Eddie. However, I realize, and the immediate family realizes, the greatness that Eddie contributed to our society. He will forever fill our hearts, minds and souls."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.