By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, April 5, 2007
Eddie Robinson never worried about what he didn't have, because he didn't start with much of anything, except big dreams and plenty of encouragement.
The son of a cotton sharecropper and a maid, he started his career as a head football coach without a paid assistant, groundskeeper or athletic trainer. If there were fields to mow, ankles to tape and uniforms to stitch together, Robinson did it all. Because Jim Crow segregation prevented black people from doing something as simple as pulling off the highway to have a meal at a mainstream restaurant until the mid- to late-1960s, "Coach Rob" made the sandwiches he and his boys would eat on bus trips to games.
Yet he did a whole lot more winning than complaining. He won more games -- 408 -- than Joe Paterno, than Bear Bryant, than Bobby Bowden, than anybody who coached big-time college football. He couldn't drink out of just any old water fountain for the first 25 years of his coaching career at Grambling State University, but he moved purposefully, seamlessly and seemingly without bitterness through a world that had few open doors.
Former NFL quarterback Doug Williams, probably Coach Rob's most well-known player, once said on the topic of his coach's always positive demeanor in the face of the bigotry of the day, "Coach Rob would tell us if we blocked better, tackled better and played well, we'd force the doors open sooner or later."
Of the many famous Coach Robinson quotes circulating yesterday in the wake of his death after 10 years of failing health, one of my favorites is: "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. . . . I don't believe anybody can out-American me."
He died a great American because of his contribution to football, the college and professional ranks. He sent more than 200 Grambling Tigers to the NFL, which would be impressive enough for a coach from Michigan or Southern California, but is a surreal number for a man who began his career in 1941 at a school then called the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute.
Robinson began coaching at a time when he might have to leave campus to retrieve his best players from a cotton field and finished it in 1997, reportedly having been inducted into every hall of fame for which he was eligible.
I remember getting a phone call from Doug Williams one night, after a television piece on the "best coaches in college football" highlighted Paterno and Bryant but mentioned Coach Rob only as a footnote. Williams, who is as calm and as unflappable as his old coach, was uncharacteristically agitated. He couldn't stand seeing his coach downgraded because he worked his magic at a black college, with none of the money and none of the staff enjoyed by his peers.
"What Eddie had to work with compared to what those coaches had to work with . . . it wasn't even close," Williams said. "For Eddie to win as many games as he did, and to send as many players to the NFL as he did, you've got to put Eddie in that same group."
On the same theme, Williams told ESPN yesterday: "When Eddie's players went to the NFL, they played as well and better than players from other schools. . . . Eddie has to get credit for that."
He certainly does here. The Mount Rushmore of college coaches has to include Bryant, Paterno and Robinson, not necessarily in that order.
Black folks were aware of Eddie Robinson back in the 1940s. His second team was not only undefeated; it didn't allow the opposition any points.
When World War II canceled Grambling's seasons in 1943 and 1944, Robinson coached Grambling High School and won a championship.
But mainstream America became aware of Coach Rob only in the late 1960s, after Howard Cosell and longtime Newark Star-Ledger columnist Jerry Izenberg produced a documentary in 1968 called "Grambling College: 100 Yards to Glory." Scouts from the AFL, particularly the Raiders and Chiefs, and the NFL's Cowboys had found their way to Grambling for years, which is a huge reason they've long been the most popular teams among African Americans.
But it took that documentary to focus widespread attention on Robinson and Grambling winning all those games and Southwestern Athletic Conference championships.
To try to discount the level of competition Grambling faced would be to ignore history. With Southeastern Conference schools unwilling to even recruit black players until the late 1960s, a great many (perhaps even most) of the best black ballplayers the first 70 years of the 20th century went to historically black colleges. By position, historically black colleges could field a team, on offense and defense, that would challenge most Super Bowl teams in terms of credentials. Integration may allow black football players to matriculate at Louisiana State now, but it doesn't wipe away decades of history. You want to argue that tackling Walter Payton and covering Jerry Rice would have been harder if they had played in the Big Ten instead of Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State, respectively?
Grambling alone produced Charlie Joiner, Willie Davis, Willie Brown, Roosevelt Taylor, Buck Buchanan, Ernie "Big Cat" Ladd, Sammy White, Everson Walls, Willie Williams and the great Paul "Tank" Younger, just to name a small but accomplished few of Coach Rob's pupils.
Izenberg, who became friends with Robinson in the early 1960s, was quoted by the Associated Press yesterday as saying Robinson "took a small college in northern Louisiana with little or no funds and sent the first black to the pros [Younger, the first from an all-black school] and made everyone look at him and Grambling."
Because he was such a legend by the time I became a sportswriter, I was too scared to say a word to Coach Rob the first time I saw him.
It was in the early 1980s, maybe even the Georgetown Final Four in New Orleans, and I stepped in an elevator in the Hyatt-Regency adjacent to the Superdome.
Coach Rob was there and it was nearly as overwhelming as the first time I saw Muhammad Ali as an adult. Luckily, Doug Williams was at the bottom of the elevator, and I asked him to make the introduction.
I had the pleasure of being in Coach Rob's company three or four times, one an extended visit, and had no interest in interrupting his stories with questions. He was quoted as saying of coaching, "Leadership, like coaching, is fighting for the hearts and souls of men and getting them to believe in you."
What was evident in the prime of his career, when he retired in 1997, and now upon reflection on his remarkable life and career is that Eddie Robinson won even more hearts and souls than he did football games.