Driving north from Ruston, you could easily sail by this town of 4,500 if not for the cluster of U-pump-it gas stations off I-20 that promises something other than possum, bobcats and the white-tail deer that thrive in these deep green woods.

Somewhere off the highway is Grambling State University, a small black school where Eddie Robinson, who is 17 wins short of tying Bear Bryant's record for most career victories, has coached since 1941.

Robinson, 64, lives in a ranch-style brick house on the edge of a hilly wood, not far from one of three water towers that rise high above the rolling green hills and shade the sun late in the afternoon. He drives a sleek new car (a gift of the university after winning 300 games), parts his hair down the middle with a fine-tooth comb and likes to call Grambling an "American university," not a black school. He also likes to call himself an "American coach" and not a black coach.

With the gubernatorial election less than six weeks away, folks up and down these hot, melting streets of tar started pushing the balsawood necks of placards into the high grass of their front yards long before Gov. Dave Treen came here to speak at the dedication of the new Robinson Stadium. The governor declared: "This day . . . will go down as a significant date in the history of our state because we are here today to dedicate this facility (Robinson Stadium) not only to an institution, but also to a person who is an institution--Coach Eddie Robinson."

Robinson cried into a dozen microphones while off in a dark bower of the 22,000-seat stadium, Alcorn State Coach Marino Casem told a Monroe newspaper reporter: "A man's got to be a fool playing Grambling on this day. Am I crazy or what?" Alcorn lost, 28-0, and Robinson improved his victory total to 306, making him the fourth-winningest coach in college football history. He trails Pop Warner (313), Amos Alonzo Stagg (314) and Bear Bryant (323).

"I don't know that it's inevitable that I'll break Coach Bryant's record," said Robinson, whose Tigers lost to SMU, 20-13, last Saturday night. "You never know that kind of thing. I could pass away tomorrow. So I just let things happen. I always tell my players that you're better off just letting things happen."

Not everyone has honored Robinson's success. Many people resent even the probability of a coach at a small, Division I-AA college breaking Bryant's record for career wins. That the school is predominantly black (there are 145 white students) and plays mostly other black colleges only prompts further questioning of the legitimacy of his ever claiming the record.

"Only small people think like that," Robinson said. "I've received letters from people saying bad things about me and my chances of breaking the record, but I always put them aside and don't even read them through. Nobody has ever approached me personally with any prejudices.

"I'm an American. I don't have to justify anything. The only thing I ever wanted to be was an American coach. Not a black or a white coach, but an American coach. When people say Eddie Robinson, I don't want them to think 'black.' I want them to think 'coach.' "

While in attendance at Bryant's funeral, Robinson said, "People came up to me and said, 'Hey, here's the guy who'll break the Bear's record.' I told them, no I wasn't. I was just contributing to football like any other coach. I loved Coach Bryant. I cherished Coach Bryant. Ever since they started inflating balls, he's been the greatest."

Robinson said boosters of Alabama football call often now asking him to attend banquets and talk to them "about anything, about football. I guess they miss Coach Bryant because he always talked to them." Most of the letters he receives from Alabama and Bryant fans say the same thing, he said. "They say they just want to pick up and go on and join with us here at Grambling."

Eddie Robinson has lived in Grambling since 1941, when he and his wife, Doris, moved here from Baton Rouge. He had just graduated from Leland College in Baker, La., five miles north of the state capital, and was working in a feed mill. Baker is still there but Leland isn't. Its demise gave new life to Southern University, the largest black school in the country and Grambling's biggest rival.

Southern is situated near a jungle of oil-related industries on the banks of the Mississippi River. When Robinson's father got a good-paying job with Standard Oil Co., not far from Southern, he moved his family out of their old sharecropper's house in the heart of a cotton field and to the city.

"It was the start of something," Robinson said. "I always wanted to change things and make them better in my life. I just never knew I'd do it on the football field."

Robinson played fullback, tailback and punter at Leland and was only 22 when he quit his job at the feed mill and accepted the newly created coaching position at Grambling, then called the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. He coached all sports, including women's basketball and a nearby black high school's football team, and helped start the physical education program at Grambling. "A day back then," Robinson said, "was not just a day. It seemed to go on forever."

When Carroll Rosenbloom, then-owner of the Los Angeles Rams, flew Robinson to Los Angeles in 1977 and offered him the head-coaching job, which would have made him the first black head coach in the NFL, Rosenbloom harped on the piddling sum Robinson made at Grambling.

"I told him it wasn't much compared to what he was willing to pay," said Robinson, who earned $49,183 last year, about a fifth of what Jackie Sherrill made at Texas A&M in 1982. "But 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. I thanked Mr. Rosenbloom, then turned him down. There was no way I'd leave Grambling. It was always like being on one big picnic."

Until 1969, when the major white universities in the state started recruiting black athletes, Robinson said he could "get anybody I wanted. We used to get all of the best black high school players, every one. But the way it is today is the way it should be . . . Blacks came here as slaves, remember? But we've really bridged the gap. We've made progress and the only way to do that is to understand the system. You can't beat the system, I always tell my boys. You just can't."

Robinson talks about "the system" as a mechanic might talk about catalytic converters. He knows its function, how it works and provides his players with palpable explanations. "There are more whites than blacks in this country," he says. "The whites put the system together. So adapt to it. You might beat the system once or twice, but it always wins in the end. Get under the American flag and go to work, boys. Go to work."

Ed Scott, a senior defensive back, said, "When he speaks to the team, even if it's the same thing you've heard a thousand times before, he can bring you down to your knees and put tears in your eyes. He always says, 'The first to cry is a sissy,' but most of the time he's the one crying. He won't hide it from you, either. He'll say, 'Okay, guys, I guess I'm the sissy.' You know then there's never an excuse for losing to Coach Robinson. He can make a boy a man."

Robert (Bird) Smith, a defensive end from Bogalusa, La., who chose Grambling over LSU, Alabama, Pittsburgh and others, said, "I often think about thanking him for letting me play here. I want his knowledge and he wants my ability. It's an even swap. I bet we'll be saying thank you for the rest of our lives."

His players treat him with such deference and fervent admiration that they appear to be just short of genuflecting every time he walks out on the field. After practice, long after Robinson has dismissed the squad, he meets players individually and answers their questions. "If somebody loses a book, they go to Coach Robinson to find out where they can find another," linebacker Darryl Nichols said.

"When we see Coach Rob coming," said linebacker Melvin Lewis, "we say, 'Here comes the Wizard.' We call him 'the Legend', too, but never to his face. Sometimes after practice, we just stand around and look at him. Everything he gets, he deserves. Like the stadium being named after his family. It would do no good naming it after him once he's dead. Let the man celebrate while he's alive."

Since he won his 300th game against Florida A&M in 1982, Robinson said he's done much celebrating and has had "a lump in my throat ever since. In the last few years, so many unbelievable things have happened to me here at Grambling that I haven't had the chance to look at it all with any depth. There was an Eddie Robinson Day and they gave me a car. There was a parade down in Ruston, too. But, really, I don't think what I've done is all that important, considering this is the only real job I ever had."