Eddie Robinson likes to hang around the practice field long after he's turned his Grambling State University football team in for the day, and stand in the shadows the piney woods make.
Up the road from the hardened red clay pasture where he works his team, there's a big stadium that holds somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000, with a wash of crimson-and-gold tiger stripes painted across the middle seats. Built two years ago, Robinson Stadium still shines as it did the day the governor of the Gret Stet of Loosiana came to town for the dedication and said:
"This day will go down as a significant date in the history of our state because we are here today to dedicate this facility not only to an institution, but also to a person who is an institution -- Coach Eddie Robinson."
They're talking about him again, you know, now that he's destined to become the winningest coach in college football history. Robinson, 66, stands to tie late Alabama coach Bear Bryant's record of 323 victories tonight in Shreveport, La., with a victory over Oregon State, and to surpass it next week against Prairie View.
In his 43rd year as the football coach at Grambling, a member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, Robinson has a 322-106-15 record, his last two victories coming against Alcorn State and North Carolina Central.
With four more victories, he will pass the record set by the late George Halas, the former Chicago Bears coach and cofounder of the National Football League. Halas won more games than any other coach in professional football history.
But what Eddie Robinson wants more than any record is for the people to love him. He's said that more than once. Whenever people think of Eddie Robinson, he's always said, "I don't want them to think black. I just want them to think coach."
That never was hard to do, even in the school's old days, when you found Coach Rob doing more than teaching his people how to play the game. Back then, he cut the grass on his own field, lay down lime stripes and made sandwiches for his players on road trips.
When the day was done, the game won, he went home to his typewriter and banged out a story for the local paper. He came up carrying the enormous load, a black man working in what he calls "a white system." And not everyone honored his successes.
Close as he's come to making history, some people don't take kindly to the probability of a coach at a small, Division I-AA school breaking Bryant's record for career victories. Others bitterly resent the idea of a black man doing it after so many years competing against other small, predominantly black colleges that likely would have a hard time against even mediocre Division I-A schools.
To his credit, Eddie Robinson doesn't take this criticism to heart. He'll tell you he doesn't even think about it and was never for a minute obsessed with outdistancing the legendary Bryant. What he likes "is being an American," he said a few years ago, and knowing "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 a football coach."
He also said, "I don't know that it's inevitable that I'll break Coach Bryant's record. You never know about 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."
In September 1983, as the old coach was nudging up to his 306th victory, the Louisiana State Legislature named the new stadium after the Robinson family. Before the game, the opposing coach told a newspaper reporter, "A man's got to be a fool playing Grambling on this day. Am I crazy or what?" Marino Casem, the coach at Alcorn State, watched his team lose that day, 28-0. But Robinson was the one who cried when it was over.
"One thing," Oregon State Coach Dave Kragthorpe told the Associated Press yesterday, "I'd rather play in the game where they go to tie the record than the one they play to break it."
Robinson has sent more than 200 players to professional football, and one year he had 43 players in NFL camps at the same time. Two of his former players -- Willie Davis, who played defensive end for the Packers, and Willie Brown, former defensive back with the Raiders -- are members of the NFL Hall of Fame. Robinson also coached Paul (Tank) Younger, who in 1949 became the first player from a predominantly black school to go to the NFL.
"I want his knowledge and he wants my ability," one of his star players said long ago. "It's an even swap. But I'm the one who'll be thanking him for the rest of my life."
Another said, "Sometimes after practice, we just stand around and look at him."
Eddie Robinson still combs his hair down the pipe with a fine-tooth comb, drives a big, four-door sedan and lives in a brick rambler a few minutes from campus. The place where he now has an office was once a peach orchard.
He'd come to work here after a short-lived career working at a Baton Rouge feed mill, making 25 cents an hour. He was moonlighting, working on an ice wagon, when Grambling, then called the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, offered him a job as coach.
That was 1941, and it seemed the right road to go. This is what Eddie Robinson likes to say about roads: "Some people build the roads, and some drive them."