What he wanted more than anything else was to make the people love him. Grambling Coach Eddie Robinson always said that counted more than any record he might own.
And when it finally happened tonight against Prairie View A&M at the Cotton Bowl -- when Robinson won his 324th career game, passing Paul (Bear) Bryant (323-85-17) as the winningest coach in college football history -- he showed that it really was the contribution that counts. And that's what he'd hoped for: to leave an enduring mark and memory for those who helped him along the way and shared in his record-breaking triumph.
"I don't think this belongs just to Eddie Robinson," he said in a chaotic dressing room after the game. "I'm happy and proud of the team, the way they played tonight . . . You know, we do the same thing over and over. We try to win, and that's just about it."
Grambling, ranked second in the country in Division I-AA with a 4-0 record, beat Prairie View, 27-7, before 36,652 and a large media contingent that probably would have disregarded this Southwestern Athletic Conference game if not for its historical importance. Prairie View (1-4) came into the contest decidedly disadvantaged, what with Grambling's enormous swell of purpose.
"I kept saying it was just another game," Robinson, 66, said, "but with all the attention this game got it turned out to be a real exciting experience for us. I just hope that in whatever happens I can handle it in the same way the men before me did, men like Warner and Stagg and Bryant."
The Tigers went into the locker room at halftime with a 20-0 lead, all but assuring Robinson, who has lost 106 times and tied 15, of victory. Their first score came when quarterback Terrell Landry passed 12 yards to Arthur Wells with 10:21 left in the first quarter. Then, more than six minutes later, running back Wayne Hill took a pitch off left end and scored standing up to give Grambling a 14-0 lead.
Prairie View had a most difficult time hanging onto the ball all evening, committing seven turnovers, four in the first half. Grambling took advantage of one of the Panthers' miscues to produce the only second-quarter score. That came when cornerback Jeffrey Smith intercepted one of Ernest Brow's pass and returned the ball 48 yards for the touchdown. Ardashir Nobahar's extra-point kick was blocked, but the Tigers remained in charge, 20-0.
There was 1:03 remaining in the third quarter when fullback Clyde Dyson upped Grambling's lead to 27-0 with an 11-yard touchdown run. From then on, Grambling substituted freely, using younger, less experienced players in an attempt to keep the rout from turning into an embarrassment for Prairie View.
That simple kindness on Robinson's part worked to the Panthers' favor. They finally scored on a 37-yard pass from Brow to tight end Charles Porter with about 10 minutes left in the game, making it, 27-7. But the game and the record belonged to the old coach, as the scoreboard indicated. It sent messages to the night's hero: "TO EDDIE! THANKS FOR THE MEMORY!"
Grambling is a little place off I-20 in north Louisiana -- not the kind of town where one would expect football history of any significance to be made. Eddie Robinson has lived in the town and coached the Grambling football team since 1941. To get there, he held jobs working at a Baton Rouge feed mill and driving an ice truck, sometimes putting in 18-hour days. The son of an oil refinery worker, Robinson had hoped to get into coaching ever since the third grade. That's when he first saw Coach Julius Kraft standing on the steps in front of McKinley High School in Baton Rouge and introducing his football team. The players had worn blue-and-white uniforms, Robinson liked to remember, newly cleaned and pretty in the sun.
He'd always hoped to be a man like Kraft, who was much loved by most everyone in town. Once, in the middle of a game, Kraft had pulled the jersey off a player who'd made a mistake and put it on another guy.
He was tough and demanding, and you knew this by listening to his big, strong voice, hearing it singe the air like the quick flame of a blow torch. To the ears of young Eddie Robinson, it was as though the old coach had been blessed with a megaphone for vocal cords.
When Robinson first took the Grambling job, the school went by another name. It was Louisiana Negro Normal College and Industrial Institute, and Robinson, earning only $63.75 a month, coached all sports.
He even worked the drill team when there was time and limed the field, and on any given Saturday evening in autumn, he could be found writing an account of the Grambling football game for the local paper, sometimes livening it up with smoky poetic verse. He had big dreams for the place, and for himself, too. But, as he often admitted, he never for a minute dreamed that his program would go this far.
This day is not without irony -- Robinson, the only football coach Grambling has ever had, won his 50th, 150th and 315th (placing him second all-time) against Prairie View. His first victory as a football coach came on Nov. 15, 1941, a 37-6 thrashing against a school called Tillotson.
In all, Robinson has coached 42 complete seasons; the Tigers took a break in 1943 and 1944 when the country was at war.
The record, he said tonight, was something to be proud of, not obsessed with. He preferred to talk about the 200-plus Grambling players who went on to make a living in professional football.
That group includes Paul (Tank) Younger, who, in 1949, became the first player from a predominantly black school to go to the National Football League, and Willie Davis and Willie Brown, both of whom are members of the NFL Hall of Fame.
Said Robinson, "I don't think about the record. What counts to me is this game and the game next week and the game after that. I'm just a football coach. I just try to work hard to win ball games and teach these young men a thing or two."