There is a story Grambling Coach Eddie Robinson tells about the late Bear Bryant, and more often than not with something like a fat fist in his throat.
When Robinson broke Bryant's record for most college football career victories Saturday night at the Cotton Bowl, beating Prairie View A&M, 27-7, and pushing his total to 324, who can doubt that the memory of his last meeting with the legendary Alabama coach once again played before his mind's eye like some sepia-toned newsreel of old?
Robinson loved and admired Bryant. In fact, he seems to have filed and categorized his every meeting with the old man, whom he still calls "Coach," as if referring to him by any other name might sound rude and disrespectful. Robinson ran into Bryant at an awards banquet the week before the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Bryant's last game. That was 1982, but Robinson was thinking about something that had happened more than 100 years before. He was thinking about Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, and a story he'd once read.
As Robinson told Bryant, many of those who had heard Lincoln's speech and recognized its great beauty and importance thought it would be improper to tell him so. Rather than say they knew his words would live forever, the people had said nothing, giving Lincoln cause to tell someone, "If a lady who'd lost her son in the war had touched me on the shoulder and said the speech had touched her heart, it would have made me feel good."
Robinson was trying to make a point, trying to tell Bryant that his contribution would live forever. You know that the people are touching your sleeve and telling you what you've done for college football and sports in America is important and never will be forgotten. That's how Robinson said it, knowing it may have sounded a bit contrived and old-fashioned. But in the end, he was glad he'd felt compelled to do so. Even now, he feels good about it, what with Bryant dying not long after that.
"I just hope that in whatever happens in the future," Robinson said, "I can handle it in the same way the men before me did, men like Warner, Stagg and Coach Bryant."
More than a few of the players on the Grambling football team stand in awe of their coach and his remarkable legend. Two years ago, a star defensive tackle for the Tigers said he often stayed out late after practice and just watched Robinson, just stood at some distance and watched him. How lucky he said he felt to be in the presence of the old coach, who now is 66. How blessed he was to have been able to learn from him and play for him.
To his credit, Robinson owned no preoccupation with breaking Bryant's record. Even under the barrage of media coverage that accompanied his every move over the last few weeks, Robinson did not betray any feelings of excessive pride. All he cared about was making the people love him, he said again and again, and that meant not just winning ball games, but winning with dignity.
"I don't think this (record) belongs just to Eddie Robinson," he said on the Texas State Fair grounds a few hours before the game. "It belongs to the players and the coaches who helped Eddie Robinson throughout his career. I just can't accept it as mine alone."
Grambling is a small, predominantly black school in northern Louisiana that competes in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. As a Division I-AA school, Grambling rarely, if ever, plays teams of great national prominence. But that should not distract from what Eddie Robinson accomplished this weekend before a nation of admirers. He became the most successful coach in the history of college football, and did it with a group of young men from small Louisiana towns such as Grosse Tete and Waterproof and Plain Dealing.
"They have done the work," Eddie Robinson said when it was over. "And they should be glad."
Robinson got a congratulatory phone call yesterday from President Reagan. "You hold a record for a number of wins, but more than just winning, you have a deep interest in your men and what they do with the rest of their lives -- they are better men for having had a coach like you," Reagan told Robinson in the phone call, according to the White House assistant press secretary, Mark Weinberg.