Eddie Robinson:
More Than a Legendary College Football Coach

By Debbie Elicksen

More than a legendary college football coach, Eddie Robinson reflected the progress of a nation. His tenure stretched from the 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, to the Korean War, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, to the Vietnam War and the Kent State shootings, women’s liberation, moon landing, the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, to the age of the Internet.

Some of the elements that draw in fans of college football are tradition, innocence, purity, and big name coaches. The likes of Joe Paterno, Bobbie Bowden, Bo Schembechler, and a handful of others are in a league of their own.

Eddie Robinson is also a member of this exclusive club. However, he didn’t coach a Big 10, SEC, Pac 10, Big 12, or even a WAC team. He coached the Grambling State University Tigers. Chances are the only time you might have seen them on TV would have been during the traditional annual Bayou Classic when Grambling faced Southern University.

But even if you never saw Robinson coach one of his 588 games, you can learn much from this man. At the very least, you will be inspired. The biggest lesson he bestowed was being able to face your fears with courage.

Considering the cultural climate during his upbringing in Jackson, Louisiana, as the son of a sharecropper and domestic worker, Eddie Robinson could never have dreamt there would eventually be a stadium or a prestigious Football Writers of America award named after him.

Fresh out of Leland College, Robinson wasn’t able to find a job in coaching, so he went to work in a Baton Rouge feed mill. A relative helped him find a position with the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, where after an interview with Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, the 22 year old took the reins as the team’s sixth head coach. That team eventually became the Grambling State University Tigers.

Most coaches do more than just coach, but for Robinson at the beginning, he also had to mow and line the football field, direct the girls’ drill team at halftime, and write a recap of the game for reporters. These duties earned him $63.75 a month.

His first season was unimpressive – a 3-5 record. In his second year, the Tigers were undefeated. An interesting fact is that among the university’s male student population, 33 of 57 played football for Robinson.

Coach Robinson became more than just a coach to his players. He was a father figure, a mentor, a friend, and cheerleader. He understood that football was more than just a game. It shaped lives. It gave individuals the discipline they needed to create their own success down the road. Robinson was personally involved with his players and taught them more than just x’s and o’s on the chalkboard.

Some of his players didn’t know how to eat properly with a knife and fork before they met Coach Rob. He taught them that hard work, dedication, and determination pays off and to never give up. He said, “You have to coach ‘em as though he were the boy who was going to marry your daughter.”

In 1949, he saw one of his players, Paul “Tank” Younger, become the first player from a historically black college sign with an NFL team with the Los Angeles Rams. By the early 1970s, there were 43 former Grambling players attending NFL camps.

Robinson was named the Coach Who Made the Biggest Contribution to College Football in the Past 25 Years in 1966. But one of his biggest highlights was in 1974 at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans. This was a place where blacks were not only unable to play, they couldn’t even watch a game. In a game between Grambling and Southern University, 76,000 came to see them play.

The school had to hire a public relations person to handle the national publicity campaign when Grambling scheduled games against other historically black schools in Yankee Stadium, Rose Bowl, and Los Angeles Coliseum. Then in Tokyo in 1976 against Morgan State, Grambling played in the first regular season game on foreign soil.

Another proud moment for Coach Rob was January 31, 1988. He was in stands at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego and watched former Grambling quarterback Doug Williams lead the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl win over the Denver Broncos. It was the first time a black quarterback played in a Super Bowl. Williams was also given the game’s Most Valuable Player award.

Robinson’s accolades are too numerous to mention, but during his overall record of 408-165-15, he became the winningest coach in college football history until 2003, when John Gagliardi recorded 409 wins for St. John’s, a Division III school in Minnesota. He was the first coach to chalk up 400 wins and guided over 200 players into the NFL.

Because of coach Rob, Grambling State became a nationally recognized power and had only eight losing seasons during his tenure. He won nine National Black College championships, 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles, and coached over 4,000 players during his 57 seasons.

Robinson shares his overview of his career, “I guess you could say I’m proud of the fact that I can summarize my life by saying I had one wife and one job.”

Sadly, Robinson reluctantly resigned in 1997. He suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. When he died in April 2007, nearly 6,000 attended his funeral.

Read other articles and learn more about Debbie Elicksen.

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