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