One of a kind
Almost 10 years later, Doug Williams is still quick to correct what he construes as an erroneous and inappropriate characterization. He didn't replace Eddie Robinson as head coach at Grambling. Nobody ever has -- or will.
"When I took over coaching Grambling in 1998, the most important thing I did that helped me and my staff was I made sure people understood one thing: You do not replace Eddie Robinson," Williams told SI.com on Wednesday afternoon, after learning of Robinson's death late Tuesday night. "You bronze his shoes and put them on a pedestal. And you put them higher than yours. Eddie Robinson always will and always did stand alone."
Wednesday was a sad day for Williams, the ex-Grambling quarterback who went on to NFL fame as the MVP of Super Bowl XXII after leading the Washington Redskins to victory. The man he considered his "mentor," and "life role model" died at 88. Despite Robinson's lingering battle with Alzheimer's disease in recent years, somehow the news still packed an emotional wallop for Williams, who is now a personnel executive with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"We all knew coach had been sick, and even though you expect it to happen at some point, you don't want it to happen," Williams said. "Because Eddie Robinson isn't supposed to die. Maybe fade away. But not die. Not guys like him. It hits you, because guys like me, if not for him, I don't know if I would have been able to accomplish anything close to what I've accomplished without him.
"It was easiest to deal with this morning. But as the day has worn on, and I've talked to so many old Grambling players about him, we've had to laugh to keep from crying. You're talking about a man who has lived a very celebrated life."
Robinson never coached in the NFL, and instead spent 57 years building an unparalleled legacy at Grambling. But what an impact he made on the league, sending more than 200 ex-Tigers players into the NFL, including stars such as Williams, Willie Davis, Willie Brown, Tank Younger, James Harris, Buck Buchanan, Charlie Joiner, Ernie Ladd, Everson Walls, Sammy White and Jake Reed.
Far too casually we talk of someone putting some town or institution "on the map," but in the case of Robinson, the name he made for himself coaching football truly did become synonymous with Grambling, La., a little burg in northern Louisiana, just west of Ruston, not far from the Arkansas border. You don't think of just college football when you think of the man Williams and other players called "Coach Rob," you think of a football coach who took high school recruits and molded so many of them into NFL players.
"His impact was across the world of sports, No. 1," Williams said. "It wasn't just college football. He had an impact on the high school level, the college level and in pro football. He had an impact on so many lives. That town of Grambling, it really could be known as Eddie Robinson City. When he got there in 1941, nobody knew where Grambling even was.
"I like to go back to what Howard Cosell used to say on Monday Night Football, every time a player from Grambling would make a play. He'd say he's from 'Grambling, the little town where the train don't stop.'"
The NFL and its first-year commissioner, Roger Goodell, are spending a lot of time and energy these days trying to figure out what to do to stem the rising tide of player misconduct off the field. Williams can't help but juxtapose that with the squeaky clean program that Robinson led for so many years, with its historically low quotient for off-field behavior problems.
"Every player from Grambling, look them up and tell me how many of them over the years has really gotten in trouble with the law," Williams said. "You'll waste your time trying to find it, because there haven't been many. That's the man he was. That all came straight from the coach, and what the coach taught. He made us good citizens. He made us good men."
It is that accomplishment, Williams said, that meant the most to Robinson. More than the 408 victories, and the 17 SWAC conference titles, and the nine national black college championships and the host of Hall of Fame inductions.
"Coach, being such a humble individual, he'd never tell you what his legacy would be," Williams said. "He'd leave it up to man to make the decision. But I think at the end of the day, the work that coach has done will speak for itself. I know this: There will never be another Eddie Robinson. Ever. That ain't going to happen. I can go on record saying the likes of Eddie Robinson will never come this way again. We're done. There won't be any more like him."