The top of the list looks like this:
314—Amos Alonzo Stagg
Those are the career victory totals of the winningest college football coaches. No one else is even close to the top four. No. 5 is Woody Hayes, with 238. Three things about that list: First, the top three coaches are legends; second, they're white; third, they're deceased. Eddie Robinson, 64, athletic director and coach at Grambling State in Grambling, La. is black, largely unheralded and going strong. When he wins 19 more games to become the winningest college coach ever, he'll set a record that probably will never be matched. And some people aren't going to like it.
Says Penn State's Joe Paterno, 56, whose 162 victories make him the sixth-winningest active coach, "There will always be people who say Eddie's record isn't the real thing. But a win's a win. I don't care what league you're in. Anybody who resents his moment of glory would be an awfully small person."
August 31, 1983
The NCAA won't resent it. Over the years Grambling has been classified as a Small College, Division II and Major College team. Currently it's in Division I-AA and is a member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. "If he gets to 324, we'll consider him the winningest college football coach of all time, regardless of divisions, pure and simple," says NCAA Associate Director of Statistics Steve Boda.
Robinson remains in awe of the men he still trails. He was introduced to Stagg at a coaches' convention in 1956 and was so excited he couldn't speak. Robinson isn't sure whether he ever met Warner, who died in 1954, but he knows that when he began his career at Grambling in 1941 he used Warner's famous double-wing offense. As for Bryant, well, Robinson almost genuflects when the Bear's name comes up. "If Coach Bryant had continued, the only way I could have caught him was if he lost a lot," says Robinson. "And I wouldn't have been able to stand that. I used to call him Lord."
Robinson drives slowly through the Grambling campus, situated 60 miles southeast of Shreveport in hilly, north-central Louisiana. The school, which has an enrollment of 4,100, isn't pretty. The grass is worn away in places, and no lush gardens adorn the grounds. The architecture consists mainly of long, two-story, red-brick buildings and high-rise dorms. The sense one gets is of things thrown up hurriedly with little money for unimportant people. Robinson, though, has just come from Grambling's beautiful new $7.5 million, 22,000-seat stadium. It was built with state funds in homage to his success. Ten thousand seats will be added when more money is available. "Everybody is being so nice to me," he says. "People are giving me honorary days, honorary doctorates. They gave me this car [a 1983 Bonneville]. I'm afraid they're going to take the fire out of me. I want somebody to slap me and say, 'Go to hell!' "
Robinson is a handsome man who has perfect teeth, warm eyes and a fondness for ties and three-piece suits. He's friendly and accommodating—journalists and camera crews love him—but he's as firm as an oak inside. You don't average 7.6 wins a season for 40 years any other way. "I've seen that glint in Eddie's eye," says Alcorn State Coach Marino Casern. "He's got that old feeling that you kill a gnat with a sledgehammer."
When Robinson arrived at Grambling in 1941, he was 22 and the school was called the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. Founded in 1901, it had originally been named the Colored Industrial and Agricultural School. Enrollment in '41 was 320, and the campus consisted of only eight buildings. Robinson gestures at the Charles P. Adams classroom building. "There was a field there," he says. "The library over there is where the football field was. There weren't any bleachers—whoever came to games stood up—but that's where Tank Younger played."
Younger, a devastating fullback, became the first player from a black college to perform in the NFL, signing with the Los Angeles Rams in 1949. Since that breakthrough some 180 Grambling players have been invited to pro camps. Nine former Tigers are now playing in the NFL, and seven more are in the USFL.
Until the mid-'60s blacks attending college in the South could go only to schools that had been set up for them. Segregation gave schools like Grambling (the name was changed to Grambling College in 1946 and to Grambling State University in 1974) a "guaranteed clientele," says Grambling President Joseph B. Johnson. But it also guaranteed them second-class status. The black schools had fewer and worse facilities than their white counterparts, and they could play only other black schools.
Even Grambling's football records during Robinson's early years were crudely kept. The school's publicity department has no individual game figures for the 1941 to '49 seasons. The '41 season in particular has come under scrutiny now that Robinson has begun his Bryant countdown. It seems that back in the early '60s Ralph Waldo Emerson (Prez) Jones, Grambling's president from 1936 to 1977, began joking that Robinson had gone 0-8 in 1941. Before long Grambling press guides and, consequently, sports-writers were reporting the zip-eight record as fact. The NCAA, however, maintains that Robinson went 3-5 in '41. As Robinson approached 300 victories, people questioned whether the Tigers had really won those games. Grambling says that Jones, who died last year, had started the 0-8 business to give Robinson more notoriety and to make his 9-0 record in 1942 seem more impressive.
Boda says that every time a coach nears a record, statistical turbulence arises. As Bryant started closing in on Stagg's mark, Stagg supporters went wild searching for more wins for their man. One fanatic threatened Boda's life for not adding 21 victories to Stagg's list, the number of games Susquehanna University won while Stagg, then in his 80s, was co-coaching with his son there. "One year Stagg's University of Chicago team played 23 games," says Boda. "Teams used to play high schools. They used to play exhibitions on the way back from road games. All I can say is, Robinson's record doesn't begin to qualify for the problems you could come up with on Warner's and Stagg's."
What's remarkable about Robinson is that he has bridged so many eras so easily. When he started at Grambling, he was the athletic department. He had just graduated from Leland College (now defunct) in Baker, La., where he'd been a tailback, fullback and punter, and was working at a feed mill when he heard about the Grambling opening. He applied and got the job largely because of his enthusiasm. Besides coaching football, Robinson had to coach baseball and men's and women's basketball and run the physical education department—all for $64 a month. "The word coach covered a lot more in those days," he says.
His recruits, mainly raw kids without a lot of choices, came from the farms and small towns of Louisiana. In the '40s many black high schools in the state began using Grambling's offensive sets, and the college's name was familiar to young athletes. Robinson sold their mothers and fathers on the integrity of his program and then stepped into the cotton fields to remind the youngsters where their loyalties lay.
One of his early players was a football and basketball star named Fred Hobdy, who has been the Grambling basketball coach since taking over for Robinson in 1956. "The thing about Eddie is that he's very modern," says Hobdy, who also serves as an assistant football coach. "He's the first one to say, 'We've got to change.' Take drinking water. Remember when you never had it on the field? He was one of the first coaches to bring it out. I said, 'No!' But he said, 'It'll make them play better.' And, of course, it did."
Another of Robinson's early players was Johnson, who captained the basketball team in 1956-57. "What Eddie does is enable athletes to develop a pattern for living and thinking," says Grambling's president. "He tells you, 'You can do anything you want to if you work hard enough.' When I was playing, he wouldn't let you miss class. He's still that way. A kid can go anywhere he wants now, but what would we have become without Grambling and Eddie Robinson? We wouldn't have had a chance."
Rival coaches respect Robinson on a different level. "I'd always been told Grambling just had a lot of material, but I found out that's nonsense," says Jackson State Coach WC. Gorden, who has beaten Grambling just once in six attempts. "Defensively, when you play them you have to prepare a total, flexible game plan, because Eddie seems to have a play to counter any coverage or stunt. He's about the best I've seen at making adjustments during games. Through the years he's used the single wing, a pro set and a flanker offense, but the wing T is probably his strongest suit. His defense is usually a 4-3, with schemes—finesse rather than brawn. But he won't ever stand pat. He can bring out old things and they're new to us."
Without question, Grambling doesn't get as many blue-chippers as it once did. "The starting running backs at LSU might have come here in the past," says Robinson. Indeed, the defensive unit of Grambling's 1960 team featured four future All-Pros: Ernie Ladd, Buck Buchanan, Roosevelt Taylor and Willie Brown. It's generally accepted that on a given day several of Robinson's teams in the '60s could have beaten any school in the country. While that's no longer the case, he's more successful than ever now. From 1953 to 1972, the Tigers won 73% of their games. From 1973 to 1982 they won almost 80%. Robinson says he still gets some exceptional players because he's "lucky." Fact is, he still gets them because he's Eddie Robinson.
Robert Smith is a 6'8", 245-pound senior defensive end for the Tigers and a top pro prospect. As a high school senior in Bogalusa, La. he was recruited by LSU, Tulane, Alabama and Tennessee, among others. But he chose Grambling because he knew Robinson was closing in on 300 victories. "I wanted to be part of something big," he says. Smith's brother, Sean, is a 6'5", 255-pound freshman defensive end at Grambling, and he was wooed by even more schools than Robert. "The only coaches he'd play for were Coach Robinson and Bear Bryant," says Robert. "And he knew Bryant was retiring."
Robinson is venerable enough now to almost transcend the matter of race. It's his ethics that entice. Grambling football players wear coats and ties to away games. Robinson encourages them to attend church, to keep their rooms clean, to be mannerly, to respect the flag, to go to summer school and to graduate on time. He even requires his charges to take a class in etiquette to learn proper table manners and the right way to shake hands and leave a room.
"Because of Eddie's rules and regulations, the average guy you see from Grambling is a pretty good person," says Younger, now assistant general manager of the San Diego Chargers. "We have three here—Gary Johnson, Charlie Joiner and Dwight Scales—and they're all class people. As for myself, I get real concerned when I think what I might have been without Eddie."
The bond between past and present Grambling players is strong. That, too, is because of Robinson. He's the thread running through everyone's career. In a time-honored ritual, former players return each year to help him coach the newcomers. "When I was at Grambling I got to work with former players like Frank Lewis, Sammy White and Charlie Joiner," says Trumaine Johnson, class of '83, who led the USFL in receiving this year as a rookie. "I plan to go back on my own this fall and help out. We feel like we're one—a special breed."
Robinson's home is near the edge of the campus. It's an undistinguished-looking red-brick, ranch-style house set back from a street without gutters near a quiet wood. He and his wife, Doris, have lived there since 1951. They were sweethearts at McKinley High in Baton Rouge, have been married 42 years and have two grown children. But the question arises: Why is Robinson here? Not just in this house that has trophies and plaques piled under beds and behind couches, but in this town, at this school? Consider that Robinson earned $49,183 last year, roughly a fifth of what Jackie Sherrill, who has 58 career wins, made at Texas A&M in 1982.
Of course, Robinson is at Grambling because he's black and didn't get the big-time offers. But there's something else, too. He's there because he's black and springs from another era, one when you didn't push. You worked, you dreamed, you forgave and you didn't confront the system head-on because you knew it could snap you like a stick. When his team got to play a regular-season game in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans in 1974, it meant "a lot more to me than it did to the players," says Robinson. Why? "Because I remember when blacks couldn't even sit in the Sugar Bowl." Seeing the way things have changed has cheered Robinson. But he still can't stand to hear blacks blame failure on racism. He's uncomfortable with angry, disillusioned young people, with anyone who feels he's owed something just because he was born in this country. During the racial tumult of the late '60s, Robinson made sure all his players stood at attention when the national anthem was played.
"I tell young black coaches to go out and apply for jobs," he says. "Be aggressive, keep learning, don't be passive. But don't complain if you haven't applied. You can't be bitter about things that happened before. Being bitter doesn't do anyone any good. The main thing is to know the system. Writers say I've been passed over for coaching jobs. But I haven't." He shakes his head and smiles. "Because I haven't applied for any."
The town of Grambling is a quiet little place (pop. 4,500) that exists only to serve the university. The school has 145 white students, and 17% of its faculty is white. In 1968 a white backup quarterback named James Gregory played for the Tigers. A TV movie called Grambling's White Tiger was made of Gregory's experience, with Bruce Jenner playing the lead.
The real world doesn't begin until you leave town. In the old days that meant aboard Blue Bird, the college's battered schoolbus. The Tigers had to drive nonstop to opponents' campuses, where they bunked in vacant dorm rooms. "We couldn't stop and eat anywhere," recalls Younger. "And we couldn't stay in hotels. We could fill up at gas stations, but to go to the John, we had to pull over and head into the woods."
Eventually Robinson realized he had an exciting product to market. In 1965, along with Prez Jones and former Grambling publicist Collie J. Nicholson, he began to whip up a master plan for the football program. The trio decided that because Grambling lacked a decent home stadium and a significant alumni base, it would have to become a national black collegiate team, a sort of barnstorming Notre Dame of soul. The school would achieve this status through performance, promotion and, if necessary, shameless hucksterism. Nicholson began the onslaught by sending out releases about the team twice weekly to 169 newspapers and magazines. Now a partner in a p.r. firm in Shreveport, Nicholson says the idea was to sell Grambling "like a circus, to create an interest, and then deliver a solid product."
The initial point of delivery, the threesome decided, would be Yankee Stadium. Nicholson picked up sponsors and Robinson picked up an opponent, Morgan State. The two teams played in Yankee Stadium on Sept. 28, 1968 before more than 60,000 fans, and the show was really on the road. Over the next several years Grambling played in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Houston, Dallas, Kansas City and other major cities, always to huge, predominantly black crowds. Nicholson arranged a game for the Tigers in Hawaii, and then, as the coup de ma√Ætre, he hustled an invitation for the squad, the band and the school brass to visit Japan, where Grambling played Morgan State in 1976.
The net effect of this calculated hype is that Grambling is now well known. It's "a gypsy team with a floating schedule," as Robinson puts it, willing to play anybody anywhere if the terms are right. The hype has also made the Tigers the game on a lot of schedules. "People come out of ratholes to watch us play Grambling," says Jackson State's Gorden. Finally, Grambling's promotional campaign has made it a moneymaker. Last year's game against Southern University at the Super Dome generated revenues of more than $1 million. "Eddie Robinson simply has vision," says President Johnson. "I just wish he'd live forever."
Even if he would want to, by law Robinson cannot coach beyond age 70. That leaves him with at the most six more seasons, by the end of which he could have more than 350 wins. Everyone agrees that Robinson is probably the last coach with a shot at catching Bryant. Times have changed. You don't get a head coaching job at 22 anymore. And once you've got it, you're more likely to get fired. Or you come down with that new coaches' disease—burnout.
Robinson is hardly a candidate for that malady. He certainly hasn't lost that inner fire; he cries whenever he wins a big game or somebody throws a testimonial for him. But he is less emotional than he once was. He promised Doris a few years ago that he'd cool it. "He was taking losing so hard, tearing his hat off his head and all, that we just had to have a talk," says Doris. "He was going to have a heart attack. I said, 'Maybe we better go back to Baton Rouge and you get a job at Standard Oil.' He vowed he'd take things easier, and he's been good about it."
Robinson's famed equanimity off the field helped him at a coaches' convention in the early '70s. USC had just clobbered a lily-white Alabama team on the Crimson Tide's home field largely on the running of black Fullback Sam Cunningham. A Tide assistant looked at Robinson and said, "Sam Cunningham did more for integration in Birmingham in one day than Martin Luther King did in a lifetime." Robinson was able to smile at the comment. "That's the thing about sports," he says. "Once people play together, they see they can live together."
Robinson's graciousness is also at the root of his love for Bryant, a man who was hardly a leader in the civil rights movement. They first met at a coaches' clinic years ago, and after that Robinson traveled all over to hear the Bear speak. "Something you can't overemphasize about Eddie," says Dallas Cowboys Vice-President Gil Brandt, "is the number of clinics he went to just to learn." But why Bryant in particular? Bryant respected Robinson as much as Robinson respected him. They liked each other because they were two old boys from the South, and they knew what sacrifice meant. Above all, though, they were both winners.
"The greatest thing about Coach Bryant was that he could talk to kings and queens and the man in the street," says Robinson with genuine affection. But what about breaking Bryant's record? Robinson thinks for a moment. "Ed be happy if football history would record that I had done something unique," he says. "But not necessarily that."
Says Doris, "If he could just have Bear back, that would be enough."
And why? To play the man. It was one of Robinson's biggest dreams. He even talked to Bryant about it—just to line up one time across from the man and have a chance at him. All those wins staring at each other—by God, now that would be unique.
DR. Z PICKS EDDIE ROBINSON'S PREMIER PROS
Houston, Cincinnati, San Diego
Rookie sensation Trumaine Johnson of Chicago in the USFL may make this list someday, but not yet.
San Diego, San Francisco
San Francisco, Philadelphia
Denver, Tampa Bay, St. Louis
Cincinnati, Tampa Bay
Los Angeles, Pittsburgh
San Diego, Houston, Kansas City
Cleveland, Green Bay
Not making the defensive line are a former No. 1 draft choice, Richard Harris of Philadelphia, Chicago and Seattle; and John Mendenhall of the Giants and Detroit.
Atlanta, Michigan (USFL)
St. Louis, Houston
Denver, Oakland, Chicago
New Orleans, Jets
Howell edges Goldie Sellers of Denver (AFL) and Kansas City (AFL); Rosie Taylor of Chicago, San Diego (AFL), San Francisco and Washington; Willie Williams of the Giants and Oakland (AFL); and James Hunter of Detroit.