Set 'em up bartender and pour it like you don't own it. Tonight we toast Eddie Robinson, college football's Old Man River, flowing sweeter and stronger than ever. Here's to what he helped us forget. In a year when it's an upset if a game comes off without an IRS audit, Robinson hit us with a stadium wave of nostalgia: a good coach with a simple program proving that with a little luck and 44 years of hard work a man can still win his way onto the front page.
And here's to sport, which has a funny way of making amends. From the muck of baseball's worst drug scandal rose Pete and 4,192. From the dank of college football's Dole Bowls comes Robinson and win No. 324, the magic number that put him one ahead of Alabama's Paul (Bear) Bryant and made him history's winningest college football coach, big or small, thin or stout, black or white. The victory came on Saturday night at the Cotton Bowl, where Robinson's Grambling Tigers beat Prairie View A & M 27-7 before an almost entirely black crowd of 36,652, 35,908 of whom had purloined sideline passes as the clock counted down to history...3...2...1.... Sensing impending mayhem, Grambling's players formed a human retaining wall around the 66-year-old Robinson, chanting "No mo' Bear!" and inching their way to the tunnel like a giant, 160-pod beetle. The sight was so strange that, as they moved, Robinson abandoned his worried look and loosed a lovely grin.
Once inside the locker room, the incurable sentimentalist tried to keep his ducts dry. He had already cried that day at an 11 a.m. team meeting. Now, with the full realization in his throat of what he had done, Robinson scarcely made it past a postgame paragraph. "It has been my privilege [pause] to coach [pause] you young men...." With that, the players began hollering, "Let it out, Coach! Let it out!" He did, and let it be written that he was not the only one.
This day's tears had been a long time coming. To begin with, Robinson's father, Frank, was gravely ill with Hodgkin's disease in Baton Rouge General Hospital, and with the hoopla of the record, Robinson couldn't visit him last week. "He doesn't know what's going on," Robinson said. Too, the nation's media had crammed into tiny Grambling, and elbows were knocking.
October 13, 1985
"Seems like every writer and TV man in the country has been here the last two weeks," Robinson's wife, Doris, said one day in their four-bedroom brick house, less than a long punt from the practice field. "And every one of 'em is hoping Eddie doesn't drop dead before he does their piece." Nightly, Robinson apologized to his team for being tardy to practice. "I believe I've been late more this week than in my previous 43 years coachin'," he said. That, says Doris, "makes him like an old soreheaded bear."
The record would soon be broken, but when it was, would Bear loyalists be sore-headed themselves? Before the game they had seemed not. Robinson insists that he received not a single hate letter. Perhaps the only skittish moment came in Robinson's office two days before the game. A white man with a goatee, a black leather vest and a Johnny Cash hat showed up unannounced. "Coach, I drove all the way from Hartselle, Alabama to do this," he said. The room became quiet. Then the man stuck out his hand to shake. "I just want to tell you that if somebody has to beat the Bear, we are shore 'nuff glad it's you, 'cause you are a gentleman, sir."
Whether the South goes as Hartselle goes is unknown, but even Robinson—especially Robinson—knows that legends don't budge easily. And when the budgee is one of the most beloved names in the South and the new King of Coaches happens to be black, collars could get tight. Robinson worked hard to loosen them. "I could win 1,000 games and never replace the Bear," Robinson said, and he meant it.
Indeed, the Bear and the Heir were friends. Bryant presented Robinson with the Walter Camp Foundation's 1982 Distinguished American Award, though somebody else was scheduled to do it. When Bryant died, Robinson couldn't get a flight, so he drove 400 miles through the night to Tuscaloosa, Ala. to attend the funeral. Once there, Robinson could not get past church guards and might have missed it had not some Alabama players escorted him into the service.
Still, not everybody was ready to let Robinson have his coronation, humble as he tried to make it. Enter the Asterisk Army, the writers and fans who sit in dimly lit booths in the backs of bars and try to stop time with pocket calculators. Their asterisk dogs Roger Maris and Henry Aaron, and now it hunts Robinson, charging that more than 300 of his victories came against Division I-AA caliber teams.
Robinson doesn't try to refute that. "I grew up in the South," he says. "I was told where to attend elementary school, where to attend junior high school, where to attend high school. When I became a coach, I was told who I could recruit, who I could play, where I could play and when I could play. I did what I could within the system." More simply, Booker T. Washington once said, "Cast down your bucket where you are." Robinson's bucket is right where he left it—at the end of the rainbow.
According to Grambling associate athletic director Fred Hobdy, Bryant told the Grambling staff in the late 1970s, "Whatever league you're in, whatever level, win there." At times that required extraordinary perseverance at Grambling. "No man but Eddie would have worked under these conditions," says Hobdy, who played for him in 1942 and '46-48 and hasn't left since. In the '40s, Robinson was a one-man athletic department. He would mow the football field, mark the lines, drill the drill squad, tape ankles, drive the injured to the doctor and write the game story for the local papers. One started, "Outlined against a blue-gray October sky...."
The not so good old days lasted a long time. "Guys would come back to visit us, and they'd say, 'Hey, you guys got grass to practice on?' " says defensive coordinator Fred Collins. True enough. Says Tank Younger, now the assistant general manager of the San Diego Chargers, "We practiced on dirt."
Sometimes even dirt was a luxury. Once, in Montgomery, Ala., Grambling wasn't allowed to work out on a football field the day before the game, so Robinson stopped the bus on an empty parking lot and held practice there. Another time, after a Friday dinner, Robinson got the players to push the tables and chairs aside and practice right there, in a hotel ballroom. Do a down-and-out to the raisin salad and I'll fake it to you.
Discrimination and anorexic budgets were just two of the trapdoors the Bear didn't encounter. Robinson recruited some 200 future NFL players—more than any other school—with a yearly budget about equal to Alabama's outlay for stamps. He has recruited against major colleges offering prestigious scholarships, luxurious dorm rooms, plentiful training tables, big-time bowls, TV exposure and, as the NCAA is loath to find out, Lord knows what else.
Robinson's achievement is that he worked for 44 seasons within the white system and then, on a Saturday night in Dallas, beat that system. "He has overcome the shackles," Hobdy says. "He won in spite of the handicaps."
Now he was winging toward more wins than any other man, courtesy of Prairie View, the team he had beaten 17 of the previous 18 years, but the team he was suddenly likening to Leahy's Irish. During one interview, Robinson got a sour look on his face and said, "I'll just bet you Prairie View is practicin' right this minute." If Prairie View was, it didn't help. Grambling scored on its first and third possessions to go ahead 14-0. Tiger defensive backs intercepted five passes, returning one for a touchdown and a 20-0 halftime lead. All that remained was to wait and wonder how to act when The Moment came, a feeling not unlike holding a pose while waiting for the electronic flash to warm up.
Still, all one had to do was look down the Grambling sideline to get a jolt: Young and old Robinson products had come to the Cotton Bowl, from Younger, the first NFL star from an all-black school, to Hall-of-Famer Willie Davis to Doug Williams, the most successful black NFL quarterback, to Grambling president Dr. Joseph B. Johnson, who had been recruited by Robinson. "This is a record made of players," Robinson told his team before the game. "It's a record made up of men like you for the last 40 years. This is your chance to leave your footprints in the sands of time."
Footprints were fine for some, but as The Moment drew nigh, one player, defensive end Chris Adams, wanted something more tangible. He had sneaked a Kodak Instamatic onto the bench and was snapping his own pictures of Robinson as the seconds dwindled down. "I want to have something to remember this by," he said.
"People can do what they want with the record," Robinson said. "They can put an asterisk on it if they want. That's their business. But look, I got my inspiration from all coaches, from college coaches and high school coaches, black and white. I remember Willie Davis would come back and tell me all about Vince Lombardi. Man, that lit Ores under me. That got me burnin'. I took my inspiration from the great American coaches—Warner and Stagg. Man, I got to watch the Bear work! And I worked hard, too. I busted my butt. I always knew my part to play, and if my part ended up having something to do with history, then I'm happy. I never let anybody change my faith in this country. All I want is for my story to be an American story, not black and not white. Just American. I want it to belong to everybody."
When will the story end? Robinson's record may stand as long as Rose's. He can coach four more seasons—Louisiana state law requires that he retire at 70—but by then, he could have 360 wins, a fur piece from No. 2 John Gagliardi of St. Johns-Minnesota at 235, No. 3 Bo Schembechler of Michigan at 190 and No. 4 Joe Paterno of Penn State at 180. "I hope somebody will break it," says Robinson. "I'd like to see it."
Here's hoping. And here's to you, Mr. Robinson. You grow old like a river, deeper and swifter every day. And we, lucky we, are carried away with you.