The game has changed. Everything has changed really. When Eddie
Robinson got to Grambling, La., in 1941, the school was called
the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. He was the
football, basketball and baseball coach, and he made $63.75 a
month. In those days he lined the field and led the drill team
at the half and even wrote the game story for the local
newspaper. Once, when two brothers who were his star running
backs were forced to leave the team to help their family pick
cotton, Robinson gathered his other players (roughly half the
men's enrollment) and lent a hand until the crop was in and the
brothers could rejoin the squad.
Nowadays the school is called Grambling State University, surely
one of the most famous small-college names in the country, and
Robinson has even been delivered to the sideline of the stadium
that bears his name by a white stretch limo. It's all very
different, as anything might be after 57 years.
All that remains the same, a couple of wars and a civil rights
movement later, is Robinson, a 78-year-old guy who not only
remained true to his school but also to himself, his family (he
has been with his wife, Doris, for 56 years) and his players. As
he prepares for his final game, on Saturday in the Superdome, he
is surrounded by his resume and his legacy. These are fine
things, the record (college or pro) 408 victories and the
establishment of black football throughout the country. Without
Robinson, who formed a powerhouse within the traditions of a
segregated South, there might not have been the gradual growth
of the black population within the NFL. Yet milestones and
social transformations seem irrelevant to the purity of his
purpose, something he understood when he was hired out of a feed
mill to do for Grambling what Knute Rockne had done for Notre
Robinson didn't know that much about coaching football back
then, but he did remember hearing Amos Alonzo Stagg say, "No man
is too good to coach the American youth." That in itself might
have been a solid enough cornerstone for a coaching career, yet
Robinson understood the old man differently. Actually, he
believed no man was good enough to coach the American youth. A
sense of responsibility, an ambition to educate, informed nearly
six decades of behavior, a constancy of character that no amount
of dressing (a white stretch limo?) can disguise.
"I came here in '42, went to war and came back to play for him
in '46," says Fred Hobdy, a guard at Grambling and, from 1989 to
'96, Robinson's athletic director. "The first thing he'd do,
he'd assemble the players, tell them they had to get their
education, had to get more out of this than football." That '42
team held every opponent scoreless on the way to a 9-0 record.
Yet what Hobdy remembers is Robinson's invocation to the players
to make something of themselves. "In 57 years," Hobdy says,
"everything's changed but Coach."
In a Louisiana twilight, on the mud of Grambling's practice
field, Robinson goes about his job as if retirement, however
forced it might be, remains as distant as his hiring. He has
only two weeks of football left, the North Carolina A&T game the
next day, which will be his last home game, and then rival
Southern in New Orleans's famous Bayou Classic. Yet he pleads,
instructs and barks just like any other coach hanging on for
He's as hands-on as you can get. It may be that he drives his
black Coupe de Ville right up to the practice field, but he
allows himself no other concession to age. He takes a player
aside to teach him the proper footwork. He makes the offense run
Merry-Go-Round, a carnival play that involves three reverses and
then a pass, over and over. And he gathers the team, finally, to
insult its pride. On the eve of his final home game, he is
feeling more desperate about the team's 3-7 record--ensuring his
third straight losing season--than he is sentimental about his
"Do you realize," he tells them, "this team has lost more games
than we have in just about any 20-year period we've ever had?"
He embarks on a typical monologue that, as he has aged, has
gotten increasingly circuitous, looping here and there. But,
just like that, he arrives at the point and delivers it
fiercely: "You're losing a little bit of what Grambling was."
Robinson was always a master motivator, theatrical and preachy,
wholly manipulative. His speeches, which he practiced in front
of Doris, were legendary and fraught with outsized emotion.
"He'd cry before a big game," remembers Doug Williams, the
former Grambling and NFL quarterback, now the coach at Morehouse
College and the leading candidate to replace Robinson. "He'd cry
so hard that you'd be crying. Oh, would he cry."
He's at it again, not crying but challenging. The players,
though, have other things on their minds this day, and they make
him stand in place as they circle him. On their knees, each
holding up one arm, they sing "Old Grambling, dear Grambling" to
him in the clear timbre of youthful voices. Robinson just stands
there, in the pale illumination of streetlamps, outside the
Grambling Credit Union, who knows how touched by such
knee-buckling sweetness? Finally he leaves. "I'm worried about
the program," he says on his way out.
Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, the school's president from 1936 to
'77 and a man of vision and versatility, believed that if he
could get the college to do for blacks what Notre Dame had done
for Catholics--gather a national constituency through the
success of a football program--he could ensure the financial
survival of a tiny all-black school, unknown outside its own
little parish and, more to the point, underfunded by the state.
It was a bold and ridiculous idea, but Jones was given to great
schemes and heavy workloads. He succeeded Robinson as baseball
coach, running the team until his retirement, and created the
school band in his spare time, buying the instruments on credit
and teaching the students on every one of them.
Publicity and marketing would be important, so he hired Collie
J. Nicholson, the recently graduated editor of the student
paper, to become sports information director and create a
national awareness. Nicholson peppered the black media with his
Grambling updates--twice weekly to 169 outlets--and, together
with Jones, pushed for a schedule of games throughout the
country. Over the years Grambling has played everywhere from
Tokyo to Yankee Stadium, where it drew a crowd of more than
60,000 in 1968.
"The Grambling mystique developed," Nicholson says, "until we
really did have a national black following. President Jones was
a genius at opening doors. Of course, the doors wouldn't have
stayed open for anybody if Eddie hadn't won."
Robinson was an ideal instrument of Jones's vision. Robinson was
a frantic learner, for one thing. In 57 years he never attended
less than one coaches' clinic a season and more likely went to
five. He was unabashed in his hero worship of the older legends
and, upon meeting Stagg, spent so much time wringing his idol's
hand that a coach standing in line behind Robinson said, "Why
don't you just kiss him and move along." Bear Bryant, whose
career-victories record Robinson would eclipse in 1985, was
another inspiration, even though Bryant wasn't exactly the
Martin Luther King Jr. of college football.
Robinson had a lot to learn. He remembers how he'd decided he
wanted to be a coach by the third grade yet was so unprepared
for the assignment that when he was hired out of that feed mill
at age 22, he didn't know where to begin. "You got to have a
system," some old-time coach told him at a clinic. Robinson
wondered what in the world a system might be. "Why, you just
stencil some plays on paper and give it to your players, and
that will be your system," the old man had explained. Robinson
received the advice as another man might accept a bolt of
lightning. "I couldn't get back to Grambling fast enough," he
The Robinson system proved to be pretty simple. Plays cribbed
here and there, drilled to perfection. When, on Nov. 15 against
North Carolina A&T, he ran Merry-Go-Round in the midst of a
37-35 loss, the mustiness of the play caused somebody in the
press box to wonder how long that had been in the playbook. One
of his former players, charting plays, didn't even look up.
"Nineteen and forty-one," he said. Then he added, "I can't say
that actually. I didn't get here until 1946."
But there's more to the system than a mimeographed playbook.
Robinson's charisma made him a recruiting monster. The program's
success and its national presence made Grambling a top choice
for a lot of the better athletes, it's true. But there weren't
many better closers than Robinson.
Once when he was still recruiting for the basketball team,
Robinson went to Rayville, La., and picked off the entire
starting five. Robert Piper, who became the Grambling athletic
director this year, was the one undecided part of that package,
thinking he might go to Southern instead. "But while I was away
on a recruiting trip, Coach had touched my aunt," says Piper.
"When I got back, my aunt said I could go to Southern if I
wished, and I could still write home to her, but I couldn't ask
for money. So I went to Grambling. Coach got the trainer and
three cheerleaders, too."
James Harris, a pioneer black quarterback with the Buffalo
Bills, the Los Angeles Rams and the San Diego Chargers, fell
into line similarly. He came back from a recruiting trip and
noticed his mother suddenly sounded more like Robinson than
herself. "Coach Robinson been around?" he asked.
It's hard not to win when future NFL Hall of Famers are
clamoring to get into the program. Maybe today, with football
almost entirely integrated, Doug Williams would find his way to
a more mainstream program. Would Walter Payton attend Jackson
State if he grew up now? Whatever the case, Robinson stockpiled
most of the black talent for a while. The proof of that, besides
all the victories and the 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference
championships, is the number of his players who have gone on to
the NFL (more than 200), been drafted in the first round (seven)
and ended up in the NFL Hall of Fame (four). In 1971, during
Grambling's peak, 43 former Tigers were in NFL training camps.
Robinson, however, was mainly interested in producing graduates
(an 85% rate, he claims) and citizens, not NFL stars. He would
rather have developed an adult than an All-America, though he
did both for a long time. Last year four players were accused of
rape, but mostly his programs have been whistle-clean, and woe
be to the player who cursed within his earshot. "There was a
song when I played, Turn This Mutha Out," recalls Williams, "and
one of the players mentioned it at practice, and Coach made him
run the hill. We all said it was just a song, and he kept
saying, 'I don't want to hear about it!' Guy had to run the hill."
For every player who made it to the Super Bowl, probably a
hundred more learned from Robinson how to conduct themselves
better in society. In the end, a lot of players from his early
teams, when you think about it, were probably better served by
the Everyday Living course he had talked the school into putting
together than by all their time on the gridiron. A generation of
young Grambling men learned how to tie a Windsor knot and open a
door for a woman, just because Coach felt their embarrassment.
Two Saturdays ago only 4,037 people turned out for his final
appearance at Grambling, that loss to North Carolina A&T. School
officials expect bigger things, a grand send-off, for this
Saturday's game in New Orleans. ("Our grief is better shared by
70,000 people than just the school," said Piper.) But this was
embarrassing. The hard truth--and what showed it better than the
turnout on Nov. 15?--is that the program's in more trouble than
The school, recognizing this, even tried to oust him last
season, a move that got more than a little backlash from the
sentimental press and might have contributed to the school
president's resignation in October. But, really, it was time,
and probably has been time for a while. "In Robinson's mind,"
says Nicholson, who calls himself a close friend, "he still has
it. But he's just a shell."
His friends and supporters have been in a near panic, afraid he
is going to undo his legacy, unravel Grambling's mystique. The
program has been going downhill for sure, though it can't be
entirely his fault. The fact that he hasn't delivered the NFL a
draft choice in three years speaks less to his recruiting
ability than to the difficulties experienced by a minority
college that no longer has the minority monopoly. Still, his
friends can't get him out fast enough.
Did he stay too long? Almost certainly. The players that come to
him aren't that amazed by Merry-Go-Round and probably don't need
the old man's help in a cotton field. The crocodile tears at
halftime might not be so effective anymore, either. The game has
changed. Everything has changed.
Then again, considering his service to American youth, whom no
man is too good to coach, that ought to be a silly regret. He
stayed too long? Really? Somebody calculated that 4,500-some
kids have come under his sway, a pretty good number. But don't
you wish there had been more? It's not that he stayed too long,
is it? Don't you mean, he didn't get here soon enough?
might be, remains as distant as his hiring.
His speeches were legendary and fraught with outsized emotion.
caused more than a little backlash.