By Joel Warner
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By Alan Prendergast
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By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Here's to you, Mister Robinson.
Down in Ruston, Louisiana, the administration of Grambling State University and the same contingent of sour, win-crazy alumni you find at any losing school want to get rid of the head football coach.
The coach wants one more year. One more chance to put an exclamation point on things. "If I'm going out," he said last week, "I want to go out coaching, and I'd like the chance to go out winning. I love my job. I've always loved it."
Sound like a pretty familiar scenario? Well, it might be if the man on the hot seat were someone besides Eddie Robinson. Robinson, you see, has coached the Grambling Tigers since before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The year Jackie Robinson (no relation) became a Brooklyn Dodger, Eddie Robinson had already been at Grambling's helm for six seasons.
Put another way, the 77-year-old coach inspired young men in the bebop era, and he continues to inspire them in the hip-hop era. This giant is not to be lightly dismissed. He has won 405 football games at predominantly black, Division I-AA Grambling--82 more than the all-time leader in the better-known Division I ranks, Alabama's heralded Paul "Bear" Bryant, and 86 more than Pop Warner. Robinson has prepared nearly 250 of his Tigers for the National Football League, and for half a century's worth of black college players, his very name has been more than a legend. It's been a condition of life.
Ask James Harris or Doug Williams. In large part because of Robinson's tutelage at Grambling, they moved on to become two of the NFL's pioneer black quarterbacks--at a time when the game's good ol' boys were still shopping the crudest kind of cliches about black quarterbacks. Fans here in Denver remember Williams, in particular: He's the guy who passed the Washington Redskins to a 42-10 rout of the Broncos in the 1988 Super Bowl. Some cliche.
If anyone deserves one more year, it's Eddie Robinson. Grambling president Raymond Hicks denied reports that Robinson was asked to resign, but his wife of 54 years, Doris Robinson, confirmed the rumors. So did his grandson, a player-development director for the New York Yankees. "He wants to go out his way," Eddie Robinson III said. "If they force him out, which they're trying to do, he won't be happy with that." Late last week a compromise was struck, and Robinson was on his way to getting his wish.
Truth be told, the Grambling football program has had problems recently. Problems not very different from those to be found at Nebraska or Colorado or U-Name-It U. Since last spring, the NCAA has been investigating charges of academic fraud (read: grade-fixing) at Grambling involving a dozen football players, as well as illegal off-season practices. Last month four players and one former player were charged with the alleged rape of a fifteen-year-old girl after the school's homecoming game. In 1995 team members threatened to boycott football practice because they hadn't yet received their Heritage Bowl rings from the previous year.
The bottom line, though, is that Robinson hasn't been winning lately. The Tigers' 3-8 record in 1996 was his poorest ever, and it marked the first time in his 55 years the team had endured back-to-back losing seasons. In fact, Robinson has averaged an astonishing eight wins per year reaching back to a time when the ball was fat, the helmets were made of leather and practically no black player suited up for a white college--North or South.
That doesn't seem to matter much these days to Grambling grads long used to success. Alumni association president James Bradford said last week that there's no new urgency about getting Robinson out. "It's been going on for quite some time," he said. "We've had discussions about Coach Robinson, but we've tried to leave it to Coach Robinson to say he was gonna go. But he never did."
Well, he's saying it now. He wants one more year. Win or lose. All he wants is the chance to say farewell to a game he's loved all his life.
Born in 1919 in Jackson, Louisiana, Robinson has often said he first wanted to be a football coach when he was in the third or fourth grade, when he began going to high school games with his family and picked up the talk around the bench.
He played quarterback for Leland College in Baton Rouge, where coach Leland Turner schooled him in the team's playbook and took him to coaching clinics. After earning a master's degree at the University of Iowa in 1941, Robinson went to work at a feed mill. Then he heard that Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute--which would later become Grambling College--was looking for a new football coach.
He's never held any other job.
In his first year the Tigers went 3-5-1. In his second year, 1942, they were undefeated at 9-0. Not only that, no team scored on them all year. Nine shutouts in one season--a feat no college football team has equaled since. Robinson has also won nine black-college championships, and he's had just five losing seasons. Because of his team's enduring quality and Robinson's personal magnetism, Grambling football even showed up on national television once a year--stirring pride and carrying the burden for black college athletes everywhere.