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.
On October 7, 1995, Eddie Robinson became the only coach to amass 400 victories, with a 42-6 win over Mississippi Valley State.
Of his friend and colleague, Penn State's Joe Paterno said: "Nobody has ever done or ever will do what Eddie Robinson has done for this game. Our profession will never, ever be able to repay Eddie Robinson for what he has done for this country and for the profession of football."
In the beginning, he literally did everything.
He lined the field himself. He taped the players' ankles. He washed their mud-stained jerseys. At halftime, he led Grambling's marching band. Robinson even wrote a news story after every game and sent it out to newspapers all over the country. Then he went home and made plans for Monday practice.
In 1989 Louisiana exempted him from a state law mandating retirement at age seventy, and Grambling named its football stadium for him.
"I don't want to be known as a black winning coach," Robinson said the day he won number 400. "Or a black winning coach at a black school. I just want this to be about an American, someone like everyone else. This is an American story."
Now Grambling wants to dump him. In an ESPN interview last week, one unnamed, thirty-something alum explained it this way: "It has a lot to do with winning. We don't win, people don't come to the games. And if they don't come to the games, you don't make money. And if you don't make money, you don't stay in business."
That's campus reality, I suppose. But don't you wonder how many football jerseys that guy has washed lately? How many bands has he directed? Has he ever lifted the cause of an entire university--maybe even an entire people--on his shoulders?
Eddie Robinson has. And despite the school's current scrapes with scandal and the shock of losing at last, he's always done it with grace, wisdom and modesty. "I'm not concerned about personal records," he said when he surpassed Bryant's 324 career-win record. "Time takes care of everything, and it will eventually take care of that."
The only thing Robinson asked for was a little more time. A shining moment to say goodbye. So please, please stop grumbling, Grambling. He's given you his whole life.
It's a good bet that, until Sunday morning, only a few dozen Coloradans outside the Greeley city limits could have told you the name of the University of Northern Colorado's quarterback, its head coach or its leading rusher. Not many would have known the color scheme of the Bears' uniforms (or, for that matter, that they are called Bears), much less the fact that they had played, just the day before, for a national championship.
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Final score: UNC 23, Carson-Newman 14.
On Saturday the Colorado football team nobody knows won the NCAA's Division II national crown before a crowd of 5,745 in Florence, Alabama. 5,745? That's the number of freshmen doing pushups in the Air Force end zone after a Falcons touchdown. It's smaller than the falling-down-drunk count at the CU-Kansas game. That's how many late arrivals there are when CSU hosts Texas-El Paso in Fort Collins.
In Broncoland, 5,745 is the grand total of brothers-in-law begging season-ticket holders for their seats when the Chiefs come to town.
So, then. Let's lift a cold one--Brand X, of course--to UNC head coach Joe Glenn, who led the Bears to seven straight wins to close the season and a sparkling 12-3 record. Here's to tailback Billy Holmes, late of Colorado Springs' Mitchell High School, who rushed for 136 yards versus Carson-Newman and set a school record with 1,074 for the year. Here's to quarterback Tom Beck (knocked cold in the fourth quarter Saturday), placekicker Mike Schauer (three field goals) and the rest of the Bears. Happily, most of them hail from Colorado's own woods: Eighty-six of the team's 101 players this season are natives.
Great job, guys. Thanks for coming out into the light so boldly, where everyone can see you. With a little luck, Coloradans won't forget come early autumn.