SI Flashback (cont.)
Posted: Wednesday April 4, 2007 11:50AM; Updated: Wednesday April 4, 2007 12:10PM
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 departure.
"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.
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