SI Flashback: Here's To You, Mr. Robinson
After 57 years at Grambling, Eddie Robinson retires this week as the NCAA's winningest coach. Friends worry that he tarnished his legacy by staying too long. They haven't talked to his players
Posted: Wednesday April 4, 2007 11:50AM; Updated: Wednesday April 4, 2007 12:10PM
This article originally appeared in Sports Illustrated on December 1, 1997.
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 Dame.
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 dear life.
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