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 says.
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.