Robinson, however, was mainly interested in producing graduates (an 85% rate, he claims) and citizens, not NFL stars. He would rather have developed an adult than an All-America, though he did both for a long time. Last year four players were accused of rape, but mostly his programs have been whistle-clean, and woe be to the player who cursed within his earshot. "There was a song when I played, Turn This Mutha Out" recalls Williams, "and one of the players mentioned it at practice, and Coach made him run the hill. We all said it was just a song, and he kept saying, 'I don't want to hear about it!' Guy had to run the hill."
For every player who made it to the Super Bowl, probably a hundred more learned from Robinson how to conduct themselves better in society. In the end, a lot of players from his early teams, when you think about it, were probably better served by the Everyday Living course he had talked the school into putting together than by all their time on the gridiron. A generation of young Grambling men learned how to tie a Windsor knot and open a door for a woman, just because Coach felt their embarrassment.
Two Saturdays ago only 4,037 people turned out for his final appearance at Grambling, that loss to North Carolina A&T School officials expect bigger things, a grand send-off, for this Saturday's game in New Orleans. ("Our grief is better shared by 70,000 people than just the school," said Piper.) But this was embarrassing. The hard truth—and what showed it better than the turnout on Nov. 15?—is that the program's in more trouble than Robinson knows.
The school, recognizing this, even tried to oust him last season, a move that got more than a little backlash from the sentimental press and might have contributed to the school president's resignation in October. But, really, it was time, and probably has been time for a while. "In Robinson's mind," says Nicholson, who calls himself a close friend, "he still has it. But he's just a shell."
His friends and supporters have been in a near panic, afraid he is going to undo his legacy, unravel Grambling's mystique. The program has been going downhill for sure, though it can't be entirely his fault. The fact that he hasn't delivered the NFL a draft choice in three years speaks less to his recruiting ability than to the difficulties experienced by a minority college that no longer has the minority monopoly. Still, his friends can't get him out fast enough.
Did he stay too long? Almost certainly. The players that come to him aren't that amazed by Merry-Go-Round and probably don't need the old man's help in a cotton field. The crocodile tears at halftime might not be so effective anymore, either. The game has changed. Everything has changed.
Then again, considering his service to American youth, whom no man is too good to coach, that ought to be a silly regret. He stayed too long? Really? Somebody calculated that 4,500-some kids have come under his sway, a pretty good number. But don't you wish there had been more? It's not that he stayed too long, is it? Don't you mean, he didn't get here soon enough?