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 résumé 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.
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.