I peeked through the kitchen window and pressed my ear to the screen, hoping to hear the conversation that was going on in our backyard in Greenwood, Ark. Three University of Arkansas assistant football coaches were sitting on a dilapidated picnic table, sipping Cokes and listening intently as my dad preached the gospel of the single wing formation. I was 13 or 14 and my father was Grady J. Robinson Sr., coach of the Greenwood High School Bulldogs—an old-fashioned coach and an avid proponent of the short punt formation, the flying wedge and a variety of trick plays. Two or three youthful assistant coaches from Frank Broyles's staff usually dropped by our house or the school gym each spring during their annual public relations and bird-dogging tour of western Arkansas high schools. It was the spring of 1959 or maybe it was 1960, and we had no way of knowing that each of these men, who then worked and trained under the disciplined eye of Broyles, would someday head his own powerful, nationally ranked football team.
It was exciting to see these men in my own backyard. A Razorback coach was the nearest we could come to a real national celebrity in those days. In the late '50s there was an air of expectancy and enthusiasm surrounding the Arkansas football program. Coach Broyles had brought the team into national prominence for the first time in years, and every kid in the state who had ever tugged at an elastic chin strap on an old Rawlings leather helmet, including me—especially me—dreamed that someday he would wind up in Fayetteville (pronounced Fed'vull) wearing low-cut shoes and a maroon jersey and carrying the pigskin for the Razorbacks.
Down deep in our little hillbilly hearts, though, most of us felt that we weren't good enough. We slow-footed smalltown boys with names like Lester and Cecil just didn't seem to fit the mold of a Joe Paul Alberty, a Paul Dudley, a Danny Brabham, or a Wayne (the Thumper) Harris. Who could hope to compete, either in talent or in name, with Lance (Bambi) Alworth.
It was not just winning football that Broyles introduced to Arkansas, it was the modern era. A new style. Under Broyles, the Hogs were playing a quick, swarming defense and talking constantly of technique; they practiced, and played, modern, hard-hitting, precision football.
On the other hand our own Greenwood Bulldogs, a powerful team in those days, with a record of 27 and 2 from 1958 through 1960, played a backwoods version of mid-'40s ball. In 1958, the Bulldogs were undefeated and ranked second in the state. My dad was selected for the Arkansas high school all-star football coaching staff. Therefore, the Razorback staff made it a point to drop by and chat with coach Grady during the early spring. They dressed collegiately, with sport coats and open collars, and they arrived in a big black Oldsmobile 88. My dad wore his old khaki pants, a J.C. Penney sport shirt, a faded baseball cap with a G on it and a whistle around his neck. My mama claimed that he took off that whistle only for his Saturday night bath, which he took in the portable washtub in front of the kitchen stove. (Actually, he also took it off Sundays, hanging it around the bedpost during Sunday school and church.)
Dad sat in an old lawn chair as the three young coaches perched on the picnic table like birds on a telephone wire. Dad smoked Prince Albert roll-your-own cigarettes and could roll one while yelling at a kid who missed a block and never spill a speck.
"Coach Robinson, you got any young men here in Greenwood that you think can play in the Southwest Conference?" asked one of the coaches. I edged closer to the screen door hoping to hear something like "Well, that youngest boy of mine is just in the ninth grade, but, in spite of his skinny legs and lack of coordination and obvious fear of contact, he might have fairly good hands."
But Dad never said anything like it. He always told the truth. "Naaah," he growled in that gravelly voice after pausing to inhale, "we play country ball down here. We just grab 'em by the nap' of the neck and sling 'em to the ground. Not a kid in the district that can play real football."
The Razorback coaches laughed. "But, Coach," they pleaded, "you haven't lost but two in three years. Surely you must have some football players around these hills somewhere!"
"No competition. We lucked into a few wins last year, but we don't have any real players...just good coaching," he added and then winked.