IT'S ALWAYS a
surprise to find that our biggest agents of change are actually such examples
of constancy. Eddie Robinson, who died last week at age 88, was of a regularity
that is not much celebrated in our culture. "One job, one wife," he
liked to say, having spent 55 years with the first and 65 with the second.
Hardly a radical. Yet who was more transforming than he was, at least when it
came to integrating college football, steadfastly promoting the equality of the
black athlete when that notion was simply unacceptable, preposterous even?
set out to do any such thing, of course, which made him an unlikely and
therefore ideal provocateur. His mission, back when he was hired to coach
football at Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute (known today as
Grambling State) in 1941, was not modest—the failing school needed an economic
bump from its athletic department—but not overly ambitious either. He was only
22, right out of a feed mill, and somewhat unprepared for what would become his
life's work. At the time he was more concerned with developing a playbook than
a sea change.
"You got to
have a system," some old-timer had told him at a clinic. What's a system?
"Why, you just stencil some plays on paper and give it to your players, and
that will be your system." In retelling this introduction to the coaching
fraternity, Robinson would always add, "I couldn't get back to Grambling
If his system was
vague and desperate in the beginning, it grew sharp and determined in
subsequent seasons as he retooled Grambling into a black powerhouse,
establishing a national constituency within his minority. It truly became for
blacks what Notre Dame was to Catholics, which was the idea. But then it became
even more. Robinson toured his team, playing to huge crowds in Tokyo and at
Yankee Stadium, the very excellence of his Tigers demanding attention and then
reconsideration. So many of his players began entering the NFL—in 1971 there
were 43 of them in training camps—that it was no longer possible to ignore this
previously irrelevant subset of sports.
maybe, it was impossible to recognize a stealth anarchist. He was just another
football coach, maybe a little crazier or more caring than others, but still
just a sportsman. There were his cribbed plays, from all those clinics, and the
pregame crocodile tears, which Robinson allegedly rehearsed in front of his
wife, Doris. ("He'd cry so hard that you'd be crying," remembered
former NFL quarterback Doug Williams, who would later succeed him as coach.
"Oh, he would cry.") And then there was the time he called practice,
gathered the team and took them to the family farm of two absent teammates,
where they helped bring in the cotton crop.
But from the
outside, watching him put it all together, you might have wondered what he was
really up to. There is nothing so color-blind as success, which is why sports
is sometimes a leading indicator for racial relations in this country, and
Robinson might have had his own system after all. While Robinson was
Gramblinizing the NFL in 1971, Bear Bryant abruptly decided to integrate
Of course, what
was good for college football, even humankind, wasn't obviously good for
Grambling football. With the Bear prowling everybody's sideline, Robinson lost
his advantage among black prospects, and in fact, the idea of something as
specific as black football has come to seem quite quaint, at the least.
Robinson nevertheless stayed on for another 26 seasons, and he continued to
recruit and win all the same, even passing Bryant in career victories in 1985
(he had 408 in all), proving at the very least that he was no racial footnote
but in fact pretty good at that one job.
anybody familiar with his times, or our history, it slights him to reduce his
career to wins-losses, as if all he'd been was a football coach, just walking
up and down the sideline with a sheaf of stenciled plays.