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Eddie Robinson 1919--2007
Richard Hoffer
April 16, 2007
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?
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April 16, 2007

Eddie Robinson 1919--2007

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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?

Robinson never 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 fast enough."

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.

Within Grambling, 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 Alabama football.

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.

Still, for 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.

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