Set 'em up bartender and pour it like you don't own it. Tonight we toast Eddie Robinson, college football's Old Man River, flowing sweeter and stronger than ever. Here's to what he helped us forget. In a year when it's an upset if a game comes off without an IRS audit, Robinson hit us with a stadium wave of nostalgia: a good coach with a simple program proving that with a little luck and 44 years of hard work a man can still win his way onto the front page.
And here's to sport, which has a funny way of making amends. From the muck of baseball's worst drug scandal rose Pete and 4,192. From the dank of college football's Dole Bowls comes Robinson and win No. 324, the magic number that put him one ahead of Alabama's Paul (Bear) Bryant and made him history's winningest college football coach, big or small, thin or stout, black or white. The victory came on Saturday night at the Cotton Bowl, where Robinson's Grambling Tigers beat Prairie View A & M 27-7 before an almost entirely black crowd of 36,652, 35,908 of whom had purloined sideline passes as the clock counted down to history...3...2...1.... Sensing impending mayhem, Grambling's players formed a human retaining wall around the 66-year-old Robinson, chanting "No mo' Bear!" and inching their way to the tunnel like a giant, 160-pod beetle. The sight was so strange that, as they moved, Robinson abandoned his worried look and loosed a lovely grin.
Once inside the locker room, the incurable sentimentalist tried to keep his ducts dry. He had already cried that day at an 11 a.m. team meeting. Now, with the full realization in his throat of what he had done, Robinson scarcely made it past a postgame paragraph. "It has been my privilege [pause] to coach [pause] you young men...." With that, the players began hollering, "Let it out, Coach! Let it out!" He did, and let it be written that he was not the only one.
This day's tears had been a long time coming. To begin with, Robinson's father, Frank, was gravely ill with Hodgkin's disease in Baton Rouge General Hospital, and with the hoopla of the record, Robinson couldn't visit him last week. "He doesn't know what's going on," Robinson said. Too, the nation's media had crammed into tiny Grambling, and elbows were knocking.
"Seems like every writer and TV man in the country has been here the last two weeks," Robinson's wife, Doris, said one day in their four-bedroom brick house, less than a long punt from the practice field. "And every one of 'em is hoping Eddie doesn't drop dead before he does their piece." Nightly, Robinson apologized to his team for being tardy to practice. "I believe I've been late more this week than in my previous 43 years coachin'," he said. That, says Doris, "makes him like an old soreheaded bear."
The record would soon be broken, but when it was, would Bear loyalists be sore-headed themselves? Before the game they had seemed not. Robinson insists that he received not a single hate letter. Perhaps the only skittish moment came in Robinson's office two days before the game. A white man with a goatee, a black leather vest and a Johnny Cash hat showed up unannounced. "Coach, I drove all the way from Hartselle, Alabama to do this," he said. The room became quiet. Then the man stuck out his hand to shake. "I just want to tell you that if somebody has to beat the Bear, we are shore 'nuff glad it's you, 'cause you are a gentleman, sir."
Whether the South goes as Hartselle goes is unknown, but even Robinson—especially Robinson—knows that legends don't budge easily. And when the budgee is one of the most beloved names in the South and the new King of Coaches happens to be black, collars could get tight. Robinson worked hard to loosen them. "I could win 1,000 games and never replace the Bear," Robinson said, and he meant it.
Indeed, the Bear and the Heir were friends. Bryant presented Robinson with the Walter Camp Foundation's 1982 Distinguished American Award, though somebody else was scheduled to do it. When Bryant died, Robinson couldn't get a flight, so he drove 400 miles through the night to Tuscaloosa, Ala. to attend the funeral. Once there, Robinson could not get past church guards and might have missed it had not some Alabama players escorted him into the service.
Still, not everybody was ready to let Robinson have his coronation, humble as he tried to make it. Enter the Asterisk Army, the writers and fans who sit in dimly lit booths in the backs of bars and try to stop time with pocket calculators. Their asterisk dogs Roger Maris and Henry Aaron, and now it hunts Robinson, charging that more than 300 of his victories came against Division I-AA caliber teams.
Robinson doesn't try to refute that. "I grew up in the South," he says. "I was told where to attend elementary school, where to attend junior high school, where to attend high school. When I became a coach, I was told who I could recruit, who I could play, where I could play and when I could play. I did what I could within the system." More simply, Booker T. Washington once said, "Cast down your bucket where you are." Robinson's bucket is right where he left it—at the end of the rainbow.