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Here's To You, Mr. Robinson
Rick Reilly
October 14, 1985
The nation turned its eyes to Eddie Robinson as he surpassed Bear Bryant to become the winningest coach in college football
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October 14, 1985

Here's To You, Mr. Robinson

The nation turned its eyes to Eddie Robinson as he surpassed Bear Bryant to become the winningest coach in college football

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According to Grambling associate athletic director Fred Hobdy, Bryant told the Grambling staff in the late 1970s, "Whatever league you're in, whatever level, win there." At times that required extraordinary perseverance at Grambling. "No man but Eddie would have worked under these conditions," says Hobdy, who played for him in 1942 and '46-48 and hasn't left since. In the '40s, Robinson was a one-man athletic department. He would mow the football field, mark the lines, drill the drill squad, tape ankles, drive the injured to the doctor and write the game story for the local papers. One started, "Outlined against a blue-gray October sky...."

The not so good old days lasted a long time. "Guys would come back to visit us, and they'd say, 'Hey, you guys got grass to practice on?' " says defensive coordinator Fred Collins. True enough. Says Tank Younger, now the assistant general manager of the San Diego Chargers, "We practiced on dirt."

Sometimes even dirt was a luxury. Once, in Montgomery, Ala., Grambling wasn't allowed to work out on a football field the day before the game, so Robinson stopped the bus on an empty parking lot and held practice there. Another time, after a Friday dinner, Robinson got the players to push the tables and chairs aside and practice right there, in a hotel ballroom. Do a down-and-out to the raisin salad and I'll fake it to you.

Discrimination and anorexic budgets were just two of the trapdoors the Bear didn't encounter. Robinson recruited some 200 future NFL players—more than any other school—with a yearly budget about equal to Alabama's outlay for stamps. He has recruited against major colleges offering prestigious scholarships, luxurious dorm rooms, plentiful training tables, big-time bowls, TV exposure and, as the NCAA is loath to find out, Lord knows what else.

Robinson's achievement is that he worked for 44 seasons within the white system and then, on a Saturday night in Dallas, beat that system. "He has overcome the shackles," Hobdy says. "He won in spite of the handicaps."

Now he was winging toward more wins than any other man, courtesy of Prairie View, the team he had beaten 17 of the previous 18 years, but the team he was suddenly likening to Leahy's Irish. During one interview, Robinson got a sour look on his face and said, "I'll just bet you Prairie View is practicin' right this minute." If Prairie View was, it didn't help. Grambling scored on its first and third possessions to go ahead 14-0. Tiger defensive backs intercepted five passes, returning one for a touchdown and a 20-0 halftime lead. All that remained was to wait and wonder how to act when The Moment came, a feeling not unlike holding a pose while waiting for the electronic flash to warm up.

Still, all one had to do was look down the Grambling sideline to get a jolt: Young and old Robinson products had come to the Cotton Bowl, from Younger, the first NFL star from an all-black school, to Hall-of-Famer Willie Davis to Doug Williams, the most successful black NFL quarterback, to Grambling president Dr. Joseph B. Johnson, who had been recruited by Robinson. "This is a record made of players," Robinson told his team before the game. "It's a record made up of men like you for the last 40 years. This is your chance to leave your footprints in the sands of time."

Footprints were fine for some, but as The Moment drew nigh, one player, defensive end Chris Adams, wanted something more tangible. He had sneaked a Kodak Instamatic onto the bench and was snapping his own pictures of Robinson as the seconds dwindled down. "I want to have something to remember this by," he said.

"People can do what they want with the record," Robinson said. "They can put an asterisk on it if they want. That's their business. But look, I got my inspiration from all coaches, from college coaches and high school coaches, black and white. I remember Willie Davis would come back and tell me all about Vince Lombardi. Man, that lit fires under me. That got me burnin'. I took my inspiration from the great American coaches—Warner and Stagg. Man, I got to watch the Bear work! And I worked hard, too. I busted my butt. I always knew my part to play, and if my part ended up having something to do with history, then I'm happy. I never let anybody change my faith in this country. All I want is for my story to be an American story, not black and not white. Just American. I want it to belong to everybody."

When will the story end? Robinson's record may stand as long as Rose's. He can coach four more seasons—Louisiana state law requires that he retire at 70—but by then, he could have 360 wins, a fur piece from No. 2 John Gagliardi of St. Johns-Minnesota at 235, No. 3 Bo Schembechler of Michigan at 190 and No. 4 Joe Paterno of Penn State at 180. "I hope somebody will break it," says Robinson. "I'd like to see it."

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