Until the mid-'60s blacks attending college in the South could go only to schools that had been set up for them. Segregation gave schools like Grambling (the name was changed to Grambling College in 1946 and to Grambling State University in 1974) a "guaranteed clientele," says Grambling President Joseph B. Johnson. But it also guaranteed them second-class status. The black schools had fewer and worse facilities than their white counterparts, and they could play only other black schools.
Even Grambling's football records during Robinson's early years were crudely kept. The school's publicity department has no individual game figures for the 1941 to '49 seasons. The '41 season in particular has come under scrutiny now that Robinson has begun his Bryant countdown. It seems that back in the early '60s Ralph Waldo Emerson (Prez) Jones, Grambling's president from 1936 to 1977, began joking that Robinson had gone 0-8 in 1941. Before long Grambling press guides and, consequently, sports-writers were reporting the zip-eight record as fact. The NCAA, however, maintains that Robinson went 3-5 in '41. As Robinson approached 300 victories, people questioned whether the Tigers had really won those games. Grambling says that Jones, who died last year, had started the 0-8 business to give Robinson more notoriety and to make his 9-0 record in 1942 seem more impressive.
Boda says that every time a coach nears a record, statistical turbulence arises. As Bryant started closing in on Stagg's mark, Stagg supporters went wild searching for more wins for their man. One fanatic threatened Boda's life for not adding 21 victories to Stagg's list, the number of games Susquehanna University won while Stagg, then in his 80s, was co-coaching with his son there. "One year Stagg's University of Chicago team played 23 games," says Boda. "Teams used to play high schools. They used to play exhibitions on the way back from road games. All I can say is, Robinson's record doesn't begin to qualify for the problems you could come up with on Warner's and Stagg's."
What's remarkable about Robinson is that he has bridged so many eras so easily. When he started at Grambling, he was the athletic department. He had just graduated from Leland College (now defunct) in Baker, La., where he'd been a tailback, fullback and punter, and was working at a feed mill when he heard about the Grambling opening. He applied and got the job largely because of his enthusiasm. Besides coaching football, Robinson had to coach baseball and men's and women's basketball and run the physical education department—all for $64 a month. "The word coach covered a lot more in those days," he says.
His recruits, mainly raw kids without a lot of choices, came from the farms and small towns of Louisiana. In the '40s many black high schools in the state began using Grambling's offensive sets, and the college's name was familiar to young athletes. Robinson sold their mothers and fathers on the integrity of his program and then stepped into the cotton fields to remind the youngsters where their loyalties lay.
One of his early players was a football and basketball star named Fred Hobdy, who has been the Grambling basketball coach since taking over for Robinson in 1956. "The thing about Eddie is that he's very modern," says Hobdy, who also serves as an assistant football coach. "He's the first one to say, 'We've got to change.' Take drinking water. Remember when you never had it on the field? He was one of the first coaches to bring it out. I said, 'No!' But he said, 'It'll make them play better.' And, of course, it did."
Another of Robinson's early players was Johnson, who captained the basketball team in 1956-57. "What Eddie does is enable athletes to develop a pattern for living and thinking," says Grambling's president. "He tells you, 'You can do anything you want to if you work hard enough.' When I was playing, he wouldn't let you miss class. He's still that way. A kid can go anywhere he wants now, but what would we have become without Grambling and Eddie Robinson? We wouldn't have had a chance."
Rival coaches respect Robinson on a different level. "I'd always been told Grambling just had a lot of material, but I found out that's nonsense," says Jackson State Coach WC. Gorden, who has beaten Grambling just once in six attempts. "Defensively, when you play them you have to prepare a total, flexible game plan, because Eddie seems to have a play to counter any coverage or stunt. He's about the best I've seen at making adjustments during games. Through the years he's used the single wing, a pro set and a flanker offense, but the wing T is probably his strongest suit. His defense is usually a 4-3, with schemes—finesse rather than brawn. But he won't ever stand pat. He can bring out old things and they're new to us."
Without question, Grambling doesn't get as many blue-chippers as it once did. "The starting running backs at LSU might have come here in the past," says Robinson. Indeed, the defensive unit of Grambling's 1960 team featured four future All-Pros: Ernie Ladd, Buck Buchanan, Roosevelt Taylor and Willie Brown. It's generally accepted that on a given day several of Robinson's teams in the '60s could have beaten any school in the country. While that's no longer the case, he's more successful than ever now. From 1953 to 1972, the Tigers won 73% of their games. From 1973 to 1982 they won almost 80%. Robinson says he still gets some exceptional players because he's "lucky." Fact is, he still gets them because he's Eddie Robinson.
Robert Smith is a 6'8", 245-pound senior defensive end for the Tigers and a top pro prospect. As a high school senior in Bogalusa, La. he was recruited by LSU, Tulane, Alabama and Tennessee, among others. But he chose Grambling because he knew Robinson was closing in on 300 victories. "I wanted to be part of something big," he says. Smith's brother, Sean, is a 6'5", 255-pound freshman defensive end at Grambling, and he was wooed by even more schools than Robert. "The only coaches he'd play for were Coach Robinson and Bear Bryant," says Robert. "And he knew Bryant was retiring."