Robinson is venerable enough now to almost transcend the matter of race. It's his ethics that entice. Grambling football players wear coats and ties to away games. Robinson encourages them to attend church, to keep their rooms clean, to be mannerly, to respect the flag, to go to summer school and to graduate on time. He even requires his charges to take a class in etiquette to learn proper table manners and the right way to shake hands and leave a room.
"Because of Eddie's rules and regulations, the average guy you see from Grambling is a pretty good person," says Younger, now assistant general manager of the San Diego Chargers. "We have three here—Gary Johnson, Charlie Joiner and Dwight Scales—and they're all class people. As for myself, I get real concerned when I think what I might have been without Eddie."
The bond between past and present Grambling players is strong. That, too, is because of Robinson. He's the thread running through everyone's career. In a time-honored ritual, former players return each year to help him coach the newcomers. "When I was at Grambling I got to work with former players like Frank Lewis, Sammy White and Charlie Joiner," says Trumaine Johnson, class of '83, who led the USFL in receiving this year as a rookie. "I plan to go back on my own this fall and help out. We feel like we're one—a special breed."
Robinson's home is near the edge of the campus. It's an undistinguished-looking red-brick, ranch-style house set back from a street without gutters near a quiet wood. He and his wife, Doris, have lived there since 1951. They were sweethearts at McKinley High in Baton Rouge, have been married 42 years and have two grown children. But the question arises: Why is Robinson here? Not just in this house that has trophies and plaques piled under beds and behind couches, but in this town, at this school? Consider that Robinson earned $49,183 last year, roughly a fifth of what Jackie Sherrill, who has 58 career wins, made at Texas A&M in 1982.
Of course, Robinson is at Grambling because he's black and didn't get the big-time offers. But there's something else, too. He's there because he's black and springs from another era, one when you didn't push. You worked, you dreamed, you forgave and you didn't confront the system head-on because you knew it could snap you like a stick. When his team got to play a regular-season game in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans in 1974, it meant "a lot more to me than it did to the players," says Robinson. Why? "Because I remember when blacks couldn't even sit in the Sugar Bowl." Seeing the way things have changed has cheered Robinson. But he still can't stand to hear blacks blame failure on racism. He's uncomfortable with angry, disillusioned young people, with anyone who feels he's owed something just because he was born in this country. During the racial tumult of the late '60s, Robinson made sure all his players stood at attention when the national anthem was played.
"I tell young black coaches to go out and apply for jobs," he says. "Be aggressive, keep learning, don't be passive. But don't complain if you haven't applied. You can't be bitter about things that happened before. Being bitter doesn't do anyone any good. The main thing is to know the system. Writers say I've been passed over for coaching jobs. But I haven't." He shakes his head and smiles. "Because I haven't applied for any."
The town of Grambling is a quiet little place (pop. 4,500) that exists only to serve the university. The school has 145 white students, and 17% of its faculty is white. In 1968 a white backup quarterback named James Gregory played for the Tigers. A TV movie called Grambling's White Tiger was made of Gregory's experience, with Bruce Jenner playing the lead.
The real world doesn't begin until you leave town. In the old days that meant aboard Blue Bird, the college's battered schoolbus. The Tigers had to drive nonstop to opponents' campuses, where they bunked in vacant dorm rooms. "We couldn't stop and eat anywhere," recalls Younger. "And we couldn't stay in hotels. We could fill up at gas stations, but to go to the John, we had to pull over and head into the woods."
Eventually Robinson realized he had an exciting product to market. In 1965, along with Prez Jones and former Grambling publicist Collie J. Nicholson, he began to whip up a master plan for the football program. The trio decided that because Grambling lacked a decent home stadium and a significant alumni base, it would have to become a national black collegiate team, a sort of barnstorming Notre Dame of soul. The school would achieve this status through performance, promotion and, if necessary, shameless hucksterism. Nicholson began the onslaught by sending out releases about the team twice weekly to 169 newspapers and magazines. Now a partner in a p.r. firm in Shreveport, Nicholson says the idea was to sell Grambling "like a circus, to create an interest, and then deliver a solid product."
The initial point of delivery, the threesome decided, would be Yankee Stadium. Nicholson picked up sponsors and Robinson picked up an opponent, Morgan State. The two teams played in Yankee Stadium on Sept. 28, 1968 before more than 60,000 fans, and the show was really on the road. Over the next several years Grambling played in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Houston, Dallas, Kansas City and other major cities, always to huge, predominantly black crowds. Nicholson arranged a game for the Tigers in Hawaii, and then, as the coup de maître, he hustled an invitation for the squad, the band and the school brass to visit Japan, where Grambling played Morgan State in 1976.