Heavy, heavy was the atmosphere in the Grambling Tigers' locker room at halftime of last Saturday night's game at Florida A&M. The score was tied 14-14, but the Tigers appeared to be backsliding while the Rattlers had the momentum. Both teams knew what this game meant to the Grambling coach, 63-year-old Eddie Gay Robinson—a 300th victory that would lift him up there among the immortals. That fact placed the Tigers under tremendous pressure. Wingback Trumaine Johnson had his shoulder pads off and his head buried in his hands. Robinson's assistants argued heatedly among themselves. Overhead in Bragg Memorial Stadium, thousands of feet pounded out a beat on the stands' metal framework, and to its rhythm voices shouted, "Not in Tallahassee, Eddie, NOT IN TALLAHASSEE!"
But Robinson's serene face—his balding pate and cool eyes are the only clues to his age—was creased by a smile. He'd been here before, and he loved the feeling. Looking around the locker room, he said, addressing no one in particular, "They could have cleaned this place up." He quieted his team and coaches with a gesture and in a calm voice announced a plan. "All we have to do is throw shorter," he said to junior Quarterback Hollis Brent. "Hollis, they're tripling Trumaine. If you want to get him the ball, throw to Rufus [Split End Rufus Stevens] first. The 75 or 76 series will work. Throw on a five-step release. Now let's go."
Getting going wasn't quite that simple, of course. Grambling fell behind 21-14 a minute into the final quarter before Robinson's soft words came true. Then, in just over five minutes, Johnson scored three times, leading the 3-0 Tigers to a 43-21 win for the coach.
This latest—and sweetest—victory in Robinson's luminous 41-year career at Grambling was a good one, certainly not a cheap one. Florida A&M, now 2-1, was once the premier football power among predominately black colleges. And the Rattlers are well out of the doldrums that followed the departure of Jake Gaither, their legendary coach, in 1969. Coach Rudy Hubbard has won 65 games, while losing 26, since coming to Florida A&M from Ohio State in 1974.
"Youngsters like Rudy ensure the profession," Robinson said before last week's game. "They make better coaches out of us old guys." Hubbard, 36, returned the compliment—sort of. "Certainly, Eddie Robinson's been an inspiration to me. He stands for everything a man should stand for," he said. "What do we owe him? Our greatest effort to beat him."
Grambling foes have felt that way since 1942, Robinson's second season at the small school (enrollment then: 900; now: 4,200) located between Shreveport and Monroe in the boot top of Louisiana. Robinson grew up in south Baton Rouge, and at now defunct Leland College had been a single wing tailback and passer. By the time he graduated, he had a strong desire to coach.
"I was working at a feed mill," Robinson recalls. "My wife Doris' sisters knew the family of the Grambling president, Dr. Ralph W.E. Jones. That's how I got to meet him, and that's how I got the job."
Robinson was 22 years old when he came to Grambling. His only assistant was the school's night watchman. In 1941, the Tigers went 3-5. The next season they were undefeated (9-0), untied and unscored upon. It has been pretty much that way ever since.
"I would never say which was the best team or who was the best player," says Robinson. "Why make 11 men happy and 7,000 mad? Ernie Ladd would say the '60 team was tops because of the future pros. There was Ladd, Buck Buchanan, Willie Brown, Lane Howell, Mike Howell, Preston Powell, Jamie Caleb, Goldie Sellers, Garland Boyette." Grambling's list goes on and on from there; 205 players coached by Robinson have played in the NFL. They were Robinson's main legacy until last week, when he joined Bear Bryant (318), Amos Alonzo Stagg (314) and Pop Warner (313) as the fourth member of the exclusive 300 club.
Collie Nicholson, the Grambling publicist for 31 years and now the p.r. man for the Southwestern Athletic Conference, says the secret of Robinson's success is that he "gets satisfaction out of turning out finished products. He's the only man I know who'll go out to a restaurant, diagram plays on napkins and then keep the napkins."