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Legendary coach Robinson a man ahead of his era

by Jim Litke

Eddie Robinson was so good at what he did he effectively put himself out of business.

News photoEddie Robinson, longtime football coach at Grambling State, died Wednesday at the age of 88. Robinson sent over 200 players to the NFL in his 57 years at the school.
AP PHOTO

After all those wins and after all those white coaches and athletic directors had siphoned off the black talent at little Grambling State, he was still anything but resentful.

“The real record I have set for over 50 years,” he said a while back, “is the fact that I have had one job and one wife.”

One of sport’s pioneers died late Tuesday night after a nearly decade-long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Robinson lived to age 88, long enough to be celebrated for all kinds of accomplishments and enshrined in every hall of fame with even a shred of credibility. But his biggest accomplishment — forcing college football’s good-ol’-boy network to change its exclusionary ways — was also the most bittersweet.

Robinson took over at Grambling State in 1941, when the school was the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, and rarely encountered a hurdle he couldn’t clear. He began with no paid staff members, little equipment, a threadbare field and a location that few people could find on a map.

In short order, Robinson began recruiting the young black kids that just about every football-playing school in the nation wouldn’t touch. Before the decade was done, Grambling running back Paul “Tank” Younger became the first player from an all-black college to make it to the NFL. More than 200 Tigers would follow over the years, including a quartet enshrined in Canton.

Perhaps more important, Robinson instilled in his players a sense of responsibility. Younger wasn’t even drafted coming out of Grambling, but he went on to become the first black player to play in an NFL all-star game. Soon after, pro scouts fanned out to the historically black colleges in the South and discovered players like Deacon Jones, Walter Payton and Jerry Rice.

The more they succeeded, the sooner all those football programs waded into the talent pool Robinson practically owned.

In 1968, he borrowed a page from Knute Rockne’s playbook and took the Tigers on a barnstorming tour, offering to play any team anywhere. And just like the Fighting Irish had done almost a half-century earlier, the Tigers became a source of pride and the rallying point for black America.

Two years later, buffeted by the civil rights debate raging across the land and humiliated by Southern California in what was billed as a battle of perennial powerhouse programs, Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant was convinced to help dismantle college football’s last bastion of segregation, the Southeastern Conference.

Instead of resenting Bryant for bringing his influence so late, Robinson embraced him for showing up at all. He kept a picture of the Bear in his office and the two became fast friends. Joined in life, it’s one measure of how much Robinson achieved that he will be accorded a hero’s sendoff worthy of Bryant himself.

Robinson will lie in state Monday at the Capital Rotunda in Baton Rouge, La. His funeral service will be Wednesday at Grambling’s new assembly center, just a long pass from the football stadium that bears his name.