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Robinson a pioneer at Grambling

Eddie Robinson was an untested 22-year-old when Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones hired him to become the first football coach at Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute in 1941. Jones made the hire at the urging of one of Robinson's aunts.

During the coach's first season, he inadvertently eavesdropped on a conversation between Jones and some faculty members who were telling the president, "We know you're going to get rid of that coach." Twenty-five years later, Robinson told Jones that his vote of confidence, "bought some loyalty."

Robinson remained at the school, which was eventually renamed Grambling, for 56 years.

Robinson sent more than 200 players into the NFL, won 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles, nine black college national championships and 408 games at the school. But following his death at age 88 late Tuesday night, he was remembered as a pioneer whose legacy extended far beyond the football field. Robinson died in Ruston, La., after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease.

The story of Robinson is one of strength, dignity and resolve. For more than half a century Robinson was all fire and brimstone, telling his players that anything can be accomplished with a sound work ethic.

"Coach Eddie Robinson was certainly a father figure who was as great a human being as I've ever met," said James "Shack" Harris, one of seven former Buffalo Bills who played for Robinson. "He touched the lives of so many people. The players he coached, he coached them to not only win football games, but to win in the game of life."

With Jim Crow laws closing the door at larger, football-playing schools in the South, Robinson began recruiting young African-American athletes when others didn't bother. The first was Paul "Tank" Younger, the first player from an all-black college to make it into the NFL and one of the league's last great two-way players. More than 200 others followed. Before long, the Southeastern and Southwest conferences took note, siphoning off the African-American talent that was the foundation of Robinson's dynasty.

When "colored" became "Negro" and eventually black, some worried that integration would mark the end of black college football the same way it ended Negro League baseball. But Robinson rolled with the times and accepted the fact he would lose recruits to Alabama and Oklahoma.

"It was very difficult for me, as a coach, to watch Martin Luther King with his marches and what they stood for, then tell a guy don't go," he once said.

In the late 60s, Robinson took the football program, as well as the college, to a national stage. Backed by the school's renowned band, the team played opponents in Tokyo, Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, and Atlantic City. By the time he retired in 1997, Grambling had an enrollment of over 8,000 with nearly 50 percent of the students coming from out of state. Ten years later, Grambling's enrollment is down nearly 50 percent. Yet African-Americans still view Grambling as a source of joy and self-worth largely because of Robinson.

That he never left Grambling for another job is even more remarkable in an era where coaches often don't stay in one place for more than 10 seasons. Yet Robinson's opportunities to move were often limited by the unwillingness to hire African-American coaches at predominantly white schools and in the NFL.

"Racism is what made me work like hell," he once told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "You remember when people used to hold hands and sing, 'We shall overcome?' I never did that. I always said, 'Anything you can do, I can do better.' "

Today, there are just six African-American head coaches in Division I-A and five in the NFL, and many of them credit Robinson for leading the way.

"He's a pioneer," said University at Buffalo coach Turner Gill. "He's given every African-American coach that opportunity to do what I'm doing, which is coaching. Whether it's high school, college or pro he's the one that has given us all the opportunity to coach. He's the one that started it off."

Robinson had an impact on the life of Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom, the first African-American football coach in the SEC.

"I met him early in my coaching career and he was impressive to me not only as a football coach but also for the effect he had on the lives of his players," Croom said.

It was always a struggle for Robinson at Grambling, and he never complained.

Jones paid him barely $60 a month to start, yet Robinson transformed Grambling into one of the elite programs in the country. When Robinson started coaching, Franklin D. Roosevelt was in his third term, and Paul Brown was coaching at Ohio State.

For years, Robinson's job coaching football was only one of his duties. He was also the athletic director, men's and women's basketball coach, an assistant in the baseball program and taught P.E. classes at the college and Grambling High School. His winning percentage in over 400 men's basketball games was .705.

Early on, he blew a whistle in the player's dorm at 6:30 a.m., to make sure his players were up for breakfast and classes. The whistle eventually gave way to a cowbell and bullhorn. Miss a class and Coach Rob would force you to run up and down bleachers repeatedly. Worse, he'd take away your meal card for the day.

"First and foremost, Coach Robinson was a teacher and his most important lesson was molding good citizens," said Hall of Famer Charlie Joiner. "If you were going to play for him, you were going to be a good citizen. You were going to go to class and you were going to go to church on Sunday."

His former players shared a deep bond with Robinson. Just last year, former Bills wide receiver Frank Lewis, who played for Robinson in the late 60s and early 70s, visited his former coach at his home for the last time.

"We talked and he remembered me even though it comes and it goes," Lewis said. "There were certain things that he recognized and was talking to me about but I was so glad that I had a chance to talk to him, especially when he remembered who I was. He really meant a lot to us."

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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