To his very last day, Eddie Robinson was always battling something. There was the institutional racism that surrounded him, the piddling football budget he and his coaching staff subsisted on at predominantly black Grambling State and, ultimately, the Alzheimer's disease that took his life at age 88.
"He'd been fighting that battle for a long time," said former Grambling quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams. "It was one of the many he fought in his lifetime." Robinson died Tuesday night April 3rd, not long after being admitted to Lincoln General Hospital in Ruston, La., Williams said.
He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease shortly after he retired in 1997 and had been in and out of a nursing home during the past year. And so ended the life of a beloved football coach who put a small school in remote northern Louisiana on the map and turned it into a virtual farm team for the NFL during a career that spanned 57 years.
Eddie Robinson built a football powerhouse with a worldwide reputation, all the while struggling to get past years of segregation and discrimination against blacks. His success at Grambling no doubt made him the first easily recognizable black coach in any sport.
"Today we mourn the loss of a great Louisianan and a true American hero," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said. "Coach Eddie Robinson became the most successful college coach of all time and one of the greatest civil rights pioneers in our history. ... Coach Robinson elevated a small town program to national prominence and tore down barriers to achieve an equal playing field for athletes of all races."
Robinson won 408 games, the most ever for any coach at the time of his retirement in 1997. He sent hundreds of players to the NFL and other leagues, and the majority of them were clutching college degrees when they left. "We will be forever grateful for the more than 200 young men he developed at Grambling who starred in the NFL and those who later coached the next generation of NFL players," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. "He always focused on coaching his players to be better men as well as better football players."
Playing at Grambling became a goal of young black men as Robinson's fame grew.
"Everybody wanted to play at Grambling," Jackson State coach Rick Comegy said. "He'd done such a fantastic job. He was on national TV, you know, and that was the first time I'd ever seen a black college football team on TV growing up."
Eddie Robinson's career spanned 11 presidents, several wars and the civil rights movement. Though his teams struggled during his final years, his overall record of excellence is what will be remembered: 408-165-15.
Until John Gagliardi of St. John's, Minnesota topped the victory mark four years ago, Robinson was the winningest coach in all of college football.
In 1995, Robinson oversaw a rare loosing season -- 5-6. That was followed by a 3-8 year, and there was an NCAA investigation on recruiting violations and four players were arrested for rape. Suddenly there were calls for Robinson to go. Fans said he'd lost touch with the modern game and the young players.
"I don't think coach lost touch with the players, I think the players lost touch with him," former NFL and Grambling cornerback Everson Walls said. "I think the young guys lost touch with coach Rob's vision. They didn't appreciate that they were living history with him." As pressure mounted for him to step aside, even then-Gov. Mike Foster campaigned to give him one last season so he could try to go out a winner. But that final season again produced a 3-8 record.
Robinson's teams had only eight losing seasons and won 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles and nine national black college championships. He was inducted into every hall of fame for which he was eligible, and received honorary degrees from several universities, including Yale.
Robinson began his storied career at Grambling in 1941 with no paid assistants, no groundskeepers, no trainers and little in the way of equipment. He lined the field himself and fixed lunchmeat sandwiches for road trips because the players could not eat in the "white only" restaurants of the South.
Somehow, he never seemed bitter when recalling these experiences. "The best way to enjoy life in America is to first be an American, and I don't think you have to be white to do so," Robinson said. "Blacks have had a hard time, but not many Americans haven't."
In 1968, refusing to be tied to a tiny home stadium on a hard-to-reach campus, Robinson took Grambling's football show on the road, playing at some very famous addresses, including Yankee Stadium.
Jerry Izenberg, the sports columnist emeritus at the Star-Ledger of Newark and a close friend of Robinson since 1963, said the coach was an inspiration in the deep South. "People look at black pride in America and sports' impact on it," Izenberg said. "In the major cities it took off the first time Jackie Robinson stole home. In the deep South, it started with Eddie Robinson, who took a small college in northern Louisiana with little or no funds and sent the first black to the pros and made everyone look at him and Grambling."
Running back Paul "Tank" Younger signed with the Los Angeles Rams and became the first player from an all-black college to enter the NFL. Suddenly, pro scouts learned how to find the little school 65 miles east of Shreveport near the Arkansas border.
Robinson sent over 200 players to the NFL, including seven first-round draft choices and Williams, who succeeded Robinson as Grambling's coach in 1998. Others went to the Canadian Football League and the now-defunct USFL. Robinson's pro stars included Willie Davis, James Harris, Ernie Ladd, Buck Buchanan, Sammy White, Cliff McNeil, Willie Brown, Roosevelt Taylor, Charlie Joiner and Willie Williams.
The same year Robinson took his team on the road, 1968, Howard Cosell and Izenberg produced the documentary, "Grambling College: 100 Yards to Glory;" Robinson became vice president of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics; and all three major television networks carried special programming on Grambling football.
A year later, Grambling played before 277,209 paying customers in 11 games, despite a home field that seated just 13,000.The National Football Foundation honored Robinson in 1992 with its Outstanding Contribution to Amateur Football Award. When he retired, the organization inducted him into the College Football Hall of Fame. Also in 1997, foundation board member and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner endowed one of the foundation's national scholar-athlete awards in Robinson's name with a $300,000 gift.
“Eddie Robinson was a great mentor to us all. He was a dynamic coach with a phenomenal record, but he was much more than that as a leader of young men, a great American and an example of character and integrity. “My greatest off-the-field honor was winning the first Eddie Robinson Coach of Distinction Award and having the opportunity to spend time with him personally at banquets and at my home.” Said Tennessee Coach Phillip Fullmer
Eddie Robinson is survived by his wife, Doris, son Eddie Robinson Jr., daughter Lillian Rose Robinson, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His body will lie in state in the rotunda of the state capital on Monday. The funeral will be at the new assembly center at Grambling on Wednesday. Burial will be at Memorial Cemetery in Grambling.