Sunday, August 20, 2006

Grambling greats: Eddie Robinson

GSU's Eddie Robinson was about more than football
August 28, 2004

Editor's note: This was part of a series profiling legendary coaches from around the area, and the effects they had on the athletic field and on their players' lives after the games ended.

By Nick Deriso
Doug Williams values his relationship with former Grambling State football coach Eddie Robinson because it was always about more than football.

"He wasn't a guy that everything that came out of his mouth was Xs and Os," said Williams, who was quarterback for Robinson in the 1970s then followed him as coach at Grambling State in 1998. "Everything that he did and related to was about life. He related football to life. It was about being able to survive in America."

Robinson passed legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant for career victories in 1984, finishing with 408 wins. Though his record has since fallen, Williams said the way it was earned will stand the test of time.

"Coach Rob's victories were tougher than anybody else's," said Williams. "The key wasn't so much Division I or Division II. His was the tougher job because of the times. There was no practice equipment. They were playing on sand. They couldn't even stay in town when they travelled."

But Robinson's easy-going approach to the challenge, and his straightforward nature, still resonate with Williams today.

"A leader is somebody that you have to believe in," said Williams - who, after an all-conference career at Grambling, made history as the first black Super Bowl quarterback and MVP in 1988.

"Coach Rob was a person who had your attention. I can remember sitting in a meeting and he could say things that would get you in the frame of mind to do whatever it took to get it done."

Robinson's abiding patriotism springs from a life's journey that began as a sharecropper's son, but ended in the company of presidents and hall of famers. He talks about that love for America in ways large and small, usually with a splash of self-deprecating humor.

"I will never forget that we had a guy named Michael Moore at tight end," Williams said. "They were playing the National Anthem and Michael stood up with his fist in the air. Coach went up to him and said: `Don't you ever clinch your fist like that - if you ain't got no money in it.' "

Williams chuckles at the memory, now almost two decades old. "That made a lot of sense. That's the American dream," Williams said. "Coach Rob waved the flag better than anybody. He wanted everyone to believe that if can be accomplished, it can be happen in America. He preached that, because it was his life."

Williams spent one of his career's most important moments - celebrating on the field after leading Washington to the NFL championship - with his former college coach.

"I won the Super Bowl and credit all of that to Grambling and Eddie Robinson," Williams said.

"That day, he told me: `You will not understand the impact of this until you get older.' You know, he's right? That's the old saying, that you grow up and you realize that your daddy was right all along. I find myself to this day saying that about things Coach Robinson first told me."

About Robinson
Robinson, who's entire 56-season career as a coach was spent at Grambling State, retired in 1997 as the winningest college football coach in history with 408 victories. The mark, which had stood since Robinson passed Paul "Bear" Bryant in 1984, finally fell last season. In the meantime, he sent more than 200 players into the pros - of which four have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Division I-AA recognizes its best coach each year with an award named after Robinson, a member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. He would lead Grambling State to 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles.

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Tribute to a giant
To some, he is known as a coach, a friend and a mentor. To others, Eddie Robinson is a GSU legend. On Tuesday, players, old and new, spent a moment with him that none will forget.

August 11, 2004

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING -- Hands raised, index fingers extended, the Grambling State football team began to sing the school's alma mater.

"Old Grambling, dear Grambling … we love thee, dear old Grambling …"

But beneath their brawny baritones, heard after every game, was this low, feathery voice. The legendary GSU football Coach Eddie Robinson, sitting on a couch against the wall in his living room, had joined in.

"I don't know how many times I've sung it," an emotional Robinson said afterward. A spontaneous splash of applause broke out.

Robinson's wife Doris turned to him and said: "Nobody loves that song more than you."

Interim Coach Melvin Spears brought the squad to Robinson's house Tuesday morning to take pictures and to pay tribute. But just before leaving, the team broke into its traditional school song - and never has emotion burned more brightly inside the team this off-season.

"I have had a lot of great things happen to me around football," said offensive coordinator Sammy White, a former GSU great who helped lead Minnesota to a Super Bowl. "That was one of mine. Right there. Today."

A solitary tear formed in Robinson's left eye, only to cling there until the team had gone. "It was heartfelt," said senior quarterback Bruce Eugene. "For him to sing it with us, knowing that he has a disease similar to Alzheimer's, that was special."

A moment of such ineffable beauty could not last. Though some people lingered, the team slowly filed out and headed back to the athletic facility for weight lifting and meetings.

No one spoke for several paces as the team walked to campus. When they did, it was in the hushed tones of awe.

"This was a great day. A great day," defensive coordinator Luther Palmer said quietly, as the group got to the corner of Adams and Church streets. "When he began singing that song, it brought a tear to my eye, too. We've just paid tribute to a giant."

'They will remember this'

Spears ruminated on the field trip, which for many players was their first time to meet the 85-year-old Robinson.

"They will remember this when they are old men," Spears said. "They will tell their children about this."

The team had lined up behind the athletic support facility on campus just after 9 a.m. Then, they began walking, up past the high golden water tank with "GSU" across its middle.

They were headed to Robinson's house on Adams Avenue, just over half a mile from the stadium that bears his name.

"You cannot say Grambling without Eddie Robinson," Spears said. "That is what it means to me and all of these guys out here. We just want to let him know that we are praying for him and we appreciate everything that he has done for us."

The team crossed R.W.E. Jones Boulevard and went down the first incline on Adams. No one complained. At the top of the next hill was a small brick home with a mailbox that said "E.G. Robinson."

Doris Robinson - Eddie's wife and only love, save for Grambling, for these many years - met them at the door, and invited each in.

White, a three-time all-conference player for Robinson in the 1970s, was one of the last to go up the stairs.

"I stood outside a long time," White said. "It was almost like preparing yourself, hoping to see something good. I didn't want to see him down. I just had to collect my thoughts, to get my emotions together."

Robinson lit up as his former wingback walked into the living room. "It was quite a sight," White said. "For them to sing that song, I know it had to lift his spirits."

'He wasn't always himself anymore'

Robinson gave 57 years of his life to Grambling. A career born before the civil rights movement would eventually see one of his former players lead a team to a Super Bowl title, while four others were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Robinson compiled a once-thought unassailable record of 408-165-15, winning 16 conference titles and nine national black college championships.

"Some of these players might not have known the impact he's had on this university and this community," White said. "It was good for them to get an idea. That's a man who will be in history books."

But not long after handing the reins of the GSU football program over to Doug Williams in 1997, Doris said she noticed that Robinson began to fray around the edges.

"He wasn't always himself anymore," she said.

Doris revealed that Eddie Robinson had Alzheimer's-like symptoms as Robinson's career wins record finally fell last season. She had become so protective of him that she didn't let the national press talk to her husband.

"He's always tired," Doris said, by way of explanation. "Sometimes too tired to come to the phone - or even to the table to eat."

But the truth was that shadows had begun to gather around Robinson's life. He forgets some things, but then can remember others in the greatest detail.

Some days are better than others are. This was one of the good days, a soaring inspiration to everyone who saw him on this morning.

"I'm all right," he said. "I'm doing just fine."

While he still gets around - he attended longtime GSU sports information director Collie J. Nicholson's birthday party two weeks ago in Shreveport - Robinson spends most days in his home.

That very silence might have made Robinson seem a bit unreal to players too young to remember him prowling the sidelines. They might have only seen him as a drawing on a sign across from the library on campus.

Not anymore. "All of them," Spears marveled, "were just sitting there, in silence and honor."

'He will always be with us'

More than a hundred athletes, a dozen trainers and the coaches had gathered in front of 234 Adams Ave. Somehow, they all got inside.

The Robinsons' house, like the Robinsons themselves, has always been like that: Very, very big on the inside.

There was a sense of homecoming, of happy reunion: "Coach, that's Andre Lewis' son right there," Spears told Robinson, who had a photo of himself with Paul "Bear" Bryant hanging over his right shoulder.

Quietly reverent, the players each paid tribute. Doris greeted and hugged everyone she could reach.

"What are you feeding these kids?" asked Robinson, who was wearing a blue housecoat and pajamas - and that familiar, wide smile. "We didn't have them this size."

They took pictures in groups. White joined longtime team manager Richard Paul and new linebackers coach Andre Robinson - two other former players under Robinson - for photographs. Head trainer Ricky McCall insisted that Doris be in his shot.

Then, there was the song - a ringing reminder of days past, and the way that past threads into a new generation.

"And when life's game is fought and won … the hills will ring with victory's song …"

As the words tumbled out, the players looked into Robinson's eyes - and they saw great things in themselves.

"He's not going anywhere. He will always be with us," Eugene said. "That smile hasn't gone anywhere, either. It felt so good, just being in that room. We know what we've got to do now. Continue that tradition."

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Eddie Rob's legacy secure, even as record falls
November 9, 2003

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Eddie Robinson's all-time record for wins in college football fell Saturday, as John Gagliardi's St. John University beat Bethel College.

The 29-26 win by this tiny Minnesota school - ranked No. 2 in Division III - pushed Gagliardi past Robinson's 408 career wins.

The former Grambling State University football coach had held the record since 1984. Robinson retired in 1997 after 57 years at GSU, but not before adding 81 more victories to Paul "Bear" Bryant's once-unassailable mark of 323 college football wins.

Robinson, in fading health because of symptoms similar to Alzheimer's disease, has not commented on the chase. "He would say that records are made to be broken," said wife Doris Robinson, the only other love in Eddie Robinson's life. "He's not doing so well. He will eat pretty good, but then he's ready to go right back to sleep."

Robinson - who attended a GSU home game on Sept. 20, but has not been to another - became the first collegiate coach to break the 400-win barrier on Oct. 7, 1995, beating Mississippi Valley State at Robinson Stadium.

For many, that has been the shorthand on Eddie Robinson. But not for those who knew him.

"It's not about the numbers," says Sammy White, a Richwood High alumnus who played for Robinson's Tigers from 1973-1976 - winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship twice. "It's about the people: He was my mentor on the field, but also off the field. Coach Robinson taught me more than when I was in high school - or even at home."

By the numbers

Robinson himself didn't talk much about the record. Typically understated, he once said: "I've never concerned myself with personal records. All the 324 wins means is that I have been around for a long time."

Gagliardi, 77, has, too: He's been at St. John's for 51 seasons, and has coached for 55. Gagliardi - pronounced Gah-LAR-dee - won the first of his three Division III titles at St. John in 1963. Ironically, the win was over one of Grambling State's traditional rivals now in the SWAC - Prairie View A&M University.

In 55 years of coaching, Gagliardi has gone 408-114-11 - similar numbers to Robinson, whose overall record was 408-165-15.

Like Robinson, in whose honor the Division I-AA coach's award is named, the Division III player of the year award is a tribute to Gagliardi.

Like Robinson, Gagliardi remains down-to-earth, the consummate old ball coach. Gagliardi didn't have any celebration plans made going into this historic weekend, realizing that sometimes fate makes you wait.

"I've seen too many times that people get it all figured out and are ready for this big celebration, and they have to put plans on hold," said Gagliardi.

Robinson reached win No. 317 against Prairie View early in 1983, then could only manage a tie in the next two games. He finished that season one back from Bear Bryant.

Robinson then notched win No. 395 with five games left in the 1994 season, but did not reach 400 until five games into the following year.

Touching countless lives

The son of a sharecropper, Robinson was hired in 1941 to coach football, baseball and basketball at the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, as GSU was then known. His 1942 squad, one of two to go undefeated, was unbeaten, untied - even unscored upon.

Robinson would touch the lives of countless people in the ensuing years. While many remember that he coached four players who would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Robinson often talked about how all of them got their educations, too. He is most proud, he said, that many of them became working professionals.

Talking about the 15th anniversary of GSU alum Doug Williams' 1988 Super Bowl victory with Washington - and what that meant to black football players - Robinson said: "The thing we are most proud of is that they graduated from college."

His former players say that, far more than winning, Eddie Robinson's ability to see a larger context for their lives - and for Grambling State - is what should be celebrated.

"If there was no Eddie Robinson, we would simply be a small school in north Louisiana - along the lines of a Mississippi Valley State," says Williams, who played for Grambling State from 1974-77 - and took over the coaching reins at GSU in 1998 after Robinson retired.

Robinson, along with long-time sports information director Collie J. Nicholson, are responsible for sparking national interest in black college football - starting with the still awe-inspiring September 1968 sell-out game at Yankee Stadium, the first of three at the House That Ruth Built.

A 1969 Grambling State game became the first black college contest to be broadcast on national television. GSU participated in a celebrated overseas trip to Japan in 1976 and 1977.

Keeping that legacy alive

The falling of Robinson's all-time wins record, his former players say, can't match those accomplishments. Still, it means fewer people will hear about Robinson as time passes.

"It's kind of like me winning the Super Bowl. For college kids today, that's not much of an impact," says Williams. "That's what happens. The only way to keep his memory alive to keep reminding people that he's The Legend."

Williams insisted that Robinson's picture adorn the cover of this year's Grambling State homecoming programs. But Robinson's spirit runs through the team.

The hallmark of his offensive scheme, the old Wing T formation, has become a staple of this 2003 version of the Grambling State Tigers.

"It's funny: At the end of Coach (Eddie) Robinson's career, people were saying that the Wing doesn't work anymore," said GSU offensive coordinator Melvin Spears, who has used the classic formation in every game since opening day. "It just shows you how history repeats itself. We're establishing a balance by going back to the old stuff."

Williams, while he wants to win games, can't help but admit that seeing the plays had him reminiscing. "When we got into the Wing T," Williams said, as emotion colored his words, "I'd be lying if I said I didn't look at it like a tribute. In fact, one of the formations - the Double Wing - we call it `Robinson.'"

With the record broken, Robinson's legacy now perhaps lies there - in the lives he still touches through the memories of those who knew him.

"Growing up," White said, smiling wistfully, "he often told me: `You don't just want to be a great football player. You want to be a great American.'"

Williams, Robinson's protégé and successor, has returned the school to its former dominance - winning three straight SWAC titles. But he still credits Eddie Robinson.

"It's impossible to say what Coach Rob means to this institution - and to me," Williams said. "We might win four championships, so my time at Grambling will be secure. But I also think that Eddie Robinson's time at Grambling is the reason why I am here. You can't lose sight of that."

A `Tiger in winter'

Gagliardi joins that short list of great American college coaches - while, Robinson, the Tiger in winter, hardly watches football anymore. "Some days," Doris Robinson said, "he doesn't want to be bothered with anything."

Born Feb. 13, 1919, in Jackson, La., Eddie Robinson has been married to Doris for 65 of the intervening years. He used to say: "I'm proud of the fact that I can summarize my life by saying I've had one wife and one job." Now Doris looks after Eddie Robinson in their Grambling home, while whistles blow and quarterbacks throw and records fall somewhere else.

"I'm the caretaker," Doris Robinson said. "It's all right, though. I thank God for the blessings that we do have."

Robinson's key victories
Robinson captured 17 SWAC championships in his career, along with these other important wins:
100th win …… 1957, Bethune-Cookman, 20-12
200th win …… 1971, Miss. Valley St., 25-12
324th win …… 1984, Prairie View A&M, 27-7
400th win …… 1995, Miss. Valley St., 42-6
Final win …….. 1997, Miss. Valley St., 20-13
Source: News-Star files

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Another visit with a legend
October 18, 2005

By Nick Deriso
This time, Eddie Robinson wanted to sing it again.

The Grambling State football team and coaches made a return trip up the hill last week to visit with the legendary former coach — and to join in a rendition of the alma mater.

But after most of them had left, Robinson insisted that second-year coach Melvin Spears and former players Sammy White, Charlie Lewis and Andre Robinson join him in a second, far more emotional, singing.

Eddie Rob participated with a throaty enthusiasm. On this day, he would change their minds about some long-discussed health problems.

"That was alright," Robinson enthused once, and then twice, refusing to leave the embrace of White, perhaps the best back ever to perform in Grambling's traditional Wing-T formation.

The team arrived as the Tiger Marching Band's nearby practice echoed down Maple Street to 234 Adams. The mailbox, as always, announces the residence of "EG Robinson."

There came then a quiet reverence, which freshman defensive lineman Alexander Knight said reminded him of "church on a Sunday evening."

Still, history has a way of bridging the gaps.

Sophomore receiver Clyde Edwards was wearing the Washington Redskins throwback jersey of Doug Williams, Eddie Rob's best-known quarterback and his successor as coach at GSU.

Robinson immediately asked for White. As he entered, White — now the Tigers' offensive coordinator — asked playfully: "You ready to get that counter going again?"

Moses Harris, the senior receiver, took it all in: "The last time (White) came, Coach lit up," Harris said. "He was so glad to see Sammy White. It was like that again."

Then, after the football team and most of coaches had left during an emotional visit last week, Robinson insisted that those remaining sing the alma mater once more. Several of those present were nearly moved to tears.

"I'm just glad we can come and see him," said Lewis, a 1979 Bayou Classic MVP who now works with the defensive linemen. "I know that it means a lot to him."

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Event for Robinson Museum stirs emotion for GSU coaches
November 10, 2005

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Grambling State coach Melvin Spears took time out from talking football at his weekly press conference to reminisce about the program’s legendary benefactor.

“Our whole setting here at Grambling started with Coach Eddie Robinson, a guy with great vision,” Spears said. “To have the opportunity to get a museum in his honor moving forward is a great honor.”

Spears has been a driving force in the rejuvenated effort to establish a museum in Grambling to honor Robinson, who retired after 57 seasons of coaching as college football’s winningest coach. A benefit banquet for the museum project will be held at 6 p.m. Friday night at the Black and Gold Room on campus.

Grambling plays Concordia College at 1 p.m. Saturday at Robinson Stadium on campus. Secretary of State Al Ater will speak at the banquet, which had to be be rescheduled from an original date in September in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“It’s hard to get the ball rolling and continue to keep it rolling,” former Robinson assistant Doug Porter said during GSU’s Tuesday night practice. “I hope we can keep it rolling, even as the state experiences hard times. This should still be a priority.”

The Louisiana Legislature approved the museum idea in 1999, but the project had been dormant for months when Spears and others began meeting again in January under the leadership of chairman John Belton.

Belton reformulated the board, with Porter as the only other returning original member, and the group began work on creating a temporary exhibit. That display opened during Grambling’s Juneteenth celebration in the stadium support facility on campus.

“When you think about all of the accomplishments and all the work and all the things that Coach Rob meant to this institution, it’s a long time coming,” said Spears. “I’m proud to be a part of it.”

A limited number of tickets are still available for the nearly sold out Friday event.

Remaining tickets are $100 each and are available by calling the GSU ticket office at (318) 274-4795. All proceeds from the event will benefit the Friends of the Eddie G. Robinson Museum.

Other speakers will include Grambling Mayor Martha Andrus and Ruston Mayor Dan Hollingsworth, along with longtime GSU baseball coach and athletic administrator Wilbert Ellis.

“After the delay we had in September, you didn’t lose faith, but you had to worry about everything standing in our way,” Porter said. “I’m excited about the event. It’s much deserved for Coach.”

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Eddie G. Robinson died on April 3, 2007, sparking weeks of tribute in northeastern Louisiana and across the country. The News-Star's award-winning coverage of his passing, including staff-written stories, fan memories, photo galleries, audio and video can be found here:

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Efforts to honor Grambling's Eddie Robinson continue to gain traction in year following his death
April 4, 2008

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Eddie Robinson's family spent the anniversary of his death in quiet reflection, even as efforts to build a museum in his honor continued at an ever-quickening pace.

Robinson, who coached at Grambling State University for 57 years, died from complications related to Alzheimer's on April 3, 2007. He was 88.

"I'm doing OK," Doris Robinson, the football legend's wife for 67 seasons, said Thursday. "Eddie Jr. and I are spending the day together. We've been so lucky to have each other."

Junior, who played for and then coached with his father at Grambling, became deeply involved with the museum project late in Robinson Sr.'s life. He's witnessed firsthand how the coach's passing helped push the initiative along.
"It has taken off," Robinson Jr. said. "That's so great for the family. It's an inspiration to all of us. We're all so very happy about that."

Help flowed in both from Grambling graduates and from faraway fans. Museum organizers, for instance, set up an informational table during the emotional day that saw Robinson's body lay in respose a year ago in the Capitol rotunda in Baton Rouge — only to run out of brochures in a flurry of activity.

Donations began showering down within days, from strangers and from familiar supporters alike. By June, two of Robinson's most famous former quarterbacks, Doug Williams and James "Shack" Harris, had given $10,000 to the project.

The Louisiana Legislature promised funding, then, later in the year, upped the pledge to $2 million for restoration of an on-campus gymnasium and grounds, as well as the museum's primary exhibit.

Donated memorabilia and other signature items then began flowing in from across the Grambling community.

"We are seeing so many people working on the same page, working as a team," said John Belton, the governor-appointed board chairman of the Robinson Museum commission. "Coach was all about that kind of effort, never about 'I.' This project has always been about uplifting that message, from Day 1."

That it took Robinson's passing to achieve this momentum is no small irony, in particular to longtime friends like Wilbert Ellis, who coached baseball at Grambling for more than 40 years.

"We wanted this to happen so badly in Coach's lifetime," said Ellis, now working as a fundraiser and spokesman for the proposed museum. "That didn't happen, but the time did finally come. Donations and offerings of help started happening right away after this death. There's no question, it was a rallying point. Eddie Robinson touched the lives of so many people."

A museum in Robinson's honor was first proposed nine years ago — two seasons after Robinson's retirement at Grambling and several before the onset of his final illness.

One of the points of contention for years was where the museum would be located, though that was resolved when GSU and its oversight board agreed to make room for exhibit space in the school's former women's gymnasium — where Robinson had once coached basketball early in his career, as well.

"What better thing can happen than for that museum to be housed on campus?" Ellis said.

A temporary exhibit of Robinson-related items opened in the lobby of the Grambling Stadium Support Facility in June 2005. But Hurricane Katrina's devastation sapped promised state dollars to build on that momentum.

Robinson's passing, organizers say, quickly refocused attention on the museum. The funds followed.

"We've been overwhelmed, and we continue to be," said Belton, his voice coloring with emotion. "I can only say that it's almost like he has his hands on the project from up in heaven. That's the best way I can put it."

A year later, Eddie Robinson's son said he finds solace on this somber anniversary within the ongoing efforts to honor Grambling's fallen coach.

They've kept his father's contributions in people's thoughts, he said, and helped ease the pain associated with losing a loved one — not to mention other subsequent health issues within his immediate family.

"You have special days in your life, even if they are sad ones, and this would have to be one of ours," Robinson Jr. said on Thursday. "In our own little way, we respect this date. We're not doing a whole lot. Just spending it quietly, together, and thinking of him."

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