Saturday, December 30, 2006

Remembering: Eddie Rob's right-hand men

Robinson's former Grambling assistants reminisce
April 18, 2005

Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Those who worked with Eddie Robinson are in an exclusive fraternity. Robinson retired in 1997 after nearly 60 seasons as head coach at Grambling State, yet throughout that time his staffs had remarkable stability.

"We enjoyed a great opportunity, to get to know and get to work with one of the game's great minds," said Doug Porter, whose 42 coaching seasons included eight with Robinson beginning in the late 1960s. "I realize now how lucky I was."

These coaches, friends and co-workers, will be honored on Friday night during a banquet at 6 p.m. at the Washington-Johnson Complex. For details, call the Grambling State football office at 274-6539 or the athletics department at 274-2374.

"We're sending out an open invitation to all of the former coaches that worked with Coach Robinson," said Melvin Spears, GSU's eighth head coach. "We hope to see the Melvin Lees, the Doug Porters, the Billy Mannings, the Ed Stevenses - all the guys. We want to say how much we appreciate them laying this foundation for us."

Rare was the Robinson staff turnover, long were the tenures. There was an old-school mix of ex-players and family.

For instance, Lee, the former center on Grambling's undefeated 1955 team, then spent 40 years under Robinson as an offensive coach. He put his own indelible stamp on the Wing-T scheme that would contribute to a record-breaking 408 wins at Grambling.

"He was the offensive coordinator after Coach Porter left. He was dedicated," said former receiver and current assistant Sammy White, who played for both Porter and Lee. "Before I left here, we were throwing the ball probably 60 percent of the time out of the Wing T. That was all because of Coach Lee."

Manning played for Robinson, then had a long tenure coaching the offensive line for him. The late defensive coordinator Fred Collins was alongside Robinson for more than 20 seasons.

Eddie Robinson Jr., now the coach at Grambling Lab, grew up around GSU football - and eventually worked as an assistant with his father.

"You can probably talk about it more in retrospect," said Robinson Jr., who worked with Grambling's offensive backfield and receivers for 15 seasons. "At the time, there wasn't much time to think about that. When it all boils down, it was like any other situation when you work for a guy. He could be very demanding, and that caused you to be that way too."

A cyclic, almost seasonal rhythm is found in the history of this group. Connections are made, and never broken. In the 1960s, Robinson was invited to speak at the awards banquet for Cocoran High in California by assistant coach "Convincer" Calloway, who had played at Grambling. Robinson met Ed Stevens, the head coach, and Jim Gregory, a talented quarterback.

Gregory - later famously dubbed "Grambling's White Tiger" - eventually played for Robinson and Stevens would work on his staff for years.

In fact, Robinson's first assistant, Jessie Applewhite, was a former football player then working as the school's night watchman.

Ernest Sterling, another ex-GSU gridiron great, later became known for his "Trees of Terror" as defensive line coach. He put in more than two decades as an assistant - then became one of just two coaches who stayed on when Doug Williams succeeded Robinson.

Even Porter, who had a relatively short term, has remained associated with the program. When he retired after 42 seasons in coaching, Porter returned to Grambling to work as an adviser to Williams and now Spears.

He's also remained friends with the coach who took over offensive duties when Porter left GSU.

"Melvin Lee lives three doors down from me, so our families are very close," said Porter, who was on the legendary Tigers' staff that had every senior drafted by the NFL in 1969. "We like to tell stories about the great games, and those ties we always wore, and the players. We'll try to tell the best tale, or the tallest tale."

By Robinson's own estimation in his 1999 autobiography "Never Before, Never Again," nine of the coaches in 1997 had fathers who had played for Grambling.

"Most of the guys on the staff had played for him," said Robinson Jr., "so they knew him as well as I did. They were guys who were there when I was playing, and they were still there when I got on the staff in 1984. Coach Lee had coached me. There was a tradition to uphold."

That tradition was one of endurance, of loyalty. Robinson once said that his six early-1990s assistants had been coaching with him for an amazing 102 seasons combined.

They each contributed something to Robinson's storied stay.

"I think we need to make certain that we recognize that legacy," said Spears. "What we want to do is continue to expose the young guys to the things that have gone on here before, to the great history we have."

What they say ...
Two of Eddie Robinson's assistants reminisce about working for him:

Favorite win
--Eddie Robinson Jr. (1984-97): We had a lot of them. (Laughs.) I always remember the games where we were behind, especially against Alcorn, and then came back and won. Anytime you get a victory like that, you remember it. The Bayou Classic in 1992, for instance, we were behind for most of the game. Then we came back and won it at the end.
--Doug Porter (1966-74): I don't think I have a favorite. I remember fondly our first trip to Hawaii, and our first trip to New York. It seems like most of my best memories, ironically, were away from Grambling.

Compare and contrast
--Porter: It's more of a business today among the coaches. There's not as much camaraderie. I was blessed to meet and get to know some of the giants - John Merritt (who coached at Jackson State and Tennessee State), Jake Gaither (of Florida A&M) and, of course, Eddie Robinson. I don't compare the players, either. With the way Division I programs are recruiting, there aren't the sleeper players you used to find.

Final thoughts
--Robinson Jr.: It was quite an experience for me because I had grown up around Grambling football. We got to go to a lot of places that I never dreamed I would go. And I got to go there with him.

What he said ...
The now-ailing Eddie Robinson mentioned several assistants in his 1999 autobiography, called "Never Before, Never Again":

· On Melvin Lee: It would be impossible to describe how much Melvin Lee meant to me over all these years. It was his genius that helped make out Wing-T offense so effective for so long.

· On Eddie Jr.: We never pushed Eddie Jr. to be involved in athletics. We hoped he would be a doctor or a lawyer. We wanted him to do whatever he wanted to do and be the best at it. But all he ever wanted to do was play and then coach. ... I loved coaching with him, each and every day.
· On Ernest Sterling: Ernest coached with me for 24 years. He had played for me and then in the NFL. He was like a rock and my foundation guy.

· On Doug Porter: I told Doug Porter, who was then (in the early 1970s) my 42-year-old chief assistant, that he should stay at Grambling because he would probably succeed me in a few years. Decades later, he joked with me - because he was smart enough to take the head coaching job at Howard.

The legacy continues ...
Former Grambling State assistant Doug Porter is just one of several coaches to find success after working with Eddie Robinson.

Porter - who had previously served as head coach at Mississippi Valley from 1961-65, a tenure that included a conference title in 1963 - left GSU for a stint at Howard University from 1974-78. He finished his coaching career in 1997, but not before leading Division II's Fort Valley State to a 106-61-3 record over 16 seasons.

Several former assistants continue to coach, ensuring the Robinson legacy will continue. For instance, SMU's current defensive tackle coach Joe Sawyer oversaw GSU's D-line from 1991-93. Dennis Winston, an assistant in 1992-94 then again in 1995-97, coached at Toledo for four seasons before accepting a position with the CFL's Edmonton franchise this offseason.

Lee Fobbs, a former player and graduate assistant, has had a long career in coaching - most recently as a fifth-year assistant to Dennis Franchione, first at Alabama and now at Texas A&M. He was a finalist to follow Robinson as head coach at Grambling, and then in the search for a replacement for Doug Williams.

Tennessee Tech's linebackers coach Marty Steward was on Robinson's staff during his final season. Williams Jones III, a defensive assistant in 1994-95, has been at Kentucky State and now Pearl River (Miss.) Community College.

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