Saturday, June 21, 2008

The time that Gruden came to Grambling

Gruden in Grambling: Super Bowl-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach tours GSU campus
June 2, 2008

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — It gave Jon Gruden pause.

The Super Bowl-winning coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stood for a long moment, looking around the practice fields adjacent to Robinson Stadium, taking it all in.

"Did (the late GSU) Coach (Eddie) Robinson coach right here?" Gruden said, quietly. "This is sacred ground."

In northern Louisiana for today's third annual Doug Williams-Shack Harris benefit celebrity golf tournament, Gruden had asked the former Grambling State quarterbacking greats to give him a tour of their former school.

That included a raucous trip to the campus bookstore — where, once word of his visit began to spread by cellular phone and text messaging, Gruden quickly attracted dozens of picture-and autograph-seeking locals.

He even removed one of his now-familiar visors, and replaced it with a new Grambling hat — which Gruden wore during the rest of the visit.

"Unbelievable players, unbelievable tradition," Gruden said. "I've been wanting to come here my whole life, really."

Williams, who, along with Harris, represents an important cornerstone in that legacy, works with Gruden as an executive in charge of personnel for the Buccaneers — the NFL franchise that selected him as a first-rounder out of Grambling in 1978.

Gruden was a ballboy for the club back then.

"For me, it's almost unexplainable," a beaming Williams said. "This is something Gruden really wanted to do. It says a lot that he would take time out. He could have come in and just played in the golf tournament, but he wanted to make sure he got a chance to come to Grambling. He thinks that much of this place."

Gruden looked every bit the GSU fan after filling a bag full of Grambling-themed items at the bookstore, quickly totaling more than $150 in sales. He bought a T-shirt with Robinson's likeness, a golf shirt with the Grambling logo, and several hats — which he then had signed by Eddie Robinson Jr., son of the late coaching legend.

"The number of Hall of Famers who came out of here," Gruden said to Robinson Jr. "I admired your dad so much. I've got so much respect for everything that happened here."

Gruden also asked about the planned museum in Robinson's honor, which will be housed in the former women's gymnasium on the Grambling campus.

"It's a milestone," Robinson Jr. said, moments before the assembled group began snapping pictures of him with Gruden. "Imagine that: He's on Grambling soil. What a great thing."

Gruden, personable and gracious throughout the nearly hour-long visit, would eventually take scores of photographs with the growing crowd.

GSU students Chea Hudgins and Kara Burke took one set of shots, found that some didn't come out just right, then returned for another round of photos. Gruden happily obliged, then signed several autographs, as well.

Later, a tour through the campus included stops at Robinson Stadium and the former site of Memorial Stadium — where Williams and Harris, a Monroe native, starred as quarterbacks for Robinson in 1960s and '70s.

"It's exciting," Gruden said. "You're looking at the stadium where all the magic happened."

They also paused for a moment Robinson's modest brick home on Adams Street in Grambling.

Gruden said he wanted to make this pilgrimage last year, when he served as de facto emcee during the Shreveport-based golf tournament reception, but couldn't fit the trip into his schedule.

He came a day early this time, piling into a van with Harris, Williams and several others — including former Tampa Bay tight end Jimmy Giles — and traveling to Lincoln Parish from Shreveport on Sunday afternoon. They played a round of golf at nearby Squire Creek before heading to Grambling.

"He made sure he had a chance to do it this year," Williams said. "I think that speaks volumes about the kind of guy he is — and the respect that he has for Grambling and its players. He absolutely loves all of this."