Thursday, September 25, 2008

Continuing coverage of the Robinson Museum efforts

Time (finally) to mark calendars on long-delayed Robinson Museum project
August 18, 2008

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Key dates for the long-delayed Eddie Robinson Museum are being talked about in terms of months, instead of years.

For a project now nearly a decade in the making, that's a remarkable achievement in itself.

"We're hoping to have a groundbreaking some time in the fall, and we'll get the ball rolling," said Louisiana Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, whose office would oversee the project. "We're making great progress."

At Grambling State from 1941-97, Robinson retired as the winningest football coach in college history with 408 wins — leading the Tigers to 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles over the years. He passed away in April 2007 at age 88, as the state moved to approve a plan to house a museum in his honor in the former women's gym on the Grambling campus.

Over the intervening year, the museum began to build a belated head of steam.

Organizers are now hailing the opening of bids on the long-delayed project, which are being accepted through Sept. 11 through the state's Office of Facility Planning and Control. A pre-bid conference is slated for Thursday at the former women's gym on the GSU campus.

"The time frame from there goes like this: six weeks to award the bid to the contractor and then a start date is set — and then construction begins," Robinson Museum board chairman John Belton said. "I think the end of October looks good for that date."

Belton, a governor-appointed board member since the project's inception, adds: "God is good."

The bidding follows quick approval by the Louisiana Bond Commission of $1.3 million — $300,000 in cash and a $1 million line of credit — to be used for renovating exhibit space in the women's gym and hiring an exhibit designer.

Those were the first state funds ever specifically earmarked for the effort.

"We are on our way," local museum fundraiser and Robinson family friend Wilbert Ellis enthused. "I'm tickled to death."

This project was first proposed nearly a decade ago in 1999 — two years after Robinson's retirement at Grambling and several before the onset of the Alzheimer's-related symptoms that ultimately led to his death.

But a series of setbacks followed, including budget cuts and a since-resolved argument over where the museum would be located.

"You know it's often very difficult to get in line for capital outlay projects," Dardenne admitted.

Robinson's passing spurred renewed interest in the concept.

"It has taken off," said Eddie Robinson Jr., the coach's only son and a former player and assistant under his father.

"That's so great for the family. It's an inspiration to all of us. We're all so very happy about that."

The Secretary of State's office has also been consistent in its support for a proposed Robinson Museum.

"I had just been elected right before he died and had already been committed to try and move that project along," Dardenne said, "because I was very interested in it, personally. And I think the combination of those two events helped kick start it to get to the point where we're now going to have it as a reality in the next year or so."

Word came last week that a groundbreaking ceremony has been scheduled for 2 p.m. Sept. 20 at the proposed museum site. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Dardenne and other state and local officials are scheduled to attend, said Ray Higgins, museum curator.

Higgins recently reviewed the state's extensive collection of Robinson-related material, including a priceless briefcase containing materials from the coach's final season at Grambling.

That's part of a months-long project he's undertaking to collect and catalogue items for inclusion in the exhibit space — yet another tangible sign the museum, though it's taken a while to get here, is no longer a faraway point on the horizon.

"We've had Coach with us that whole time," Ellis said. "I think he's working right along with us on this. I feel Coach's hand in all of it."

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Organizers praised for ushering long-delayed Robinson Museum forward
August 29, 2008

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Members of the Eddie Robinson Museum Commission are hailing the opening of bids on their long-delayed project.

They met on Thursday for the first time in a location dedicated to the museum, the former women's gymnasium on the Grambling State University campus where Robinson coached for nearly 60 years.

"A long time coming," marveled John Belton, a governor-appointment board member since the project's 1999 inception. "We're almost there."

After the commission met, prospective contractors then toured the facility, used more recently as university office space and for practice by GSU cheer groups, as part of a pre-bid question-and-answer session.

Bids will be taken beginning Sept. 11 to underwrite a retrofit of the gym and a sweeping plan — on display during the meeting — to showcase Robinson through memorabilia and interactive exhibits.

"You should all be very proud of your tenacity," said Cliff Deal, coordinator of museums with the Louisiana Secretary of State's office, which will oversee the project. "Your energy got it where it is today. Your desire and your hope got us here — no other reason."

A museum in Robinson's honor was first approved by the Louisiana Legislature nine years ago, just after Robinson's retirement from a career that ended with a Division I record of 408 career football victories. But a series of disagreements over where the exhibits would be housed slowed the project to a near standstill until more recently.

Robinson died in April 2007 from complications related to Alzheimer's at age 88, and that too gave an emotional charge to the efforts. The museum received its first state funding earlier in the year, and has now begun setting projected dates for groundbreaking and opening ceremonies.

"It's a terrific feeling," said Eddie Robinson Jr., who played for and coached with his father. "The hay is almost in the barn."

Deal was joined by Sailor Jackson of the Louisiana State Archives, who helped set an agenda for the coming months. The museum, for instance, still has to work out a loan agreement for memorabilia with the Robinson family.

"This is not the end; it's just the beginning," Jackson said. "Next, we'll open bids, then we're on a fast track. We're talking mid-October when hammers start swinging."

Exhibit designer Jules Babineaux outlined his plans for the space, which include a special exhibit for former players called "Tigers in the Pros," an interactive database, a large bronze statue of Robinson and a re-creation of his office.

"We're trying to make it like the man was, bigger than life," said Babineaux, of Exhibits Etc.

Organizers hope to hold a groundbreaking on the weekend of Grambling's first home football game this season, and open the doors on the weekend it returns to play at Robinson Stadium in 2009.

The museum would include free admission, Deal said. "Our interest is in celebrating the memory of Coach," he said, "and to let everyone who can enjoy it."

Former Grambling coach and athletic administrator Wilbert Ellis, a family friend and principal local fundraiser for the museum effort, praised a number of major donors — including the Dallas alumni chapter and the Shack Harris-Doug Williams Foundation.

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Eddie Rob Museum groundbreaking gets emotional
September 21, 2008

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — A groundbreaking ceremony for the proposed Eddie Robinson Museum, nearly a decade in the making, moved many to tears.

"Coach used to say: 'Nobody can outwork me, if God gives me the strength,'" said former Grambling State University baseball coach and athletic administrator Wilbert Ellis. "And God gave him the strength. He gave us that strength, too."

Ellis was one of a handful of locals who worked tirelessly toward this goal of honoring Robinson, who died in 2007 at age 88 after setting a still-standing Division I mark for college football victories.

They gathered Saturday to unveil plans for the exhibit space, to be housed at the former women's basketball gymnasium on the Grambling State campus where Robinson coached for most of six decades.

But a largely ceremonial moment took on a deeper emotion after so many years of struggle.

"It's a great day, an unbelievable day," Eddie Robinson Jr. said, smiling even as he cried. "We are so blessed as a family."

Recent dental work limited comments from Doris Robinson, the former GSU coach's widow. But she was in great spirits, presenting the state's renovation plans and then — after donning a hardhat affixed with the familiar Grambling "G" logo — turning over the initial mounds of dirt with a golden shovel.

As many as a half a dozen people were dabbing tears by then.

Robinson's legend, established over a career that spanned 1941-97, still holds that kind of startling power. Grambling President Horace Judson on Saturday called his school "the house that Eddie Robinson built," to widespread applause.

But plans to honor him with a museum, first mentioned in 1999, hit a series of roadblocks involving funding, arguments over location, then shifting commission dynamics.

That changed over the last few years as a rejuvenated board — helmed by John Belton, a governor-appointed member, with help from former Robinson assistant coach Doug Porter — began to pick up key support from Louisiana officials.

Robinson's passing, after years of battling complications related to Alzheimer's, gave the efforts a final push.

In a matter of months, the University of Louisiana System, which oversees Grambling, worked out a deal to house the exhibits on campus. The Louisiana Legislature then funded the museum for the first time since its inception.

Throughout the long journey, the Secretary of State's Office — through the administrations of Fox McKeithen, Al Ater and now Jay Dardenne — has remained a strong advocate.

"I appreciate the work that has gone on for the past 10 years," Dardenne said. "Their sweat and tears made this possible."

Choudrant businessman James Davison, a longtime family friend of the Robinsons, was one of several in attendance wearing specially made shirts inscribed with the motto: "Coach Rob — we kept the faith."

Like many, he paused several times during his remarks to compose himself.

"This is a collective achievement, a historic occasion," Belton said. "Many asked: Will it ever happen? The answer is yes, and praise God for it."

He specifically mentioned others besides Robinson who had not lived to see this belated ceremony, including original board chair Lottie Green; former Grambling professor David Lewis; and McKeithen, an early advocate.

A surprise guest was former state Sen. Randy Ewing — who in 1999 introduced Senate Bill No. 919, which created the Robinson Museum commission.

"We come here to honor Coach Robinson, but also his wife," Ewing said, gesturing to Robinson's partner of 64 years. "That was a winning team, too."

Familiar faces from Grambling lore dotted the audience, including NBA Hall of Famer Willis Reed.

"I am proud to have gone to a university where such a great man coached," Reed said.

Respected school architects were represented by Mary Hobdy, widow of Reed's former basketball coach Fred Hobdy and secretary to the school's second president, R.W.E. Jones; along with Ophelia Nicholson, widow of the school's renowned former sports information director, Collie J. Nicholson.

Several ex-players were in attendance, including Albert Dennis III and Eddie Scott, who has formed an alumni group called Eddie Robinson's Boys.

Grambling Mayor Martha Andrus ruminated on the emotional reunion of so many faces from the area's storied past.

"History is born again today, as we break ground for this museum," she said. "We are humble, fortunate and oh-so-very proud to see this come to fruition."

State Sen. Bob Kostelka (R-Monroe) and state Rep. Rick Gallot (D-Ruston) both spoke as part of the official program, as well.

"How sweet it is," Gallot said, "that this day has finally come."

Other officials on hand included Ruston mayor Dan Hollingsworth, University of Louisiana System president Randy Moffett, District Attorney Bob Levy and Ruston-Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau president Kyle Edmiston.

The Rev. Julius R. Sumler, pastor at Grambling's New Rocky Valley Baptist — Robinson was a member there — gave the invocation: "We thank you, Lord, for a dream that you wouldn't allow to die."

Grambling's Tiger Marching Band performed, both before and after the ceremony — playing Bill Wither's classic soul favorite "Lovely Day" as the program got under way and then the school's alma mater and fight song to conclude the event.

"I'm pleased to be a part of history," Ellis said, as more tears welled up again. "This is a day I will always remember. I can see Coach now — and he's smiling."

Friday, September 12, 2008

Remembering: Grambling's first game at Northwestern State

Historic first meeting between Grambling, Northwestern was defensive slugfest
September 11, 2008

By Nick Deriso
The stands, that night, were separated by color.

Fans sporting black and gold filled one set of bleachers, while purple and white populated the other.

But there was something else that divided them, as Grambling played its first-ever game against Northwestern State on Sept. 14, 1974.

"What was unique was not just the color of the shirts; you had all white people on one side and all black on the other," said Jack Brittain, an NSU special teams player in '74. "That was not something I was used to seeing. It was a different point of view."

The newly expanded State Fair Stadium — now Shreveport's Independence Stadium — was packed to the lid, as 30,000 fans joined together despite their differences for a night of stirring football action.

"We knew it was big, especially playing a school of different race from Louisiana," said Sammy White, then a junior wingback for the historically black Grambling college. "We knew the level of competition would be a step up for our program, and we wanted to give it everything we had to pull it out."

At the time, the late legendary GSU sports information director Collie J. Nicholson said this "could become a regular series for the two clubs."

But the Tigers wouldn't play another Southland Conference-affiliated program until falling to Arkansas State in the 1985 lower-division playoffs. Grambling, despite more recent efforts going back at least five seasons, hasn't played Northwestern since.

That changes Saturday at GSU travels to Natchitoches for a long-awaited Louisiana rivalry game that's stirred powerful memories of their first meeting more than 30 years back.

"It was actually a barrier breaker, as far as those things go," said Brittain, now Northwestern's sideline reporter. "As a freshman, it was my first football game, so my knees were shaking before we went out for the kickoff. Then, we were facing Grambling, who had such a great reputation for sending players to the professional leagues. We figured it was going to be an epic battle."

Was it ever.


Senior Grambling quarterback Joe Comeaux, a Westlake native, opened the scoring with a four-yard TD scramble. He'd hit Dwight Scales on a 43-yard pass to the NSU 7 on the second play from scrimmage.

Rodney Zeno, a senior GSU defensive back, added the extra point, but the 7-0 lead wouldn't stand for long.

A White fumble on the Grambling 13 gave the ball back to Northwestern's Butch Ballard, who answered with his lone touchdown pass of the night — hitting Gene Knecht on an eight-yard strike.

That followed a series of stuffs on off-tackle runs by Mario Cage, who couldn't get past Grambling seniors Gary "Big Hands" Johnson and Robert Barber.

In a harbinger of kicking problems to come, NSU's extra-point attempt then failed.

NSU's Cage — coming off a 1,000-yard, all-Gulf South season in 1973 — then made a dramatic second-quarter touchdown run on a pitch back from Ballard. (There are lingering discrepancies on the exact length of his run: Monroe's Morning World had it at 57 yards, The Times of Shreveport reported 61 and NSU's yearbook said 52.) Danny Foret's point-after attempt was true this time, giving Northwestern a 13-7 lead at the half.

Neither team, however, could gather itself for a knock out on offense. It was all body blows.

"That game," said White, "was tight, tight, tight."

Nicholson once marveled over NSU's 1974 defense, saying "they make up for a lack of size with speed, aggressiveness and a desire to hit."

Grambling's unit, meanwhile, featured James "Hound" Hunter as a secondary anchor along with the All-American Johnson, who late Grambling coaching legend Eddie Robinson had taken to calling "the best lineman in college football."

Both teams would punt seven times over the course of the contest, with Grambling earning just four first downs and outgaining NSU by a total of only 74 yards. Northwestern fumbled seven times, losing three — while picking off GSU a total of four stunning times.

"I was deep protection on the punts," Brittain said, laughing, "and we punted a lot. I just remember 'Big Hands' running past our center, right behind the snap as it was coming back. He would come in low, about one foot off the ground. All I could do is dive at his shoelaces. He would just shove me to the ground and trample right over me."

Grambling returned to the field after halftime with a new quarterback, and Shreveport sophomore Terry Brown reeled off a dramatic 82-yard pass to White.

"They were blitzing us a lot, so we had a one-on-one match up," said White, now an assistant coach at Grambling. "Terry threw a nice long ball on that one."

Zeno's kick gave the Tigers their final margin of victory, 14-13.

But not before a memorable NSU field goal attempt, blocked by Hunter, as time expired.

Hunter's playmaking through that junior season had already drawn raves from Robinson, who called the Texan "Mr. Clutch." A canny pass defender and zippy returner, Hunter was "generally spoken of with a reverence reserved exclusively for legendary Saturday heroes," the late Nicholson once said.

That legend was built on plays like the final one against Northwestern State.

NSU got the ball back after an interception by linebacker Dan Boddie, who dashed back to the Grambling 34 with 4:03 left in the game. Ballard then drove down to the GSU 3 as time grew short, setting up a 20-yard attempt by Foret. Demons coach George Doherty, in a gutsy move, had ordered the try on third down with just 39 seconds remaining.

Hunter got a finger on it, as perhaps did Johnson, and the attempt missed.


Cage, who went down to injury during that final push, rushed for 97 yards — though much of that was given back in the final team stats because of lost yardage by other players.

Ballard finished the day 11-of-16 for just 88 yards and a score for NSU. Comeaux and Brown, meanwhile, combined for a 7-of-21 performance — a lack of efficiency under center that eventually led to the now-famous insertion of a redshirt freshman named Doug Williams three games later against Prairie View A&M.

"We had our opportunities," Williams said. "We scored 14 points, but we were still largely ineffective. It wasn't one of those good old Grambling offensive days. You could give some of that to Northwestern, too. They had a good team."

Doherty, entering his last season in Natchitoches after winning the Gulf South in 1972, had brought A.L. Williams in as offensive coordinator — and installed his new assistant's more pass-oriented offense in anticipation of handing over the reigns.

NSU, which had already dropped its second straight game in 1974, was in the midst of consecutive 1-10 campaigns. Williams would coach at Northwestern for eight seasons, boasting ranked teams in 1980 and '82 when his teams finished 8-3 and 7-4 respectively.

Williams went on to pass for 1,150 yards (nearly 400 more yards than Comeaux and Brown combined) over the remainder of the 1974 season. Grambling finished 11-1, claiming the ninth of 17 total Southwestern Athletic Conference championships under Robinson. (Williams later returned to coach at his alma mater, and played host to the first Southland foe ever at Grambling's Robinson Stadium — McNeese State in 2003.)

Grambling's lone '74 stumble was a 19-14 loss to Alcorn, and they shared the SWAC crown. Robinson would finish the season at 236 career wins on the way to 408 total, a still-standing Division I record.

The Northwestern victory, thrilling in its playing and encouraging in its social significance, holds a special place among them.

"The perspective of this game is way beyond the football field," Brittain said. "In our lives, both at Grambling and at Northwestern, it had a big effect. What a great time to try something like that, to break through some of those unknowns."