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, 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.
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 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.
"He always focused on coaching his players to be better men as well as better football players," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said.
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."
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, Minn., topped the victory mark four years ago, Robinson was the winningest coach in all of college football.
In 1995, Robinson oversaw a rare losing 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.
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.
Robinson began his storied career at Grambling 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.
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.
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.
comments powered by Disqus