- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

RUSTON, La. — Eddie Robinson, who sent more than 200 players to the NFL and won 408 games during a 57-year career, died just before midnight Tuesday in Ruston. He was 88.

His career spanned 11 presidents, several wars and the civil rights movement, and Robinson set the standard for victories, going 408-165-15.

He sent more than 200 players to the National Football League, including seven first-round draft choices and Doug Williams, who quarterbacked the Washington Redskins to its most spectacular Super Bowl victory, and who succeeded Robinson as Grambling’s head coach in 1998. Four members of his 1955 Grambling team eventually made All-Pro, and 13 seniors from his 1963 champions were drafted into the professional ranks. His pro stars included Willie Davis, James Harris, Ernie Ladd, Buck Buchanan, Sammy White, Cliff McNeil, Willie Brown, Roosevelt Taylor, Charlie Joiner and Willie Williams.

“The real record I have set for over 50 years,” Robinson said, “is the fact that I have had one job and one wife.” He said he tried to coach every player as if he wanted him to marry his daughter.

He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s, which was diagnosed shortly after he was forced to retire after the 1997 season, in which he won only three games. His health had been declining for years, and he lived in a nursing home for much of the past year.

Grambling first gained national attention in 1949 when Paul “Tank” Younger signed with the Los Angeles Rams and became the first player from an all-black college to make it to the National Football League. He got a $600 signing bonus. Scouts quickly learned how to find the little school 65 miles east of Shreveport near the Arkansas border.

When he began his career in 1941, Robinson had no paid assistants, no groundskeepers, no trainers and little equipment. He poured concrete into coffee cans to fashion makeshift training weights, lined the field and patched uniforms himself, drilled the cheerleaders, fixed lunchmeat sandwiches for road trips when his players could not eat in the white-only restaurants of the segregated South, and filed write-ups of the games to newspapers back home.

And, he never lost his confidence and optimism in America.

“The best way to enjoy life in America is to first be an American, and I don’t think you have to be white to do so,” Robinson said. “Blacks have had a hard time, but not many Americans haven’t.’

He tried to teach his players about opportunity.

“The framers of this Constitution, now they did some things. If you aren’t lazy, they fixed it for you. You’ve got to understand the system. It’s just like in football, if you don’t understand the system, you haven’t got a chance.”

Neither of Robinson’s parents graduated from high school — he was the son of a sharecropper and a house maid — and they encouraged him to stay in school and get a college degree. Robinson credited a player from the white high school with teaching him how to block and tackle, and he became a star quarterback at tiny Leland College, near Baton Rouge, under Reuben S. Turner, a Baptist preacher and part-time coach.

When Turner called on the Robinson home to recruit him, Robinson’s mother told him: “He says he’s a preacher, but the way he’s tapping his toes to the music, it looks like he’s not much of one.”

But the preacher was a successful coach, who introduced Robinson to the playbook and took him to his first coaching clinic in Chicago to listen to Fritz Crisler of Michigan and Lynn Waldorf of California lecture on teaching football.

After college, Robinson took a job at a feed mill in Baton Rouge, earning 25 cents an hour. He learned through a relative that there was an opening at Grambling. His first season, Robinson’s team went 3-5. In his second year, Grambling not only went unbeaten but also was not scored on, the last college team to compile that record. When Grambling suspended football during World War II, he coached at Grambling (La.) High School and won a state championship.

Once his two best running backs were pulled from a Grambling team by a father who said he needed them at home to pick the family’s cotton crop.

“So I got all the boys on the team,” he recalled, “and we packed up and went out there to pick the cotton, then went on to win the championship.”

Robinson said he was inspired to become a football coach when a high school team visited his elementary school.

“The other kids wanted to be players, but I wanted to be like that coach. I liked the way he talked to the team, the way he could make us laugh. I liked the way they all respected him.”

Robinson’s teams had only eight losing seasons and won 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles and nine national black college championships. His den is packed with trophies, representing virtually every award a coach can win. He was inducted into every hall of fame for which he was eligible, and he received honorary degrees from several prestigious universities, including Yale.

In 1968, because Grambling’s home stadium held only 13,000 fans, Robinson put his show on the road, playing in several of the nation’s biggest stadiums. Howard Cosell and Jerry Izenberg produced the documentary “Grambling College: 100 Yards to Glory,” and all three major television networks carried programs about Grambling football. A year later, Grambling played before 277,209 fans in 11 games.

His final three years on the sidelines brought consecutive losing seasons for the first time, an NCAA investigation of recruiting violations and four players charged with rape. Declining health forced him to retire after the 1997 season, and the perennial powerhouse fell on hard times. Pressure from alumni mounted for him to step aside, but even the governor campaigned to give him one last season so he could try to go out a winner. But in 1997, the season ended with only three victories for the second straight year.

He kept an autographed portrait of Paul “Bear” Bryant, the Alabama coach, in the conference room where the coaches worked out game plans. His record finally eclipsed his old friend’s 323-85-17 mark.

“If the Bear were alive, I’d still be chasing him,” Robinson said as he entered his last season. “I’m no better than any other coach. But I’ve heard the best coaches in America and learned from them for close to 60 years.”

The year that Robinson started coaching at Grambling he married his high-school sweetheart, Doris, whom he courted for eight years. He is survived by his wife of 66 years; a son, Eddie Robinson Jr., a daughter, Lillian Rose Robinson, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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