Legendary coach passes away

Published 6:50 pm Thursday, April 5, 2007

By By MARY FOSTER, AP Sports Writer
RUSTON, La. — Eddie Robinson, who sent more than 200 players to the NFL and won 408 games during a 57-year career, has died. He was 88.
Super Bowl MVP quarterback Doug Williams, one of Robinson’s former players, said the former Grambling State University coach died shortly before midnight on Tuesday. Robinson had been admitted to Lincoln General Hospital on Tuesday afternoon.
Robinson’s career spanned 11 presidents, several wars and the civil-rights movement.
His older records were what people remembered: in 57 years, Robinson set the standard for victories, going 408-165-15. John Gagliardi of St. John’s, Minn., passed Robinson and has 443 wins.
He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s, which was diagnosed shortly after he was forced to retire following the 1997 season, in which he won only three games. His health had been declining for years and he had been in and out of a nursing home during the last year.
Robinson said he tried to coach each player as if he wanted him to marry his daughter.
He began coaching at Grambling State in 1941, when it was still the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, and single-handedly brought the school from obscurity to international popularity.
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 enter the NFL. Suddenly, professional 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 head coach in 1998. Others went to the Canadian Football League and the now-defunct USFL.
Robinson’s pro stars included Willie Davis, James Harris, Ernie Ladd, Buck Buchanan, Sammy White, Cliff McNeil, Willie Brown, Roosevelt Taylor, Charlie Joiner and Willie Williams.
Robinson said he was inspired to become a football coach when a high school team visited the elementary school he attended.
Robinson was forced to retire after the 1997 season, after the once perennial powerhouse fell on tough times. 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.
As pressure mounted for him to step aside, even the governor campaigned to give him one last season so he could try to go out a winner.
But 1997 produced only three wins for the second straight year.
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 such prestigious universities as Yale.
In 1968, because of a tiny home stadium on a hard-to-reach campus, Robinson put Grambling’s football show on the road, playing in all the nation’s biggest stadiums.
That same year, Howard Cosell and Jerry Izenberg produced the documentary, ‘‘Grambling College: 100 Yards to Glory,’’ Robinson became vice president of the NAIA and all three major television networks carried special programming on Grambling football.
A year later, Grambling played before 277,209 paying customers in 11 games, despite the home field that seated just 13,000.
Robinson had an autographed portrait of Paul ‘‘Bear’’ Bryant, the late Alabama coach, hanging in the conference room where the coaches worked out game plans. Robinson’s record eclipsed his old friend’s 323-85-17.
When he began his career, Robinson had no paid assistants, no groundskeepers, no trainers and little in the way of equipment. He had to line the field himself and fix lunchmeat sandwiches for road trips because the players could not eat in the ‘‘white only’’ restaurants of the South.
He was not bitter, however. ‘‘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.’’
Robinson said he tried to teach his players about opportunity.
Neither of Robinson’s parents graduated from high school — he was the son of a cotton sharecropper and a domestic worker — and they encouraged him to stay in school and get a college degree. Robinson was a star quarterback at Leland College under Reuben S. Turner, a Baptist preacher who introduced Robinson to the playbook and took him to his first coaching clinic.
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. His second year Grambling was 9-0, not only unbeaten, but not scored on.
In 1943 and 1944 there was no football at Grambling because of the war. Robinson coached at Grambling High School those years and won a high school championship.
The same year Robinson started coaching at Grambling, he married his high school sweetheart, Doris, whom he courted for eight years.
Robinson is survived by his wife, son Eddie Robinson Jr., daughter Lillian Rose Robinson, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.