Sports Outside the Beltway

Eddie Robinson, Longtime Grambling Coach, Dies at 88

Robinson was a college football legend. RIP.

Eddie Robinson Dies at 88 Photo Eddie Robinson poses for a photograph in his home in Grambling, La., in this July 27, 2004 file photo. . (AP Photo/Dan Currier) Eddie Robinson, the longtime Grambling coach who transformed a small, black college into a football power that sent hundreds of players to the NFL, has died. He was 88.

The soft-spoken coach spent nearly 60 years at Grambling State University, where he set a standard for victories with 408 and nearly every season relished seeing his top players drafted by NFL teams.

Doug Williams, a Super Bowl MVP quarterback was one of them. Williams said Robinson died shortly before midnight Tuesday. Robinson had been admitted to Lincoln General Hospital earlier in the day. “For the Grambling family this is a very emotional time,” Williams said Wednesday. “But I’m thinking about Eddie Robinson the man, not in today-time, but in the day and what he meant to me and to so many people.”

Robinson’s career spanned 11 presidents, several wars and the civil rights movement. His overall record of excellence is what will be remembered: In 57 years, Robinson compiled a 408-165-15 record. 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. “The real record I have set for over 50 years is the fact that I have had one job and one wife,” Robinson said.

Robinson had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, which was diagnosed shortly after he was forced to retire following the 1997 season. His health had been declining for years and he had been in and out of a nursing home during the past 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. “The other kids wanted to be players, but I wanted to be like that coach,” Robinson said. “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 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.

James Joyner adds: The “winningest coach of all time” label is rather silly, since these coaches all played at different levels of the sport. Robinson and Gagliardi may have been just as good at coaching as Paul “Bear Bryant,” Bobby Bowden, and Joe Paterno but their records aren’t comparable.

Their impact on their players and the game, though, are. Certainly, Robinson’s legacy on that front stands shoulder-to-shoulder with any of his peers.

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