TheDerisoReport presents an excerpt, courtesy of ComServ Books, from “EDDIE ROBINSON … he was the Martin Luther King of Football,” a forthcoming biography on the legendary former Grambling football coach written by Denny Dressman and scheduled for availability in January.
The title of the book, which examines Robinson’s life and career in the context of the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement, is based on a comment by retired Jackson State head coach W.C. Gorden after Robinson’s death in 2007: “To me, he was the Martin Luther King of football.” Included are dozens of interviews with past players, coaches and others who knew Coach Rob well.
The book is also set for online availability in early December at http://www.comservbooks.com, and via preorder from local bookstores.
This chapter covers the struggles that led to his 1997 exit from the program, which Robinson had overseen for six decades:
THE OTHER SIDE OF EDDIE’S RETIREMENT
Ray Hicks was a Grambling student in the late-1960s when he saw Eddie Robinson in person for the first time. “I remember going to the first football game at home, and actually seeing him coaching,” he said. “Everybody said, ‘Here’s our icon coach.’ I always saw him as an iconic figure.”
Twenty-five years later, in 1993, Dr. Raymond Hicks was appointed interim president of the university. Events that followed made headlines across the nation, and Ray Hicks was portrayed – by those who didn’t really know what he was facing – as the ungrateful villain in Eddie Robinson’s reluctant retirement after 57 years at the same school.
“There was an issue swirling almost as soon as I got there,” he said, “about whether or not it was time for Coach Robinson to step down. That argument was being pushed by the national alumni association and a couple of former athletes who, I think, wanted Doug Williams to be the coach and wanted him to get the job as soon as they could make it happen.
“The national alumni people approached me. Even some of the athletes started calling me. They wanted Coach Robinson terminated before the start of the ’94 season.
“I just told them I was not going to engage in any of that kind of conversation,” Hicks said. “I told them, ‘I’m sorry. I’ve got other things I’m working on. Athletics are straight for this year. I’ll look at it after the season. We can visit then.’
“But then they started really playing a heavy political game,” he continued. “The president of the University of Louisiana System, the person I reported to, called and told me there was a lot of pressure there. Maybe I should replace Coach Robinson before the start of football season.
“I told him that if I was directed to do such a thing, I would resign immediately. In fact, I made a statement to him, ‘I can resign today.’ I hadn’t been in the presidency two months.”
It was not an idle bluff, he assures. “As a Grambling graduate,” he said, “I would never, never terminate Coach Robinson. I think they were afraid I would quit before I even got my presidency started, and announce to the public why. So they encouraged me to stay on. But all that year, it was always these people getting together politically to remove Coach Robinson.”
Eddie’s 1994 team did nothing to support the argument that he should be replaced. Grambling tied for the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship, the 17th time Eddie won or shared the title. The final record was 9-3 – his forty-fifth winning season – leaving him just three victories short of the unimaginable total of 400 for his illustrious career.
“They were kind of disappointed that he succeeded,” Dr. Hicks said of those who were pushing for a coaching change. “But the pressure never stopped.”
After six months as temporary president, Dr. Hicks was asked to apply for the vacant regular position. The “interim” tag was removed after the 1994-95 school year ended.
“The same thing started again the next summer, 1995,” he said. “I needed to get rid of Coach Robinson before the start of the season. I said, ‘Well, I’m ready to resign.’ So we got through that. But the pressure just kept coming.”
Coaching victory number 400 came on Oct. 7, 1995, on national television, a 42-7 rout of winless Mississippi Valley State. After the game the world-famous Grambling marching band filled the field in a special “400” formation. There were fireworks, and telephone calls from President Bill Clinton and Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards.
Some of Eddie’s oldest and closest friends called after victory No. 400, too, but not merely to congratulate him.
“I tried to get him to retire then,” said former player and long-time recruiter Adolph Byrd, “me and Collie J (Grambling’s former long-time public relations mastermind Collie J. Nicholson).
“I called him and said, ‘Coach, are you going to retire now?’ He said, ‘No, Byrd. I’m going to coach a few more years.’ He didn’t really give a reason. He would tell you over and over and over: ‘One wife, one school, one job.’ He just couldn’t give it up.”
In the spring of 1996, Dr. Hicks began to realize the inevitability of his football coach’s demise. “The final time, when it really, really got hot was when the governor’s office got involved,” he said. “That’s when I started having conversations with Coach Robinson.”
The drama would play out over two tumultuous seasons. Dr. Raymond Hicks would be blindsided by a leaked report that he wanted to fire Eddie Robinson. He would be badgered by political forces within Louisiana, and vilified by print and broadcast media.
Ray Hicks was doing everything he could to ensure a graceful exit for a man he admired. “I said, ‘Coach, if I were you, I would ask for another year. That way you can go out on your terms. You can have a last year and you can be celebrated.’ I told him if he would make that decision, that’s what I would support. And if I couldn’t get support for it, I would step down.”
In the end, it was reported that the Grambling president had agreed to allow Eddie Robinson one last season only after the governor intervened. Before that last season was completed, Dr. Ray Hicks was replaced as university president.
“My days were numbered,” he says. “The handwriting was on the wall. When it got rough, I resigned.” To those who will listen, he wants one thing made clear: “I did not ask Coach Robinson to step down. I stand by that.”