Eddie Robinson biography excerpt: Coach Rob, the Icon

TheDerisoReport presents another 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.

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.” It’s set for online availability this month at http://www.comservbooks.com, and is expected to be available via preorder from local bookstores in January.

Doug Ireland grew up 30 miles from Grambling, watching Grambling’s Playback on television on Sundays. “I was familiar with the lore of Grambling football,” he said, “but I didn’t know Coach Robinson and had never had the opportunity to go to a Grambling football game.” Ireland became executive director of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1991, and in that role saw just what so many others came to know about the iconic Grambling football coach.

“The first time I was at a Hall of Fame event, he was there,” Ireland recalled. “I had the opportunity to find out right then that not only was he very approachable, but he also was one who valued each conversation he had. He had that very special quality of being able to treat each person he met with equal respect.

“The catch-phrase nowadays is that you ‘big-league’ somebody. You might turn away from a ‘lesser’ profile person to deal with somebody who has a higher profile. That was never in Coach Robinson’s repertoire. He was always very considerate and focused on the person or persons he was speaking with, and really made them feel valued from the start.

“No matter who the inductees were, and what walk of life they came from,” Ireland said, “they were always gratified and thrilled to meet Eddie Robinson. They were particularly impressed to meet him and find out how humble, how down-to-earth, and how compelling he was as a human being, not as a personality.

“He enjoyed telling stories, and he enjoyed listening to stories. So often, when you get that caliber of a personality, the scene revolves around them. But Coach Rob was very content to listen to other folks’ stories. He had time for everybody.”

Sports consultant Dave Whinham would certainly agree, based on his relationship with Eddie that began in 1985. The Opryland Hotel in Nashville was the site that year of the American Football Coaches Association annual convention. Whinham, then a young graduate assistant at the University of Cincinnati, was attending the meeting for the first time.

“I had had an interview and was hustling back to the conference center to listen to one of the speakers,” Whinham said. “If you’ve ever been to the Opryland Hotel, you know how expansive those hallways are at the conference center. They’ve got to be miles long, and they’re probably thirty yards wide. As I was walking down this very large, empty corridor, off in the distance I saw a gentleman walking toward me on the other side of this corridor.

“As I got closer,” Whinham continued, “I could see that it was Coach Robinson. Being a young coach, and this being my first AFCA convention, I was very excited to see the great Eddie Robinson. In the 15 seconds I had to plan, I thought I would just say, ‘Hello, Coach’ as I was passing by.

“We were both on our respective right sides of the hallway, but Coach Rob walked across to me. He offered his hand to me and said, ‘Hello. I’m Eddie Robinson,’ as if anybody didn’t know who he was. And I said, ‘Oh coach, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Dave Whinham.’ And he stood there with me for 10 or 15 minutes, asking me where I was from, asking me about my college career and the early stages of my coaching career.

“Obviously, I was completely thrilled to have had the opportunity to meet Coach Rob, and thoroughly overwhelmed that he would walk over and visit with me. But as time went on, we visited at every AFCA convention that followed.

“I came to learn over the years that as big as Coach Robinson became, as famous as he became, as in demand as he was, Eddie Robinson always, and I mean that word exactly the way I say it – always – endeavored to give a positive piece of himself to each and every individual he encountered.

“Everyone who even from a cursory level follows college athletics knows who Eddie Robinson the coach is, and is aware of his accomplishments, which are many and are great, no question. But his true greatness is that he was never too important, nor was he ever too busy, to pause for a child, for a young coach, or just a stranger. Anyone he ever encountered was not a stranger after that moment.”

Raymond Hicks became acquainted with Coach Eddie Robinson as a student at Grambling in the 1960s. Thirty years later Hicks became president of the university and found himself in the unenviable – and misrepresented – position of presiding over the end of Robinson’s coaching career. His esteem for Eddie would surprise those who don’t know the full story of Robinson’s unpleasant final years as coach.

“The thing that amazed me about him,” Dr. Hicks said, “was that he was so humble. In person, and when he wasn’t coaching, he was just a humble person. We read about him all the time in the paper and magazines. We always read about him doing something.

“He may have been in the paper about doing something in New York, but when you saw him on campus the next day, he was just a humble guy, a real humble, down-to-earth guy, always smiling. He was the most humble person that I’ve ever come across. I had this impression of him that he was just a decent person who had achieved some national status but was very humble about it.”


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