Robinson Museum journey: The project found a home on Grambling’s campus in 2006

Nick’s note: A series of stories from looking back at key moments in the journey to construct a museum in honor of the late Eddie G. Robinson, who achieved a still-standing Division I record for career wins as football coach through six decades at Grambling State. The museum is set for its long-awaited grand opening next month on campus:

May 7, 2006
The ninth item on the Eddie Robinson Museum commission’s agenda this week might have been the single most important development in its seven long years of struggles to construct a museum honoring the legendary former Grambling State coach.

The Louisiana Legislature passed a resolution authorizing the project in 1999, but it has never had a home.

That is, until the museum board’s building and grounds committee suggested, and got unanimous approval for, converting Grambling State’s soon-to-be-vacant Women’s Memorial Gym into exhibit space on Thursday.

GSU president Horace Judson has signed off on the idea, as long as logistics can be worked out, said museum board chair John Belton.

“This is huge,” enthused Belton, a Ruston attorney. “Everybody is on board; there were no dissensions. All we have to do now is raise the money for renovations.”

Retired GSU baseball coach and family friend Wilbert Ellis, named to lead the Friends of the Eddie Robinson Museum fundraising group last month, played a key role.

He met with Judson, along with Belton and longtime faculty member David Lewis, on Monday to lay out the proposal. He then sold the idea to Doris Robinson, the ailing former coach’s wife, who attended Thursday’s meeting in a show of support.

“I’m excited because of the history; that would be an ideal place for it,” said Ellis, who worked as an assistant to former coach and school president R.W.E. Jones and then led the baseball team for a staggering 43 combined years.

“It’s exciting and encouraging,” Ellis said, “and Coach would love it.”

Mrs. Robinson pledged to return for every board gathering until the project was complete. Alumni — including D’Wayne Priestley, an active supporter from Dallas — quickly warmed to the idea, as well.

Priestley, in an e-mail of support to Judson on Friday, said: “If the women’s gym can be used in this capacity and renovated to a representative facility, this site appears to be a win-win situation. This may ensure some degree of continuous funding and maintenance from the state of Louisiana, by having the museum on the GSU campus.”

Indeed, re-energized state officials, along with prospective sponsors and potential museum designers, could be found this week in prominent seats on the bandwagon — which continued to pick up speed.

Representatives from the Secretary of State’s office agreed to work on funding for maintenance and staffing. Two exhibit companies out of Tennessee made pitches to work on the project. Chase Bank is considering a major underwriting initiative.

That flurry of activity was particularly meaningful for former Robinson assistant coach Doug Porter. He and Belton are the only members to attend every museum board meeting over these seven long years.

“For me, there was never a question of feeling like it wouldn’t happen,” said Porter, the board’s vice chair. “Some people said we were underdogs. But when I was coaching at Grambling, we always felt we could win. That’s the same way I felt about this. I knew there were enough people who had a sincere desire to do something for Coach that it wouldn’t die.”

The 8,000-square-foot gymnasium, which was being used as practice space by GSU spirit groups, is certainly large enough to accommodate even the most grandiose exhibit plan.

“That’s three times larger than the (former Alabama coach Paul) ‘Bear’ Bryant Museum,” Belton said. “You have enough space to build an museum exhibit — and to expand in the future. The space is not limited. Even with (the originally appropriated but never administered) $5 million in state money, we couldn’t build a museum space that large.”

The gym, set to become vacant with the opening of a new Health, Physical Education and Recreation facility, would have to be retrofitted to provide adequate climate control and security. But, it’s a prime location: on the village side of Grambling and in a visible spot on campus next to GSU’s administration building, Long-Jones Hall.

Locating the museum there, and in this renovated historical setting, would work as a critical tool in recruiting, Priestley said.

“A possible by-product is the visitors to the museum may consider GSU for their child’s higher educational needs,” he said. “This will give alums, friends and others another reason to visit the campus and bring others. Hopefully, the exposure will generate more funding towards GSU.”

About Robinson
Eddie Robinson was hired as a coach and teacher in 1941 by what was then the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, which would later become Grambling. By 1995, he had become the first coach to win 400 games. Robinson eventually amassed 408 victories before retiring in 1997, a mark that stood as the best in college football until the 2003 season. A member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, he led Grambling to 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles.

Previous editions of the Robinson Museum journey —
The Eddie G. Robinson Museum: A dream fulfilled
Temporary exhibit opens with emotional 2005 ceremony

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