Nick’s note: A series of stories from TheDerisoReport.com 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:
September 21, 2008
A groundbreaking ceremony for the proposed Eddie Robinson Museum, nearly a decade in the making, moved many to tears.
“Coach used to say: ‘Nobody can outwork me, if God gives me the strength,'” said former Grambling State University baseball coach and athletic administrator Wilbert Ellis. “And God gave him the strength. He gave us that strength, too.”
Ellis was one of a handful of locals who worked tirelessly toward this goal of honoring Robinson, who died in 2007 at age 88 after setting a still-standing Division I mark for college football victories.
They gathered Saturday to unveil plans for the exhibit space, to be housed at the former women’s basketball gymnasium on the Grambling State campus where Robinson coached for most of six decades.
But a largely ceremonial moment took on a deeper emotion after so many years of struggle.
“It’s a great day, an unbelievable day,” Eddie Robinson Jr. said, smiling even as he cried. “We are so blessed as a family.”
Recent dental work limited comments from Doris Robinson, the former GSU coach’s widow. But she was in great spirits, presenting the state’s renovation plans and then — after donning a hardhat affixed with the familiar Grambling “G” logo — turning over the initial mounds of dirt with a golden shovel.
As many as a half a dozen people were dabbing tears by then.
Robinson’s legend, established over a career that spanned 1941-97, still holds that kind of startling power. Grambling President Horace Judson on Saturday called his school “the house that Eddie Robinson built,” to widespread applause.
But plans to honor him with a museum, first mentioned in 1999, hit a series of roadblocks involving funding, arguments over location, then shifting commission dynamics.
That changed over the last few years as a rejuvenated board — helmed by John Belton, a governor-appointed member, with help from former Robinson assistant coach Doug Porter — began to pick up key support from Louisiana officials.
Robinson’s passing, after years of battling complications related to Alzheimer’s, gave the efforts a final push.
In a matter of months, the University of Louisiana System, which oversees Grambling, worked out a deal to house the exhibits on campus. The Louisiana Legislature then funded the museum for the first time since its inception.
“I appreciate the work that has gone on for the past 10 years,” Dardenne said. “Their sweat and tears made this possible.”
Choudrant businessman James Davison, a longtime family friend of the Robinsons, was one of several in attendance wearing specially made shirts inscribed with the motto: “Coach Rob — we kept the faith.”
Like many, he paused several times during his remarks to compose himself.
“This is a collective achievement, a historic occasion,” Belton said. “Many asked: Will it ever happen? The answer is yes, and praise God for it.”
He specifically mentioned others besides Robinson who had not lived to see this belated ceremony, including original board chair Lottie Green; former Grambling professor David Lewis; and McKeithen, an early advocate.
A surprise guest was former state Sen. Randy Ewing — who in 1999 introduced Senate Bill No. 919, which created the Robinson Museum commission.
“We come here to honor Coach Robinson, but also his wife,” Ewing said, gesturing to Robinson’s partner of 64 years. “That was a winning team, too.”
Familiar faces from Grambling lore dotted the audience, including NBA Hall of Famer Willis Reed.
“I am proud to have gone to a university where such a great man coached,” Reed said.
Respected school architects were represented by Mary Hobdy, widow of Reed’s former basketball coach Fred Hobdy and secretary to the school’s second president, R.W.E. Jones; along with Ophelia Nicholson, widow of the school’s renowned former sports information director, Collie J. Nicholson.
Several ex-players were in attendance, including Albert Dennis III and Eddie Scott, who has formed an alumni group called Eddie Robinson’s Boys.
Grambling Mayor Martha Andrus ruminated on the emotional reunion of so many faces from the area’s storied past.
“History is born again today, as we break ground for this museum,” she said. “We are humble, fortunate and oh-so-very proud to see this come to fruition.”
State Sen. Bob Kostelka (R-Monroe) and state Rep. Rick Gallot (D-Ruston) both spoke as part of the official program, as well.
“How sweet it is,” Gallot said, “that this day has finally come.”
Other officials on hand included Ruston mayor Dan Hollingsworth, University of Louisiana System president Randy Moffett, District Attorney Bob Levy and Ruston-Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau president Kyle Edmiston.
The Rev. Julius R. Sumler, pastor at Grambling’s New Rocky Valley Baptist — Robinson was a member there — gave the invocation: “We thank you, Lord, for a dream that you wouldn’t allow to die.”
Grambling’s Tiger Marching Band performed, both before and after the ceremony — playing Bill Wither’s classic soul favorite “Lovely Day” as the program got under way and then the school’s alma mater and fight song to conclude the event.
“I’m pleased to be a part of history,” Ellis said, as more tears welled up again. “This is a day I will always remember. I can see Coach now — and he’s smiling.”
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.
GET IN THE GAME:
Previous editions of the Robinson Museum journey —
The Eddie G. Robinson Museum: A dream fulfilled
Temporary exhibit opens with emotional 2005 ceremony
The project found a home on Grambling’s campus in 2006