That didn’t lessen his sweeping impact on their lives.
Take current Grambling football coach Rod Broadway, just the third to succeed Robinson since his retirement.
Broadway met the Grambling legend only a handful of times before he passed in 2007. Still, he knew about Eddie Robinson, knew about his teams, knew about his values.
“Growing up in black America, in the time I grew up, Grambling was the name,” Broadway said. “Coach Robinson was a name that all black kids looked up to. It was truly an honor to have the opprotunity to talk to a man like that. My first stop after arriving at Grambling as head coach, I went by and saw Coach Robinson and his wife. It was an honor.”
Similar stories were passed around throughout a weekend of celebration for the opening of the long-delayed Eddie G. Robinson Museum on the Grambling campus. A gala banquet, featuring Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was held Friday night, followed by a Saturday morning ribbon-cutting where Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly spoke.
The museum’s debut drew its share of old acquaintances, including former NFL player and coach Dub Jones and Choudrant businessman James Davison, among many other lifelong friends of Eddie Robinson.
Doug Williams, Robinson’s most famous quarterback, also talked this weekend about how brief their time seemed to be as teacher and pupil — even though lessons learned stick with him.
“Not a day goes by,” Williams said, trailing off.
Elsewhere, people recalled how even a chance encounter around Robinson became a life-turning event.
Others recognized his greatness, in a legacy largely secured in the 1960s and ’70s, through the way Robinson changed their own mentors.
Tony Dungy, who became the first African-American coach to win the Super Bowl, sent along a videotaped message honoring Robinson on Saturday: “Every one,” he said, “was touched by Coach Rob.”
That includes Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who himself would become the second black coach to lead a team to victory in the Super Bowl. Tomlin was hired for his first NFL job by Dungy — then coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I never met Coach Robinson. I never played for him. Never been in the same room with him,” Tomlin said. “I’m a generation probably removed from the people he directed and impacted, but impacted in a big way nonetheless. You see, I am inspired and mentored and groomed by those who he touched. That ultimately speaks to the legacy of the man.”
As tiny Grambling became known as a professional football factory, Robinson’s legend continued to grow, too.
In 1969, every one of Robinson’s seniors was drafted. In 1971, 43 of his former players were in NFL camps. In all, 200 would eventually go pro and four would be inducted into football’s Hall of Fame — Willie Brown, Junious “Buck” Buchanan, Willie Davis and Charlie Joiner. A wall at the new Robinson Museum retells their stories.
“I talk to NFL players all the time who say they wished they went to Grambling, wished they played for Eddie Robinson,” Brown said. “They say, ‘He was a great coach.’ ‘I know,’ I say, ‘he was my coach.'”
Contemporaries like Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant became friends, even as Robinson passed him for the most career victories. Future generations of coaches like Brian Kelly, newly hired at Notre Dame, study his playbook — on and off the field — for road signs on how to construct their own careers.
“Today is an historic day, a unifying day,” Kelly said, just before the ribbon was cut on the Robinson Museum. “We honor a man who dedicated his life to service. In that service, he provided the mentorship, the traditional values that we still espouse today.”
Even Doug Porter, a respected coach who subsequently earned College Football Hall of Fame honors, has spent most of his life talking about his short stint as an assistant with Robinson in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Ironically, Porter toiled nearly twice as long as an ex-officio member of the Robinson Museum Commission, diligently pushing for the honor finally realized with Saturday’s grand opening.
He spoke about it with a joy that blended with vindication.
“This is a glorious morning here in Grambling,” Porter said. “11 years ago, perhaps no one thought it would take so long. We never knew it would take three governors, three secretaries of state, and many, many members of the Eddie Robinson Museum commission. But we sit this morning with it behind us. This is the dream come true for so many.”
Porter then again spent all day, happily, talking about a man he still calls “our former coach.”
Tomlin, a football junkie, could be found listening carefully.
“You have to love Coach Robinson,” Tomlin said. “You have to appreciate all he has done inside the game and out: The way he lived his life. The way he educated and mentored young folks. The way he loved people. He led through service. That’s what I try to do. I never probably once pondered the architect of such an approach. It’s part of this experience for me, part of putting it in perspective. I’m learning. I’m in awe of Coach Rob.”