All due respect to Joe Paterno, who has tied Grambling’s Eddie G. Robinson for all-time college football wins in Division I. But Robinson’s victories meant more, because of the time in which they were won.
Robinson passed coach Paul “Bear” Bryant once-thought-unassailable record of 324 career victories back in 1984, and the bulk of his own eventual 408 wins came during a time of crushing racial oppression — something never experienced by the likes of big-school legends like Bryant or Paterno, who tied Robinson’s mark with his own 408th career victory Saturday night when Penn State beat Northwestern 34-24.
“Coach Rob’s victories were tougher than anybody else’s,” says Grambling coach and former player Doug Williams, who later rose to national fame as MVP of the 1988 Super Bowl.
Every one of Robinson’s wins came with Grambling playing against its opponent, and against dizzying odds. There was little money, and even less recognition. Yet Robinson became the first coach, at any level, to claim 400 collegiate victories — doing so on Oct. 7, 1995, after beating Mississippi Valley State in Grambling, Louisiana.
For many, that has been the shorthand on Eddie G. Robinson. But not for those who knew him.
“It’s not about the numbers,” says Sammy White, a current Grambling assistant who played for Robinson’s Tigers from 1973-76. “It’s about the people: He was my mentor on the field, but also off the field. Coach Robinson taught me more than when I was in high school — or even at home.”
Of course, Robinson’s mythical 400-win plateau had already been topped in college football, even before Paterno’s assault on the record books this season. In November 2003, John Gagliardi at tiny Division III St. John University beat Bethel College to push Gagliardi past Robinson’s 408 mark.
“His was the tougher job because of the times,” Williams says of his former coach. “There was no practice equipment. They were playing on sand. They couldn’t even stay in town when they travelled.”
Grambling is remembered today for sparking widespread interest in black college football — starting with the still awe-inspiring September 1968 sell-out game at Yankee Stadium, the first of three at the House That Ruth Built. But trips like that were a logistical nightmare, as the team had to manage not just travel budgets but also institutional racism in the Jim Crow South.
College Football Hall of Famer Douglas Porter, an assistant at Grambling as it won six conference titles in the eight years beginning in the late 1960s, ruefully remembers having to sneak into roadside stores for supplies — since, as a light-skinned African American he could pass for white. When the Tigers would bus out east, they were forced to plan their routes around friendly fellow historically black colleges like Tuskegee, since those were the only places they could stop to eat and go to the bathroom.
And yet Robinson, whose entire 56-season career as a coach was spent at Grambling, retired in 1997 having sent more than 200 players into the pros — of which four have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Countless more became leaders in their communities, something that was even more important to Robinson.
“He wasn’t a guy that everything that came out of his mouth was Xs and Os,” Williams said. “Everything that he did and related to was about life. He related football to life. It was about being able to survive in America.”
Robinson didn’t just survive through these tough times. He thrived, and the accollades finally followed. There was the Sports Illustrated cover when he passed Bryant. A quick induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, just a year after his retiremment. The Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA, recognizes its best coach each year with an award named after Robinson. The Southwestern Athletic Conference, where he led Grambling to a still-standing record of 17 titles, renamed its championship-game trophy for Robinson, as well.
Robinson himself didn’t talk much about the record. Typically understated, he once said: “I’ve never concerned myself with personal records. All the 324 wins means is that I have been around for a long time.”
The son of a sharecropper, Robinson was hired in 1941 to coach football, baseball and basketball at the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, as Grambling was then known. His 1942 squad, one of two to go undefeated, was unbeaten, untied — even unscored upon. A 1969 Grambling State game became the first black college contest to be broadcast on national television. Grambling participated in a celebrated overseas trip to Japan in 1976 and 1977. Williams became a Heisman Trophy finalist, then the first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl.
Along the way, Robinson would go on to touch the lives of countless people in the ensuing years. While many remember that he coached four players who would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Robinson often talked about how all of them got their educations, too. He is most proud, he said, that many of them became working professionals. Talking about the 15th anniversary of Williams’ 1988 NFL championship with the Washington Redskins — and what that meant to black football players — Robinson told me: “The thing we are most proud of is that they graduated from college.”
His former players say what should be celebrated, far more than winning, is Robinson’s ability to see a larger context for their lives — and for their school — despite the kind of obstacles that would humble many lesser men. The falling of Robinson’s all-time wins record, they say, can’t begin to match those accomplishments.
Williams adds: “It’s impossible to say what Coach Rob means to this institution — and to me.”
“Growing up,” White remembers, smiling wistfully, “he often told me: ‘You don’t just want to be a great football player. You want to be a great American.'”
For Robinson, that was the goal — and it was something he himself boldly achieved, in a far more difficult setting than the likes of Bryant, Gagliardi and Paterno. As for his legacy, the fear that fewer people would hear about Robinson as time passes seems to have been extinguished for good with the long-awaited opening of the Eddie G. Robinson Museum on the campus of Grambling State University.
“It’s kind of like me winning the Super Bowl. For college kids today, that’s not much of an impact,” Williams tells me. “That’s what happens. The only way to keep his memory alive to keep reminding people that he’s ‘The Legend.'”
EDDIE G. ROBINSON’S RECORD-BREAKING MOMENTS
Robinson captured 17 SWAC championships in his career, along with these other important wins:
100th win — 1957, Bethune-Cookman, 20-12
200th win — 1971, Miss. Valley St., 25-12
324th win — 1984, Prairie View A&M, 27-7
400th win — 1995, Miss. Valley St., 42-6
408th win — 1997, Miss. Valley St., 20-13