Heavy, heavy was the atmosphere in the Grambling Tigers' locker room at halftime of last Saturday night's game at Florida A&M. The score was tied 14-14, but the Tigers appeared to be backsliding while the Rattlers had the momentum. Both teams knew what this game meant to the Grambling coach, 63-year-old Eddie Gay Robinson—a 300th victory that would lift him up there among the immortals. That fact placed the Tigers under tremendous pressure. Wingback Trumaine Johnson had his shoulder pads off and his head buried in his hands. Robinson's assistants argued heatedly among themselves. Overhead in Bragg Memorial Stadium, thousands of feet pounded out a beat on the stands' metal framework, and to its rhythm voices shouted, "Not in Tallahassee, Eddie, NOT IN TALLAHASSEE!"
But Robinson's serene face—his balding pate and cool eyes are the only clues to his age—was creased by a smile. He'd been here before, and he loved the feeling. Looking around the locker room, he said, addressing no one in particular, "They could have cleaned this place up." He quieted his team and coaches with a gesture and in a calm voice announced a plan. "All we have to do is throw shorter," he said to junior Quarterback Hollis Brent. "Hollis, they're tripling Trumaine. If you want to get him the ball, throw to Rufus [Split End Rufus Stevens] first. The 75 or 76 series will work. Throw on a five-step release. Now let's go."
Getting going wasn't quite that simple, of course. Grambling fell behind 21-14 a minute into the final quarter before Robinson's soft words came true. Then, in just over five minutes, Johnson scored three times, leading the 3-0 Tigers to a 43-21 win for the coach.
This latest—and sweetest—victory in Robinson's luminous 41-year career at Grambling was a good one, certainly not a cheap one. Florida A&M, now 2-1, was once the premier football power among predominately black colleges. And the Rattlers are well out of the doldrums that followed the departure of Jake Gaither, their legendary coach, in 1969. Coach Rudy Hubbard has won 65 games, while losing 26, since coming to Florida A&M from Ohio State in 1974.
"Youngsters like Rudy ensure the profession," Robinson said before last week's game. "They make better coaches out of us old guys." Hubbard, 36, returned the compliment—sort of. "Certainly, Eddie Robinson's been an inspiration to me. He stands for everything a man should stand for," he said. "What do we owe him? Our greatest effort to beat him."
Grambling foes have felt that way since 1942, Robinson's second season at the small school (enrollment then: 900; now: 4,200) located between Shreveport and Monroe in the boot top of Louisiana. Robinson grew up in south Baton Rouge, and at now defunct Leland College had been a single wing tailback and passer. By the time he graduated, he had a strong desire to coach.
"I was working at a feed mill," Robinson recalls. "My wife Doris' sisters knew the family of the Grambling president, Dr. Ralph W.E. Jones. That's how I got to meet him, and that's how I got the job."
Robinson was 22 years old when he came to Grambling. His only assistant was the school's night watchman. In 1941, the Tigers went 3-5. The next season they were undefeated (9-0), untied and unscored upon. It has been pretty much that way ever since.
"I would never say which was the best team or who was the best player," says Robinson. "Why make 11 men happy and 7,000 mad? Ernie Ladd would say the '60 team was tops because of the future pros. There was Ladd, Buck Buchanan, Willie Brown, Lane Howell, Mike Howell, Preston Powell, Jamie Caleb, Goldie Sellers, Garland Boyette." Grambling's list goes on and on from there; 205 players coached by Robinson have played in the NFL. They were Robinson's main legacy until last week, when he joined Bear Bryant (318), Amos Alonzo Stagg (314) and Pop Warner (313) as the fourth member of the exclusive 300 club.
Collie Nicholson, the Grambling publicist for 31 years and now the p.r. man for the Southwestern Athletic Conference, says the secret of Robinson's success is that he "gets satisfaction out of turning out finished products. He's the only man I know who'll go out to a restaurant, diagram plays on napkins and then keep the napkins."
"Eddie's the father of athletics at Grambling," says Tiger Basketball Coach Fred Hobdy. "He likes walk-ons. He can make something out of very little."
Johnson, the wingback, is the latest distillation of the Robinson ethic. Lightly recruited and primarily a basketball player in high school in Baker, La., Johnson plays the position in Robinson's beloved wing T once manned by the likes of Charlie Joiner, Frank Lewis and Sammy White. "I came to Grambling to see how good I could be," he says. Told that Robinson, not one given to overpraise, had called him "the most exciting flanker in football," Johnson, who has scored six TDs this season, said, "That was nice of him, but I haven't done anything lately."
All Johnson did against Florida A&M was ensure that there would be a post-game celebration. The Rattlers had punched across the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter, but at that point Grambling's offense, Eddie Robinson's wisdom and Trumaine Johnson took over. Brent completed two quick slants to Stevens and then found Johnson in the right corner of the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown and a 21-21 tie.
Slightly more than a minute later, A&M had to punt. Johnson, a sleek 6'2", 190-pounder with 4.37 speed in the 40, took the ball at his own 36, feinted straight ahead, turned left toward the sideline and zipped off for a 64-yard touchdown return that was breathtaking in its swiftness. A two-point conversion off a busted extra point ran Grambling's lead to 29-21. After one more Rattler series, Johnson was in the end zone again, taking a 20-yard strike from Brent for an insurmountable 36-21 lead.
"I wasn't giving up at halftime," said Johnson. "I was thinking about Eddie Robinson, about how much he deserved this."
Next year Robinson and the Tigers will move into a new $7.5 million on-campus stadium with an initial capacity of 27,000, which they hope will soon be increased to 43,000. The crowd at Bragg was 22,127, largest in that facility's history, but small now by Grambling standards. The Tigers had drawn 43,333 at Shreveport's Independence Stadium the week before against Alcorn State for Robinson's 299th victory.
"Rob thinks if you block and tackle, everything else in life will fall into place," says Nicholson. "He changed black college football. He brought it out of the boondocks to the major stadiums in the world."
It would have been improper, somehow, for Robinson's 300th victory to have come in Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, or Yankee Stadium, or Shea, or the Silverdome, the Astrodome, the Superdome, the Rose Bowl, or the L.A. Coliseum—all of them places where his Tigers have performed. Number 300 came against old rivals in old haunts. It was better this way. The wetness on Robinson's cheeks in the meeting room afterward was not from champagne.
"I'm a crier," he said. "I can't hold it back. I owe so much to so many. We came back, showed the character you need in life. With work you can make outstanding people out of ordinary guys. They raised me up on their shoulders tonight, but Monday or Tuesday they'll be mad with me again. I couldn't tell the players anything after the game, nothing but thank you."
When all he said was "thank you," heads were buried in hands again as they had been at halftime—but now for altogether different reasons.
The coach foresaw heroics by Johnson.