IT'S ALWAYS asurprise to find that our biggest agents of change are actually such examplesof constancy. Eddie Robinson, who died last week at age 88, was of a regularitythat is not much celebrated in our culture. "One job, one wife," heliked to say, having spent 55 years with the first and 65 with the second.Hardly a radical. Yet who was more transforming than he was, at least when itcame to integrating college football, steadfastly promoting the equality of theblack athlete when that notion was simply unacceptable, preposterous even?
Robinson neverset out to do any such thing, of course, which made him an unlikely andtherefore ideal provocateur. His mission, back when he was hired to coachfootball at Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute (known today asGrambling State) in 1941, was not modest—the failing school needed an economicbump from its athletic department—but not overly ambitious either. He was only22, right out of a feed mill, and somewhat unprepared for what would become hislife's work. At the time he was more concerned with developing a playbook thana sea change.
"You got tohave a system," some old-timer had told him at a clinic. What's a system?"Why, you just stencil some plays on paper and give it to your players, andthat will be your system." In retelling this introduction to the coachingfraternity, Robinson would always add, "I couldn't get back to Gramblingfast enough."
If his system wasvague and desperate in the beginning, it grew sharp and determined insubsequent seasons as he retooled Grambling into a black powerhouse,establishing a national constituency within his minority. It truly became forblacks what Notre Dame was to Catholics, which was the idea. But then it becameeven more. Robinson toured his team, playing to huge crowds in Tokyo and atYankee Stadium, the very excellence of his Tigers demanding attention and thenreconsideration. So many of his players began entering the NFL—in 1971 therewere 43 of them in training camps—that it was no longer possible to ignore thispreviously irrelevant subset of sports.
Within Grambling,maybe, it was impossible to recognize a stealth anarchist. He was just anotherfootball coach, maybe a little crazier or more caring than others, but stilljust a sportsman. There were his cribbed plays, from all those clinics, and thepregame crocodile tears, which Robinson allegedly rehearsed in front of hiswife, Doris. ("He'd cry so hard that you'd be crying," rememberedformer NFL quarterback Doug Williams, who would later succeed him as coach."Oh, he would cry.") And then there was the time he called practice,gathered the team and took them to the family farm of two absent teammates,where they helped bring in the cotton crop.
But from theoutside, watching him put it all together, you might have wondered what he wasreally up to. There is nothing so color-blind as success, which is why sportsis sometimes a leading indicator for racial relations in this country, andRobinson might have had his own system after all. While Robinson wasGramblinizing the NFL in 1971, Bear Bryant abruptly decided to integrateAlabama football.
Of course, whatwas good for college football, even humankind, wasn't obviously good forGrambling football. With the Bear prowling everybody's sideline, Robinson losthis advantage among black prospects, and in fact, the idea of something asspecific as black football has come to seem quite quaint, at the least.Robinson nevertheless stayed on for another 26 seasons, and he continued torecruit and win all the same, even passing Bryant in career victories in 1985(he had 408 in all), proving at the very least that he was no racial footnotebut in fact pretty good at that one job.
Still, foranybody familiar with his times, or our history, it slights him to reduce hiscareer to wins-losses, as if all he'd been was a football coach, just walkingup and down the sideline with a sheaf of stenciled plays.
STEPHEN DUNN/GETTY IMAGES (ROBINSON)
RONALD C. MODRA (SI COVER)
EYE OF THE TIGER Robinson (in 1997 and on SI's cover in '85) led Grambling to 45 winning seasons.