An all-around winner Robinson defined himself more by lives changed than by games won
By Roscoe Nance
Eddie Robinson taught his players to believe in the American dream. He lived it. "America is the greatest country in the world," he often said. "We try to get our guys to understand the system. You've got to understand the system. "I tell them, 'You're not living in Germany. You're not in Spain. You're living in America. If you dream these dreams and work at them hard enough, they can come true. But you've got to work at it.' " Robinson, who died Tuesday at 88, lived by that advice. He worked exceedingly hard for 57 years as football coach at Grambling State in Louisiana, where he won 408 games, most in history at the time he retired in 1997. "I'm rather embarrassed when people talk about 'the winningest coach,' " he said. That sort of humility made Robinson well-respected among his peers. "He was like Mount Fuji in Japan. He was always there, and he was always majestic," said Marino H. Casem, former football coach and athletics director at Southern and Alcorn State universities. Robinson said one of the high points of his career came following the 1992 season when he became the first black coach and first from Division I-AA to win the Bobby Dodd Award as coach of the year. In accepting it, he said: "Martin Luther King Jr. said he had been to the top of the mountain. Well, I've been to the top of the mountain in my profession." He didn't win coach of the year from the Football Writers Association of America. But its Eddie Robinson Award is named for him. Robinson always said he wanted to be remembered as a coach who cared about his players and tried to mold them into citizens. His credo: "You have to coach 'em as though he were the boy who was going to marry your daughter." He added a corollary: "You can't coach 'em if you don't love 'em." Robinson was a father figure to many of his players and remained close to many long after they left Grambling. "The greatest man I've ever met," said James Hunter, Grambling grad and former Detroit Lions cornerback. "I've been in the corporate world for a few years now, and I haven't met anyone there who could move me the way Coach Rob did." Knowing he had that impact on his players meant more to Robinson than wins. "When you take a long hard look at the guys that you coached: What kind of men are they? This is the thing," he would say. "I can't go to a football meeting and talk all X's and O's. We're talking about drugs. We're talking about going to class. We're talking about studying. "It's hard to tell what (some) coaches … are in the business for. Are you for the glamour? Are you for the wins? Or are you trying to make the people with whom you're working better people for having participated in the game?" That approach endeared him to players. "He wasn't just about football," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers executive Doug Williams, an All-America quarterback at Grambling and MVP of Super Bowl XXII. "He was about human beings." Robinson was involved in almost every aspect of his team. He'd go through the dorm at 6 a.m., ringing a bell to wake his players for breakfast. At practice he'd demonstrate proper drops for quarterbacks and correct patterns for receivers. "When you love a profession, when you're doing something that you love every day, it differs from when you're just doing something," he said. He enjoyed winning, too. After Grambling went 5-6 in 1987, Robinson hinted he might retire. The Tigers rebounded with an 8-3 record in '88 and followed that with a 9-3 mark, a SWAC title and a I-AA playoff appearance in '89. Robinson and Grambling fell on hard times at the end of his career. The Tigers had losing records in each of his last three seasons, and he retired under pressure. Robinson made Grambling a household name in college football circles. He produced more than 200 professional players. In 1971, 43 Grambling players were in training camps, a pro football record that still stands. "Eddie opened a lot of doors for black college athletics," said Walter Reed, ex-athletics director at Jackson State and Florida A&M. Robinson's teams were an attraction wherever they played, and they played just about everywhere. Grambling beat Morgan State 42-16 in Tokyo in 1976, the first U.S. college football game outside the country. Robinson adopted the motto "the stadiums of the world are our home."