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No list of great coaches could be complete without the one and only Eddie Robinson.
For 56 years, Coach Rob, as he is affectionately known, was the head coach at Grambling State University and during that time established himself as the winningest coach in college football history. Robinson retired with a record of 408 wins, 165 losses and 15 ties.
He was born in Jackson, but moved to Baton Rouge at the age of six. A graduate of McKinley High School (1937), he played quarterback for the legendary coach Reuben S. Turner at Leland College in Baker, LA, where he earned his Bachelors degree. He was hired to teach and coach at the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, now Grambling State University, in 1941. He went on to earn a Masters degree from the University of Iowa in 1954. He began his Grambling State career in 1941 and retired in 1997.
Among the “firsts” on his record is the first U.S. Collegiate Football Game (vs. Morgan State University) played in Japan, the Pioneer Bowl in Tokyo 1976. Grambling was admitted to the SWAC in 1959. Since that time, Coach Rob won or shared conference championships sixteen times, the National Black College Championship three times and participated three times in the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs.
He had over 300 of his players to participate in professional football team training camps. Of this number, more than 200 have played on professional teams. The first black from a historically black university (Grambling) to be drafted and play in the National Football League was Paul “Tank” Younger with the Los Angeles Rams, 1949. Robinson coached three American Football League players who would later be inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame: the Kansas City Chiefs‘ Buck Buchanan; the Oakland Raiders‘ Willie Brown; and the Houston Oilers‘ Charlie Joiner. Robinson also coached James Harris, who with the AFL’s Buffalo Bills became the first black quarterback in modern Pro Football history to start at that position in a season opener. He also coached Packers defensive end and Hall of Famer Willie Davis and the Super Bowl XXII MVP, Redskins quarterback Doug Williams, who would ultimately succeed Robinson as Grambling’s head coach in 1998.
While at Grambling, Eddie Robinson held several jobs other than football coach, including teaching at Grambling High School, and coaching the girls’ basketball team during World War II. His girls team lost the state championship by 1 point. He also coached boys’ basketball, baseball, directed band and was in charge of the cheerleaders, with a budget of $46.
The driving force behind him was his concern for the welfare of the young men and women he taught and coached. “I feel that coaches have a responsibility to provide a model and to guide their athletes on and off the playing field.”
Robinson didn’t just win a bunch of games. He won a lot of games with great rosters. For decades, Grambling was one of the best teams in America.
“Eddie’s early teams could have competed with anybody at any level,” said Bill Hayes, the former coach at Winston-Salem State and North Carolina A&T. “He had the best players in the Southland.”
How loaded were black schools during segregation and as integration started a trickle of black players into Divison I football? Consider that the NFL’s All-1970s team, primarily composed of players who played college ball as segregation ended, had more players from the SWAC (six) than it did from the Pac-10 (five). Jackson State had as many players on that list as Notre Dame.
Robinson started coaching before coaches were CEOs, when they were still educators. Like many coaches of his day, he coached multiple sports (even the women’s drill team) and saw himself as a teacher. His biography at the College Football Hall of Fame’s Web site has a quote that says it all about Robinson.
“The most important thing in football is the boy who plays the game,” he once said. “You can’t coach ’em unless you love ’em.”
He wasn’t the public representative of a money-making machine. He was the football coach and, more importantly, a leader of men.
Hayes coached against Robinson five times, giving him a unique insight into the dominance of Robinson’s teams. To Hayes, Robinson’s teams weren’t successful because of his trademark wing-T offense, one Coach Rob helped to perfect. Hayes believes Robinson’s teams stood above the rest because they were an extension of their coach. From each X to each O to each player, he was the guiding force.
“He had a hands-on approach. Eddie actually coached his own team. He interacted with all players at every position,” said Hayes, now the athletic director at Division II North Carolina Central. “The father figure he displayed to his players and the Grambling family is what made him unique.”
In a Sporting News article in 1999, ESPN.com contributor Richard Lapchick wrote, “[Robinson] assumed the role of mentor, role model, father and counselor to his student-athletes. For Robinson, it was never only about fame, pro scouts or money. He wanted to develop players who would be leaders.”
Watch below as Grambling State University’s Divine Nine pay tribute to Coach Robinson at the NAACP Awards. Coach Rob is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.