By MARY FOSTER, AP Sports Writer1 hour, 29 minutes ago
Eddie Robinson, the longtime Grambling coach who transformed a small, black college into a football power that sent hundreds of players to the NFL, has died. He was 88.
The soft-spoken coach spent nearly 60 years at Grambling State University, where he set a standard for victories with 408 and nearly every season relished seeing his top players drafted by NFL teams.
Doug Williams, a Super Bowl MVP quarterback was one of them. Williams said Robinson died shortly before midnight Tuesday. Robinson had been admitted to Lincoln General Hospital earlier in the day.
"For the Grambling family this is a very emotional time," Williams said Wednesday. "But I'm thinking about Eddie Robinson the man, not in today-time, but in the day and what he meant to me and to so many people."
Robinson's career spanned 11 presidents, several wars and the civil rights movement. His overall record of excellence is what will be remembered: In 57 years, Robinson compiled a 408-165-15 record. Until John Gagliardi of St. John's, Minn., topped the victory mark four years ago, Robinson was the winningest coach in all of college football.
"The real record I have set for over 50 years is the fact that I have had one job and one wife," Robinson said.
Robinson had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease, which was diagnosed shortly after he was forced to retire following the 1997 season. His health had been declining for years and he had been in and out of a nursing home during the past year.
Robinson said he tried to coach each player as if he wanted him to marry his daughter.
He began coaching at Grambling State in 1941, when it was still the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, and single-handedly brought the school from obscurity to international popularity.
"Coach Robinson elevated a small town program to national prominence and tore down barriers to achieve an equal playing field for athletes of all races," Gov. Kathleen Blanco said in a statement. "Generations of Louisianans will forever benefit from coach Robinson's fight for equality."
Grambling first gained national attention in 1949 when running back Paul "Tank" Younger signed with the Los Angeles Rams and became the first player from an all-black college to enter the NFL. Suddenly, pro scouts learned how to find the little school 65 miles east of Shreveport near the Arkansas border.
Robinson sent over 200 players to the NFL, including seven first-round draft choices and Williams, who succeeded Robinson as Grambling's coach in 1998. Others went to the Canadian Football League and the now-defunct USFL.
Robinson's pro stars included Willie Davis, James Harris, Ernie Ladd, Buck Buchanan, Sammy White, Cliff McNeil, Willie Brown, Roosevelt Taylor, Charlie Joiner and Willie Williams.
Jerry Izenberg, the sports columnist emeritus at the Star-Ledger of Newark and a close friend of Robinson since 1963, said the coach was an inspiration in the deep South.
"People look at black pride in America and sports' impact on it," Izenberg said. "In the major cities it took off the first time Jackie Robinson stole home. In the deep South, it started with Eddie Robinson, who took a small college in northern Louisiana with little or no funds and sent the first black to the pros and made everyone look at him and Grambling."
Robinson said he was inspired to become a football coach when a high school team visited the elementary school he attended.
"The other kids wanted to be players, but I wanted to be like that coach," Robinson said. "I liked the way he talked to the team, the way he could make us laugh. I liked the way they all respected him."
Robinson was forced to retire after the 1997 season, after the program fell on tough times. His final three years on the sidelines brought consecutive losing seasons for the first time, an NCAA investigation of recruiting violations and four players charged with rape.
"I don't think coach lost touch with the players, I think the players lost touch with him," former NFL and Grambling cornerback Everson Walls said. "I think the young guys lost touch with coach Rob's vision. They didn't appreciate that they were living history with him."
As pressure mounted for him to step aside, even then-Gov. Mike Foster campaigned to give him one last season so he could try to go out a winner. But that final season produced only three wins for the second straight year.
Robinson's teams had only eight losing seasons and won 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles and nine national black college championships. He was inducted into every hall of fame for which he was eligible, and received honorary degrees from several universities, including Yale.
In 1968, refusing to be tied to a tiny home stadium on a hard-to-reach campus, Robinson put Grambling's football show on the road, playing at some very famous addresses, including Yankee Stadium.
That same year, Howard Cosell and Izenberg produced the documentary, "Grambling College: 100 Yards to Glory," Robinson became vice president of the NAIA and all three major television networks carried special programming on Grambling football.
A year later, Grambling played before 277,209 paying customers in 11 games, despite the home field that seated just 13,000.
When he began his career, Robinson had no paid assistants, no groundskeepers, no trainers and little in the way of equipment. He had to line the field himself and fix lunchmeat sandwiches for road trips because the players could not eat in the "white only" restaurants of the South.
He was not bitter, however. "The best way to enjoy life in America is to first be an American, and I don't think you have to be white to do so," Robinson said. "Blacks have had a hard time, but not many Americans haven't."
Robinson is survived by his wife, son Eddie Robinson Jr., daughter Lillian Rose Robinson, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.