Remembering Eddie Robinson

By Tony McClean
Updated: April 6, 2007

There is no question that Eddie Robinson was a figure that was larger than life for most African-American young men of that era”.

– Tyrone Willingham, Washington Univ. head football coach.
NEW HAVEN, Ct. — In a day and age when the words “legend” and “icon” are thrown around the sports world like loose change on a table, the true meaning of these phrases can sometimes get lost in translation.
In the case of those phrases being used to describe the late Eddie Robinson, the words by themselves seems so superfluous. The longtime head football coach at Grambling State University passed away late Tuesday evening at the age of 88.
To call Coach Rob a legend and or an icon would definitely be apropos. But in so many ways, it just scratches the surface of what this humble man from Louisiana is all about. It’s much more than the awards and accolades that he has received over the years.
The thing that makes Coach Rob who he is and who he was isn’t about his 408 career wins. It isn’t about the 17 SWAC titles and nine National Black College titles. It isn’t about the over 200 players he helped put into the the NFL or the Hall of Famers he coached who subsequently were enshrined in Canton.
It’s the numerous people who’s lives he touched throughout his coaching career and his lifetime. It’s believed that during his 57-year tenure as the Tigers’ head coach, Robinson coached more than 4,000 athletes in football.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to interview Doug Williams following his Super Bowl triumph in 1988. We talked about many things and of course the topic of Coach Rob came up.
The thing I remember the most was reverence in which Williams spoke about the man who he said helped him on and off the field. “His impact was across the entire world of sports,” Williams said in a AP interview this week.
“It wasn’t just college football. He had an impact on the high school level, the college level and in pro football. He had an impact on so many lives. That town of Grambling, it really could be known as Eddie Robinson City. When he got there in 1941, nobody knew where Grambling even was.”
Coach Rob was a star quarterback at Leland College under Reuben Turner, a Baptist preacher who introduced Robinson to the concepts of a playbook and coaching clinics.
After spending a short time in a Baton Rouge feed mill, he learned from a relative that there was an opening for a football coach at Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, later to become Grambling State University.
The rest as they say is history. Over some seven decades later, Grambling State University and Eddie Robinson are synonymous with football and success. In fact, 85% of the players that played under Coach Rob have all received their degrees.
One of Coach Rob’s greatest friends over the years was GSU’s longtime sports information director Collie J. Nicholson. The late SID (who died in 2006) would also put Grambling and Coach Rob on the map by playing all over the world.
It was Nicholson who conceived of the classic-game concept, where Grambling traveled with its marching band to major American cities including the ground-breaking 1960s sell-out at Yankee Stadium.
The impact of the alliance between Coach Rob and Nicholson, who Robinson affectionately called “the man with the golden pen”, is still being felt to this very day.
Whenever you see or attend the Circle City Classic, Gold Bowl, Aggie-Eagle Classic, or Bayou Classic, it’s a small part of a legacy left by Robinson, Nicholson, and others.
It’s hard to sum up a man’s life in just a few paragraphs. But the words of sports columnist Paul Finebaum may have stated it the best. “I think he is arguably the most important singular figure in the history of college football”, he said.
“He opened the door for thousands of black players and inspired many black coaches who had no other role model. He was to college, from this perspective, what Dr. King was to civil rights.”
NOTE: The Associated Press contributed to this story.