When Eddie Robinson walked into a reception in his honor in the Madison Concourse Hotel the night before Wisconsin met Virginia in the Eddie Robinson Classic, a reverent hush fell over the group of athletic directors, coaches, and sportswriters.
A legend had just entered the room.
On the surface, Robinson, the longtime football coach at Grambling State University, accumulated statistics that may never be matched: 408 career wins, making him the winningest coach in college football history; over 200 professional players; over 56 years as head coach at one school. But the 82-year-old Robinson’s contributions to college football extend far beyond his career on the field. In his 56 years at Grambling — a historically African-American university in northern Louisiana — Robinson maintained a graduation rate of over 80 percent and left an indelible mark on his players, the university, and black college football.
“It was bigger than football,” Clifford Franklin of the Eddie Robinson Foundation said. “He did revolutionize black college football. He did put black college football on the map. But then again, he built young men into men.”
When Robinson began his coaching career in 1941in Louisiana, the American South was still buried deep in segregation. Major League Baseball would remain an all-white institution for another six years, and it was more than a decade before the U.S. Supreme Court ordered desegregation of public schools.
But when Robinson gave up his 25-cents-an-hour job working at a Baton Rouge, La., feed mill to become head football coach at Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute (now Grambling State University), it was a turning point, both in the game of football and in the lives of Robinson’s more than 1000 future players.
Robinson would go on to coach for six decades and transform Grambling State from an obscure institution into something of an NFL training ground. At one point in 1971, Robinson had 43 former players in NFL training camps. At the same time, Robinson was helping to break social barriers as well. Robinson’s success helped to give historically black college football national prominence, and it was one of Robinson’s former players, Paul “Tank” Younger, who in 1949 became the first player from such a school to be signed by an NFL team.
However, in his 56 years of successful coaching at Division I-AA Grambling, Robinson was never offered a Division I-A head coaching job, and was only offered one NFL coaching position.
Yet in spite of this, few sports figures are more patriotic than Robinson, who believes that he has lived the American Dream.
“You can be anything you want to be if you’re willing to pay the price,” Robinson said. “Anything in America that is worthwhile has a price on it, and you have to be prepared to get the kind of job it will actually take to pay this price … I think if I don’t tell the youngsters what it’s about to be an American, sometimes they might not get it.”
Perhaps the one thing Robinson is more enthusiastic about than the American Dream is coaching. Four years after retiring from Grambling, Robinson is as passionate about coaching as he ever has been.
“I think that coaching is the most rewarding profession in the world,” Robinson said. “No man is too good to coach America’s youth. That has been my feeling since I learned to spell ‘football.’ Ever since I learned how to spell football in the elementary school, I wanted to be a football coach. I never changed my mind about it.”
That enthusiasm has served to change the lives of not only Robinson’s players, but also scores of others through the Eddie Robinson Foundation, which was founded after Robinson retired from Grambling and aims to continue his legacy through scholarships, charitable contributions, and grants.
“The Eddie Robinson foundation is dedicated to telling the story of Eddie Robinson to show how he has built a bridge to success and not allowed his environment or his situation to dictate his outcome,” Eddie Robinson’s grandson, Michael Watkins Robinson, said. “Through his dream, the Eddie Robinson foundation is looking to make sure that America’s youth understand that you can be anybody you want to be, as long as you’re willing to pay the price.”
The Eddie Robinson Foundation’s latest initiative, unveiled at the reception in Madison — the V408 Campaign — is working to provide scholarship funds for athletes who have exhausted their eligibility, but have not yet attained a degree.
“I had noticed that many times a young person with one year to go, two years to go, they’d drop out of school,” Robinson said. “And this is possibly the time when you need to have a [job]… We have different programs whether you need one year or two years; don’t drop out, stay in the game.” A significant portion of the gate receipts from the Aug. 25 Eddie Robinson Classic have gone toward that cause, giving the game added meaning.