Grambling's 'Coach Rob' Knocks on the Door of Win No. 400
NEW YORK — Hampton University Coach Joe Taylor recalls how intimidated he was the first time his team played against Grambling State (La.) University Coach Eddie Robinson: ''My players were trying to get my attention, asking me what play we should run,'' he says. ''And I was just standing there, looking at Eddie in awe.'' The admiration for Grambling's indefatigable Eddie Robinson continues, year after year, victory after victory. Coach Rob, as he is known, is a throwback, an American cast in the same mold as baseball iron man Cal Ripken Jr. This weekend, Robinson goes for a mind-boggling 399th career win in a game against Central State University of Wilberforce, Ohio, at Robinson Stadium in Grambling, La. He is the all-time winningest coach in college football history. Ten years ago, with his 324th win, Robinson eclipsed Alabama's Paul (Bear) Bryant, the coach with the next most victories. The wispy-haired Baton Rouge, La., native still believes that a strong work ethic can make all the difference. ''My secret is hard work,'' Robinson says. ''I don't know anything but working.'' Over the course of 54 years, Robinson has built up the Grambling Tigers from an underequipped team practicing on a dirt field to what is now considered the best-known Division I-AA college football team in America. But Robinson is more than a successful football coach: He is a role model of the highest order, someone who transcends sports, colleagues say. And for this reason, people - of all colors - listen to what he has to say. Preacher, educator, spokesman ''We need to have stronger fathers,'' he says. ''Most of the raising of our children is being done by the mamas, and that's not right.'' Robinson has been married to his wife, Doris, for 54 years. He is a preacher, an educator, and a spokesman for the African-American community, as well as for the American way of life. ''I am as much an American as anybody,'' he says. ''Nobody has ever done or ever will do what Eddie Robinson has done for this game,'' says legendary Penn State football Coach Joe Paterno. ''Our profession will never, ever be able to repay him for what he has done for the country and the profession of football.'' Right next to his unyielding allegiance to America is his love for Grambling. ''At a speech here at the Waldorf-Astoria, Gen. Douglas MacArthur said after he left West Point, it was always the Corps, the Corps, the Corps,'' he says. ''For me, it has been all Grambling, Grambling, Grambling.'' Robinson set aside some time during his whistle-stop tour through New York for a Monitor interview. He wears a double-breasted black suit with red suspenders. His moral righteousness and optimism jump out at you. ''You have to be going to Grambling, to get to Grambling,'' Robinson says, tapping his interviewer on the knee to emphasize an important point. Robinson works relentlessly to expand the school's national fan base, scheduling football games in New York, Dallas, and New Orleans. ''If I was in the sciences, I would be sending people every day to Cape Kennedy so I eventually could send them to the moon,'' he explains. 200 graduates in NFL Robinson has become not just a role model to his players and his fans, but to his fellow college football coaches as well. ''You are a statue, a pillar, a great person for not just black football, but for football, and for America,'' Coach Taylor told Robinson before the Grambling-Hampton game last Saturday. The Hampton (Va.) Pirates beat the Tigers, 16-7, before a capacity crowd of 61,023 at the Meadowlands. It was the teams' 25th annual Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Classic. Even with Grambling's loss, Robinson's record is still an awesome 398 wins, 144 losses, 15 ties. Signing autographs with ''Football teaches the lessons of life,'' Robinson has understood from the very beginning - when he did everything from line the field to write local newspaper reports on his games - that diagramming plays was only part of his job. He is especially passionate about imparting his strong views on education to his players and, for that matter, anyone who will listen. ''Education is the key,'' Robinson says, his eyes blazing. ''Somebody has got to do something for the youth of America, because they are going to be our leaders.'' Robinson does do something. Last year's game at the Meadowlands helped raise $140,000 for the New York Urban League, and this year's classic should raise a similar amount. The money goes for scholarships, says Urban League president Dennis Walcott, not just to student-athletes. More than 200 of Robinson's players have gone on to play in the National Football League. More important, Robinson says, more than 85 percent of his players have graduated. Some are doctors, lawyers, or ''social engineers,'' he says. Grambling football alumnus James Harris has become a pioneer on two job fronts: He was the first successful black quarterback in the pros, playing for 12 years with the Buffalo Bills, the Los Angeles Rams, and the San Diego Chargers. Now he's an assistant general manager with the New York Jets. ''More than anything, you had an opportunity at Grambling to be under a coach who was preparing me not just for the NFL, but for life,'' Harris says. ''And even after I left, I talked to him on a regular basis for advice.'' Harris says he was extremely disappointed when he was picked late in the 1969 draft, and considered not joining the football team that had finally selected him, the Bills. Robinson ''told me that if I decided not to play, it would make it that much more difficult for the next black quarterback. But he said I was ready to make the jump to the pros, and, if I did, I should not go looking to make excuses. There is no question he has been a big influence on my life.'' Robinson does not harp on what some perceive as a disparity between the number of African-Americans on the field compared with those in the front office. ''In order to live in America, you have to understand the system,'' he says. ''Let me tell you what I believe,'' he says. ''I want America to be a good nation. We are the leaders of the world, and we have to get it together and stand on our own feet.'' To Robinson, America is still the land of opportunity, where everyone has a chance to become anything, even president. ''An African-American will be president of the United States, maybe not in my time ... but it is going to happen.'' Though Robinson says he still thrives on the challenges he faces each week from opposing coaches, he is six years past Louisiana's mandatory retirement age. That does not mean he wants to. ''I started planning 20 years ago to be prepared to step down,'' Robinson says. ''But I want to retire with another job lined up. I don't want to wake up with nothing to do, nobody to see. I think that's really why I'm still coaching. This is the only way that I know where I can give back to society.''