When he first took the job, he had no indoor plumbing. He got his water from a well and it had tiny bugs in it “wiggle- tails” they called them so you had to boil that water before you could drink it. His kids got sick. His wife got frustrated. Finally, after two years, Eddie Robinson went to the school president and said he had to quit. His family couldn’t live under those conditions.
The president looked at him.
“Is that the only thing wrong?” he asked.
Yes, Robinson said. Fix that and I’ll stay.
They fixed it. He stayed. He stayed that year, and the 53 years that followed, working at the small, traditionally black university they now call Grambling, tucked between the tall pines and the flat acres of northern Louisiana. His title was “football coach,” which meant he also limed the field and drove the bus. He woke players with a cowbell, marching through the dorms yelling, “Feet on the floor!” He made sure they went to class, and he taught many of his backwater kids how to hold their first knife and fork.
He coached through segregation and through integration. He coached young black players when they were not welcome at white Southern schools. And when those schools opened their doors, and began stealing his best talent, he told them, “Go on, take it, it’s too good an opportunity to pass up.”
Even with an athletic budget that is pocket change to the major programs, Eddie Robinson has won more games than any coach in the history of college football more than Bear Bryant or Amos Alonzo Stagg.
And now, some people at Grambling want him out — including the current school president — because he’s had two straight losing seasons.
Robinson should look that man in the eye and repeat an old sentence:
“Is that all that’s wrong?”
How quickly they forget
Who are these people that would push a legend out the door? I don’t care if he’s 77. I don’t care if he’s 97. Without Eddie Robinson, there is no Grambling football. Without Eddie Robinson, there is no first black player in the NFL — or 200 Grambling alums in the NFL after him.
Without Eddie Robinson, there is no James Harris. Harris was the rifle-armed kid who Robinson came to one night in the 60’s and said, “I’m going to make you the first black quarterback in the pros. You will break the wall.”
Robinson kept his word. Harris smashed the stereotype. And every black quarterback from Doug Williams to Kordell Stewart owes something to the gray-haired coach with the smoky voice.
Yet last week, here was Harris, now a scout for the Jets, with the audacity to say of his mentor, “It’s time for a change. It’s painful to see Grambling lose to Southern four years in a row.”
So that’s what this is all about? Losing to a rival? Grambling would now toss itself in line with the other college sports lemmings, interested only in petty rivalries and bragging rights. Is that the reason Eddie Robinson labored all those ugly years, years when his team bus was chased by whites with baseball bats, who yelled “Get that n— bus out of town!”?
Here is Robinson’s “crime”: a 3-8 season, and a 5-6 season. (Yes, there have been some off-field incidents with players as there have been with many other schools. Trust me. This is about wins and losses.)
Robinson asked for one more year. He wanted to go out a winner. And while the powers that be finally acquiesced Friday, it was a sad and unnecessary drama. Grambling had a chance to teach the sports world a lesson about dignity, and respect for elders. It had a chance to say there are some things more important than our record, or whether the coach can hit a blocking sled.
Instead, Grambling put Robinson through one of the worst weeks of his life, dangling him over the snapping jaws of critics.
It was like watching the elves push Santa out the window.
Whining about winning
I once took a bus ride to a game with Robinson. We rode six hours through the swampy back roads of Mississippi. His players, as always, were dressed in suits and ties. Along the way, he pointed out towns that they were once not allowed to stop in, and restaurants that would not admit his “colored” team.
He had endured every indignity the South could heap upon a black man. Yet later in our conversation, when I asked how he wanted to be remembered, Eddie Robinson answered without hesitation.
“A good American,” he said.
If he can forgive what the years and his job have thrown at him, if he can forgive the racism and the measly salary, then those around him can forgive him a won-loss record. The truth is, Grambling has a resource as rich as the oil that runs beneath the bayou. What Eddie Robinson could teach his players just by telling stories each day is worth a lot more than an 11-0 record.
When the word came Friday granting him one more season, Robinson turned to his wife and said, “I’m still the coach.” It should never have been in question.
Win, win, it’s just about winning. Eddie Robinson, who always danced around the worst parts of our culture, now finds himself stuck in the middle of it. It’s shameful what they tried to do, shameful, yet predictable. The problem isn’t in the water anymore, Eddie. It’s in the air.