The Coach That America Needed

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - April 11, 2007
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The obituaries read that Eddie Robinson left behind one wife, two children, five grandchildren and four great-grand children. But that count is grossly inaccurate. While inheritance laws may only apply to those mentioned above, the real Robinson family numbers in the thousands, with admirers in the millions.

Since the death of the old Grambling football coach last week, coaches, administrators and former players have clamored to tell the Eddie Robinson story. Very few had to do with football. Told were the lessons learned not about trap blocking or bump-and-run pass coverage, but of how to be a man and a good American.

Broadcaster James Brown said that to black America, Robinson was their Vince Lombardi. Keith Jackson called him one of the games greatest coaches and one of the all-time classic gentlemen.

To Alphonso Braggs, president for the NAACP Honolulu Branch, Robinson was an icon equal to the likes of civil rights pioneers Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and ground-breaking athletes such as Jackie Robinson and tennis great Althea Gibson.

“Coach Robinson was certainly one of the most inspirational icons in the African American community,” says Braggs. “Just based on the life he lived, you were impressed by him and inspired.”

Coach Rob, as he was affectionately called on campus, instilled in his players that they could aspire to be anything even if their country told them they were nothing. Talking to Mike & Mike on ESPN Radio, former Grambling Tiger and Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams said the coach told them that growing up poor and black was not an invitation to failure.

“He would not let us use the fact that we were black as a reason to fail. He wouldn’t allow that,” Williams said.

For a large part of his career Robinson would pack sandwiches for his players to take on the road because white-owned diners would not serve them. He coached players no one wanted in places his counterparts would not dream of visiting. Had he been white or the world fair, Robinson could have led the biggest teams in the country and his players would have been the subject of adulation - or simple fair treatment. But that didn’t happen and he remained neither angry or bitter. He had way too much class for that and far too much work to do.

“He wasn’t just a legend, he was a man. A man that was revered because of his humility,” said Braggs. “He wasn’t a boisterous person, he was respectful. Eddie Robinson became the individual whom parents would say that’s who you need to emulate. I think by far he was the standard with respect for understanding the behavior that it took to advance during the period of oppression in the country. What he was doing was teaching these young men how they could succeed and maintain their dignity.”

When Robinson finally hung up his whistle in 1997, it signaled the end of an era. Not just one that saw the demise of the fullback dive, but also the end of personal responsibility and loyalty. Robinson often said his two biggest accomplishments were that he had only one wife and one job. In the modern world where marriages quickly dissolve at the first sign of trouble and where mercenary coaches jump from paycheck to paycheck, Robinson remained a symbol of what had been. He was a man happy for his gifts and one who realized that the size of one’s wallet or the expanse of his locker room are perhaps the worst way to measure a man’s worth.

Sure, he won 408 games, but if that’s all he had accomplished he would be quickly forgotten. Robinson molded boys into men, and although Alzheimer’s had taken away his memory, it couldn’t touch his dignity. Those 80 percent that had graduated during his tenure, and the nation he helped pull up from the morass of intolerance, are his legacy.

There may never be another Eddie Robinson.

Hopefully, America will never need another one.

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