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Eddie Robinson's Winning Ways

By Derrick Z. Jackson
The Boston Globe
April 7, 2007

In 1978, Eddie Robinson graced me with his optimism. He was at the end of his 38th season as the coach of Grambling State University in Louisiana. He had already sent four teams worth of players to professional football. He would send more than 200 to the National Football League.

The next night, Robinson sent Grambling onto the field of the Superdome in New Orleans before 70,000 people to play Southern University in the annual Bayou Classic. The classic era for black college football had long ended with integration. That did not bother Robinson. It was the way it was supposed to be.

I was a 23-year-old sportswriter for the Kansas City Star. Robinson was 59. In a hotel lobby, he repeatedly tapped my knee like a grandfather to make his points.

"A lot of black people dare not to dream the American dream," Robinson said. "I'm afraid not to dream the American dream. You have to see black athletic talent as American talent. What if all the black talent went to all-black schools? You might never have heard of O.J. Simpson.

"It's not just this football thing," he continued, wearing out my knee. "I wanted to honor Frank Sinatra at half-time. I wanted him to come here and sing with the Grambling and Southern bands because he took Joe Louis and flew him to Houston to see one of the best doctors in the world. I wanted to honor Frank as an American. He made a contribution to black people . . . What I'm really trying to say in all this is that you've got to mingle. You've got to get into the mainstream."

Robinson died this week at 88, the second-winningest coach in the history of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. When he started in 1941, Grambling was called the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. Much of Robinson's faith in America was rewarded in spectacular ways. He coached the first black college player to make the NFL (Tank Younger), the first black quarterback to start a play off game (James Harris), and the first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl (Doug Williams).

Robinson told me of the counsel he gave Williams on his way to the pros. "I told Doug being black wasn't going to keep him from being a professional quarterback and that being black wasn't going to make him one," Robinson said. "He had to influence the decision himself. He had to make things happen. Now, if you notice, he's good enough that people aren't calling him a black quarterback anymore."

That was not quite true, as a reporter asked Williams at the Super Bowl, "How long have you been a black quarterback?" Williams answered with the grace of Robinson's grooming. "Well, first of all," he said, "I've been black all my life. Secondly, I've never been a white quarterback. But I don't think I'd be any different if I were. I don't think the football cares."

There remains a critical area of football that tests Robinson's faith. The NFL happily took his players. But in 1978, the league was still 11 years away from its first black head coach. The first black coach in major college football was hired in 1979, but progress has been glacial in the nearly three decades since. A sport that is 55 percent black is only 2.4 percent black in head coaches. At a congressional hearing five weeks ago, NCAA President Myles Brand admitted that the hiring of black head coaches was "far and away the worst" sore spot.

The NFL just had a Super Bowl where both coaches were African-American. The league's biggest market, New York, and its smallest, Green Bay, have seen a black head coach. But despite being 65 percent black in players, the league has yet to get much past 20 percent in black head coaches. Only 20 percent of its most recently hired coaches were black.

In the Washington Post this week, Penn State coach Joe Paterno, the fourth-winningest collegiate football coach, said, "Our profession will never be able to repay Eddie Robinson for what he has done for the country and the profession of football."

Paterno is wrong. Robinson once said to me about America, "All I'm trying to do is understand the system and make it work for me." He made it work for generations of black athletes. It is time for colleges to make it work for them. The profession can repay Robinson. It can repay him by bringing black coaches into the mainstream.

 

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The Eddie G. Robinson Museum is a landmark that officially recognizes the outstanding contributions to the state of Louisiana, the nation, the world and the game of football made by Coach Eddie G. Robinson.  - more