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Eddie Robinson: Game Changer

Published: 2/13/2014
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Eddie Robinson  (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Today marks the 95th birthday of one of college football's all-time greatest coaches, Eddie Robinson (Feb. 13, 1919 – April 3, 2007), who led the Grambling State Tigers to 45 winning seasons, 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference championships and nine black college football national championships during his 56 years as head coach. With a record of 408 wins, 165 losses and 15 ties, he holds the second-most wins in college football history, and the stadium at Grambling State now bears his name. In 1997 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. And he got his start during the worst days of the discriminatory Jim Crow laws in Grambling, La.

From a young age, Robinson dreamed of being a college football coach, but segregation laws barred him from the majority of coaching opportunities, which were at whites-only universities. That left the programs at traditionally African-American schools, where vacancies were few and far between. Unable to find a coaching job, Robinson, who had just graduated with a bachelor's degree from Leland College, went to work for 25 cents an hour at a feed mill in Baton Rouge, La., and waited for his shot.

He didn't have to wait long.

In 1941 Robinson went from mill worker to head coach for the Grambling State Tigers. Robinson was just 22, recently out of college and only four years out of high school, but he took on responsibility for the entire program. There were no trainers, no special teams coaches, no assistants, no groundskeepers. There was just Robinson, doing literally everything for his team. From mowing the field to building the plays to making sandwiches when road trips took the team through towns where African-American people could not get served at restaurants, he did it all. The first season was a disappointment, with just three wins, five losses and a tie. Robinson spent the offseason readjusting and recruiting. He returned in the fall with a new squad of Tigers that managed a perfect 9-0 season. Not only did they win every outing, but the Tigers' unbreakable defense also did not give up a single point for the entire season.

Robinson made a statement with that season: His Tigers were a force to be respected. From 1960 to 1990 the Tigers had only one losing season while winning 10 conference titles and making 12 bowl game appearances, winning five. Sadly, Robinson and Grambling's fortunes changed in the 1990s, and the team had losing seasons from 1995 to 1997, Robinson's last year of coaching. At 78, he stepped down as head coach. He died 10 years later of Alzheimer's disease.



Looking back at his career today, when myriad scandals have tarnished the reputation of college football, it is comforting to remember that in spite of its flaws, the sport creates heroes like Eddie Robinson.
 

Written by Seth Joseph. Find him on Google+.

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