Induction Year: 1985
In 1941, Eddie Robinson was hired to coach the Grambling football team by the school’s president, Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones.
Robinson was 22 years old, leaving a job in a Baton Rouge feed mill that paid 25 cents an hour. (He supplemented that salary by making four dollars a week for predawn rounds on a mule-drawn ice wagon.)
“You’re not going to win,” Jones told him. “You don’t know the players, they don’t know you and you don’t know how to coach.”
Jones wasn’t the only skeptic. Dan Washington, who has been the school’s trainer since 1940, recalls Robinson arriving “in a white, linen zoot suit – the kind where you’d wear a long, gold chain that made people think you owned a watch. I had one, too.
“He had those long, pointed shoes. Looked so young. I wondered. But he got the job. Good thing for us he did.”
The Tigers won only three of eight games that season. Then Robinson kicked several players off the team and produced his first undefeated season one year later.
“Things just kept getting better and better after that,” Robinson recalled.
When he arrived in Grambling, Robinson stayed in the home of the school’s first president, Charles P. Adams.
He spent most of his coaching career working for Jones, the second president.
He recruited and coached Grambling’s third president, Dr. Joseph Johnson.
In 1991, Dr. Harold W. Lundy became Grambling’s fourth president.
Robinson was still the Tigers’ head football coach.
He turned down many opportunities to leave Grambling because he believes in Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of letting your bucket down where you are.
“Grambling is my home, and always will be,” said Robinson. “If a man finds his place in the world, he should pursue it with all the talent the good Lord has given him, no matter where it may be. Some people keep dreaming of going someplace, and they never get to that place. But if you work hard where you are, you can make the place where you are the place you wanted to go.”
At the age of 72, Robinson’s 1991 season had a disappointing finish. A long touchdown pass in the fourth quarter gave Southern University a one-point victory over Grambling in a nationally televised game in the Louisiana Superdome. The loss dropped Grambling’s record to 5-6, the Tigers’ second losing season in the last 32 years.
A few minutes after the game, Robinson was already looking forward to his next season.
He is the winningest coach in college football history, with 372 victories, 133 losses, and 15 ties. The previous record of 323 victories, held by Paul “Bear” Bryant, fell in the 1985 season.
Eddie Robinson, the son of a sharecropper and domestic worker, was the first member of his family who completed high school.
He became Grambling’s football coach a few months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and a few months after Boston College defeated Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl Classic.
The latter event is significant because Boston College’s only black player, a reserve halfback named Louis Montgomery, wasn’t allowed to suit up for the game.
“It was kind of touchy,” recalled a Boston College official, “but that’s the way things were then. Certain things didn’t go with certain people in certain parts of the country. It was simply reality. Even the United States Army was segregated.”
In the Jim Crow Era, long before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball and the Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional, a black man launched a career that shattered all records.
As for Pearl Harbor, Robinson always considered his career an American success story more than anything else.
“The best way to enjoy life in America,” he said, “is to first be an American. You don’t have to be white. Blacks have had a hard time, but the Italians, Jews, Irish, and Cubans had it tough, too. But we’re all Americans.”
Robinson started his version of the Great American Dream by deliberately striking out.
He got into an argument with Jones about baseball. Jones, who continued to coach Grambling’s baseball team long after he became the school’s president, considered himself a great pitcher. Robinson thought he could hit anybody, and assured “Prez” that he could hit anything the president could throw at him.
On their way to settle the issue on the Grambling football field, Robinson decided that showing up his future boss might not be the best way to start a coaching career. She he went down swinging – and signed the contract.
Robinson never put the game ahead of the players. When a player told him he would have to leave school for a few days to help his daddy pick cotton, Robinson took the entire squad to the cotton field and they finished the job in a single day.
A half century later, he was still going through the athletic dorm at 6:30 a.m. ringing a cowbell to wake up the football players.
His theory: If they go to breakfast, they will go to class.
Early in his career, Robinson packed sandwiches and apples on the “Bluebird” bus for road trips because no eating places served blacks in the South. But he doesn’t dwell on those memories.
“Some people want to cry over the way it was,” he said. “You can’t unring a bell. Some people build roads, others ride on them. I have been around long enough to smell a lot of roses. President Jones turned me loose and didn’t slow me down. I think Grambling has helped connect me with what is good in American society.”
Early in his coaching career, Robinson said, “We don’t have much to look forward to, but we have even less to look back upon.”
He has improved the view – in both directions.
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