“Leadership, like coaching, is fighting for the hearts and souls of men and getting them to believe in you.”
Edward Gay Robinson (Feb. 13, 1919-April 3, 2007) was born in Jackson in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, to the son of a sharecropper and a domestic worker. He went on to graduate from McKinley Senior High School in Baton Rouge in 1937. He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from Leland College in Baker in East Baton Rouge Parish, then went on to obtain his Master’s degree from the University of Iowa in Iowa City in 1954. Robinson is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
Robinson spent 56 years as the head coach at historically black Grambling State University in Grambling in Lincoln Parish in northern Louisiana beginning in 1941 when he was hired by college president and head baseball coach, Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones.
Robinson is second in overall college football wins, behind John Gagliardi (Division III St. John’s University) (Robinson was formerly also behind Joe Paterno until the NCAA vacated 111 of Paterno’s victories). More than 200 of his players went on to play in the American Football League, CFL, and NFL. Robinson coached three American Football League players who would later be inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame: the Kansas City Chiefs’ Buck Buchanan; the Oakland Raiders’ Willie Brown; and the Houston Oilers’ Charlie Joiner. Robinson also coached James Harris, who with the AFL’s Buffalo Bills became the first black quarterback in modern Pro Football history to start at that position in a season opener. He also coached Packers defensive end and Hall of Famer Willie Davis and the Super Bowl XXII MVP, Redskins quarterback Doug Williams, who would ultimately succeed Robinson as Grambling’s head coach in 1998.
During his coaching career, Robinson compiled 45 winning seasons, including winning or sharing 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference championships and nine black college football national championships.
Robinson dreamed of becoming a college football coach himself, but he faced an enormous drawback--he was black in the days of Jim Crow discrimination. The only college position he could possibly hope to obtain would be at a traditionally all-black school, and these were all well staffed. Having earned his bachelor’s degree at Leland, Robinson returned to Baton Rouge and took a job at a feed mill for 25 cents an hour. Not long after that, he heard that the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute--Now Grambling State University--was searching for a new football coach. He applied for the job.
In 1941, the 22-year-old Robinson assumed his duties as head football coach at Grambling State. The days of assistant coaches, offensive and defensive coordinators, and specialty coaches were long in the future, so Robinson did everything: He taught offense and defense, mowed the football field, fixed sandwiches for road trips through towns that would not serve blacks in restaurants, taped his players’ sore joints, and even wrote game stories for the newspapers. Then as now, he had strict standards of personal conduct and educational achievement for his players. In his first year the team went 3-5-1, but the following season--during which he recruited new players and dismissed those who did not live up to his expectations--the Tigers had a perfect 9-0 season, going unbeaten, untied, and unscored on.
Enormous publicity attended Robinson’s record-breaking win with Grambling State in 1985. Some observers feared that the coach would become the target of white hatred, much as Henry Aaron had when he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. Instead Robinson reported that he did not receive a single hate letter, even from the legion of southern fans who worshipped Bear Bryant. When asked if his record was somehow tarnished by the fact that his team played most of its games against Division I-AA caliber competition, Robinson told Sports Illustrated: “I grew up in the South. I was told where to attend elementary school, where to attend junior high school, where to attend high school. When I became a coach, I was told who I could recruit, who I could play, where I could play and when I could play. I did what I could within the system.” He added that his philosophy had always been “whatever league you’re in, whatever level, win there.”
Eddie Robinson held several jobs other than football coach, including teaching at Grambling High School, and coaching the girls’ basketball team during World War II. His girls team lost the state championship by 1 point. He also coached boys’ basketball, baseball, directed band and was in charge of the cheerleaders, with a budget of $46.
Robinson recorded just one losing season between 1960 and 1990; however, after three consecutive losing seasons in the mid-1990s, pressure mounted for the now 78-year old coach to resign. Fellow college coach Joe Paterno is quoted in the Grambling State press guide as saying, “Nobody has ever done or ever will do what Eddie Robinson has done for the game.... Our profession will never, ever be able to repay Eddie Robinson for what he has done for the country and the profession of football.”
In 1997, news escaped that Grambling was planning to dismiss him in mid-season. Public outcry — including condemnation from Louisiana elected officials — led Grambling to retain Robinson’s services through the remainder of the season.
Robinson was the 1992 winner of the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award, which was established to honor the NCAA Division 1 football coach whose team excels on the field, in the classroom, and in the community. The award is named for Bobby Dodd, longtime head football coach of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. The award was established in 1976 to honor the values that Dodd exemplified.
Robinson developed Alzheimer’s Disease after his retirement and died on April 3, 2007, at Lincoln General Hospital in Ruston, Louisiana, after being admitted earlier in the day