UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – Black History Month’s unsung star: ‘Coach Rob’

Black History Month begins today, so I want to take a few minutes to acquaint you with someone who should be among the great Americans recognized for their achievements despite racial prejudice but, in his case, will otherwise be overlooked (yet again).

I’m referring to Eddie Robinson, who coached the Grambling Tigers football team for 57 years, beginning in 1941.

During Black History Month, as you may know, historic figures are memorialized in various ways, including brief video tributes.

Each year, I shake my head in disbelief that Eddie Robinson isn’t among them.

Beginning a few months before the Pearl Harbor attack, the man they affectionately called Coach Rob led the football team at Grambling (which began as Louisiana Negro and Normal Institute) for 57 years—through decades of Jim Crow discrimination and the tumultuous Civil Rights Movement.

Across six decades, his teams won 408 games; during that time Grambling played in 28 states and Japan. 

And more than 200 of Robinson’s players had the opportunity to play pro football.

But, as a former Louisiana state legislator who had played for Robinson declared at the memorial service for Eddie after his death in 1997 said:

“That’s not his legacy. It’s the thousands of young men who went to Grambling with no hope of having a life in the NFL.

“His legacy is the thousands of men who are good fathers and good husbands, good businessmen, good employees and community leaders.”

I never met Eddie Robinson. It was his passing, in fact, that led to me writing his biography, which was published in 2010.

As I learned more and more about him, I became convinced that he truly was a great American. Today, I’d say he’s the kind of leader our divided nation sorely needs now.

Doug Williams told me: “I used to say to him, ‘Coach, you’re the most Americanized man I know,’ because he always preached America.” 

Williams, you may painfully recall, torched the Broncos in their 42-10 loss to Washington in Super Bowl XXII. He was Robinson’s quarterback at Grambling from 1974 through 1977.

“He waved that American flag more than anybody, and you knew a guy his age had to have gone through some tough times early on in life.”

Among the lines Robinson said repeatedly to his players: 

America is the greatest country in the world . . .

The best way to enjoy life in America is to first be an American, and I don’t think you have to be white to do so . . .

And,

The best way to change attitudes is to prove them wrong by doing it, whatever IT is . . .

Robinson was a mystery to me in one regard. Despite his incredibly high profile in The South, he never used it to lead his players, or any other students, in a protest march, sit-in or demonstration of any kind, or to encourage them to participate on their own.

His alternative was: “Change is coming. Be ready when it arrives.” 

Coach Rob, as he was known, emphasized getting an education—to the extreme of waking up his players by ringing a cowbell as he walked the halls of their dorm and escorting them to class if they didn’t show him that they were going to attend or be there on time.

And he stressed the importance of regular church attendance by having assistant coaches meet his players after services to hand out weekly subsistence allowances. No-show, no cash.

The late John Lewis, who was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement and served in Congress for 34 years until his death at 80, told me no one ever asked Eddie to join the campaign in a more public way or complained that he was not doing enough.

“He must be looked upon as one individual who made a major contribution to the cause of racial equality in America,” Lewis said.

Charlie Joiner, one of four players Eddie coached to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said:

“He believed in being a good citizen, because he was one.”

When Eddie died, The Associated Press gathered reactions from dozens of prominent sports figures. One of them was retired Jackson State football coach W.C. Gorden, one of Robinson’s biggest rivals.

“To me,” Gorden said, “he was the Martin Luther King of football.”

Seems like that epitaph should be enough to make Eddie Robinson a prominent part of Black History Month.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 16 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.