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Robinson, Edward Gay ("Eddie")

ROBINSON, Edward Gay ("Eddie")

(b. 13 February 1919 in Jackson, Louisiana), college football coach who won a record 408 games during his fifty-six years as head coach at Grambling University.

Robinson was the only son of Frank Robinson, a cotton sharecropper, and Lydia Stewart, a domestic worker. Because few economic opportunities existed for African Americans living in the segregated South during the 1920s, Robinson's father sought employment in nearby Baton Rouge, Louisiana, while Robinson lived with his mother and grandparents on a farm in Jackson. The Robinsons reunited after Frank found work at an oil facility, but divorced when Robinson was ten years old. Robinson split the remainder of his childhood between his parent's homes, where he shined shoes, delivered newspapers, and picked strawberries to supplement their meager incomes.

In addition to developing the strong work ethic that later characterized his coaching career, Robinson also discovered a passion for football at an early age. He spent many afternoons watching the McKinley High School football team practice and was a star on the squad when he attended the Baton Rouge school. Robinson's athletic abilities earned him a football scholarship to Leland College, an African-American institution in Baker, Louisiana, where he played fullback, tailback, and once completed fifty-nine consecutive passes as quarterback. After he graduated from Leland, Robinson married Doris Mott on 24 June 1941 and worked at a Baton Rouge feed mill for twenty-five cents an hour to support his new family.

Later the same year, the twenty-two-year-old Robinson became football coach for the 320-student Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute in north central Louisiana's Lincoln Parish. Team facilities consisted of used equipment and a dirt field. Robinson had no assistants, worked as the school's night watchman, led the drill team at halftime, coached the baseball and basketball teams, and wrote game summaries for local newspapers for $63.75 a month. His first football team won three games and lost five, but the 1942 squad held all opponents scoreless and finished with a 9–0 record. Although the school fielded no team in 1943 or 1944 due to World War II, Robinson spent the period recruiting the best African-American high school athletes in Louisiana. He also coached high school football during this time.

In 1945 the Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, now named Grambling College, resumed its football program, and Robinson established it as an emerging power among African-American schools. From 1945 to 1948 the Tigers compiled a 35–11 record. The 1950s proved one of Grambling's most successful decades, as Robinson led his team to an undefeated 1955 season, achieved his 100th victory in 1957, and joined the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) in 1958. During the 1960s Robinson's stature grew to unprecedented heights as Grambling competed in venues across America and played opponents from Division I schools. In 1966 the Football Writers Association of America declared Robinson the person who most contributed to college football during the previous twenty-five years. Three years later the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) television network showcased Grambling in the first televised Division II football game. Robinson's success continued throughout the 1970s as his teams accumulated a 94–21 record over the period. In 1971 forty-three of Robinson's former players attended National Football League (NFL) training camps, and Grambling's stature as the most recognized African-American university in America continued to grow. By 1973 over 100 television stations across the nation broadcast Tiger football games as part of the Grambling Football Network. Although many ignored Grambling's accomplishments from the 1940s to the 1970s, Robinson surpassed several hallowed records during his last twenty-five years as a coach.

In 1982 Robinson joined Glenn "Pop" Warner, Amos Alonzo Stagg, and Paul "Bear" Bryant as the fourth coach to earn 300 victories. Three years later on 5 October 1985, Grambling defeated Prairie View A&M 27–7, and Robinson passed Bryant as the coach with the most wins in college football. On 14 October that year, Sports Illustrated made Robinson the only coach of a historically African-American college team to appear on the cover of a major sports publication. When Robinson achieved his 329th victory later in the 1985 season, he passed former Chicago Bears coach George Halas as the professional coach with the most wins in football history.

Robinson's career ended on a mixed note. In 1994 he led Grambling to a Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) cochampionship and earned conference coach of the year honors, but it was his last winning season. In 1995 he earned his 400th victory, yet only one major daily newspaper, the Atlanta Journal, covered the story on the first page of its sports section. Amidst pressure to resign following his third straight season with a losing record, Eddie Robinson retired from coaching the sport he loved. He won 408 career games, a record many argue no collegiate coach will ever surpass.

Eddie Robinson also holds the record for most games coached (588) and the longest coaching career at one college (fifty-six years). Throughout his tenure at Grambling, Robinson missed no scheduled games, had forty-five winning seasons, no consecutive losing seasons until his last three, won seventeen SWAC championships and nine African-American college national championships, and earned four honorary doctorate degrees, including one from Yale University, which Robinson called his proudest achievement. Robinson's teams played the first collegiate football game in Tokyo, Japan, and appeared in prestigious venues such as the Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl, Superdome, Astrodome, Hoosier Dome, Meadowlands, and Yankee Stadium. NFL rosters have included over 200 of Robinson's former players, and four Grambling alumni are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Robinson is also enshrined in numerous Halls of Fame, including those for the Sugar Bowl, Louisiana Sports, the SWAC, College Football, and the National Football Foundation. In 1998 he received the NFL Player's Lifetime Achievement Award, despite the fact that no professional team or Division I school offered him a head coaching position. Robinson often proclaimed that his lifelong affiliation with one school and his enduring marriage made him most proud. He and his wife had two children.

Robinson's winning record as coach established his illustrious career, but his role as a teacher and mentor to his players was equally important. His work also brought attention to African-American college athletics. During a period of strict social segregation in the South, Robinson produced a winning and nationally recognized program with inadequate facilities and meager funding while teaching his players that hard work, self-improvement, and respect for others would bring social equality. Robinson took pride in his players' 85 percent graduation rate and the fact that many were later successful in a variety of occupations. One of his most appreciated accolades came from former player Larry Scrubbs, who stated, "Robinson taught us as much about life as he did football." While Robinson's achievements alone ensure his legacy as one of the greatest coaches of all time, the challenging times in which he lived and worked guarantee his place in football history.

Robinson's autobiography written with noted sports writer Richard Lapchick, Never Before, Never Again (1999), traces his experiences from childhood through retirement. The book omits some important details concerning Robinson's early life and rise as a successful college football coach, but provides excellentinsight into his motivations and personal philosophies. For more on Robinson's professional career see O. K. Davis, "Eddie Robinson:College Football's Winningest Coach," Black Collegian 21, no. 2 (Nov./Dec. 1990): 140; Eric Moskowitz, "Grambling's 'Coach Rob' Knocks on the Door of Win No. 400," Christian Science Monitor (21 Sept. 1995); Bob Stockard, "Eddie Robinson: A Living Legend," Black Collegian 26, no. 3 (Apr. 1996): 16; and Richard Hoffer, "Here's to You, Mr. Robinson," Sports Illustrated (1 Dec. 1997).

J. Michael Butler

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