Before Eddie Robinson arrived on the scene, not many people heard of a small historically black college in Grambling, Louisiana, called Grambling State University. In fact, it was called Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute until 1947.
With Robinson shaking the hand of university president Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones in 1941, it began a 57-year relationship between Robinson and the Grambling football team that saw 11 different U.S. presidents, a cold war and Neil Armstrong land on the moon.
Robinson was born on Feb. 13, 1919 in Jackson, Louisiana, to a father who worked as a sharecropper and a mother laboring as a domestic worker. Eddie was the only child but lived with his two grandparents and two cousins in a wooden two-room house. He went to high school at the all-black McKinley High School and later went on to Leland College.
After graduating from Leland College, the only work he could find was at a feed mill in Baton Rouge. After being referred by a relative working at Louisiana Negro to talk to President Jones, Robinson was interviewed and was hired as the sixth football coach.
The team was so short handed that Robinson had a variety of duties such as grounds keeping, directing the drill team, team training, bus driving and writing newspaper stories about the team.
His first season saw the team win three games. The following season, Robinson guided the Tigers to a 9-0 record. With the outbreak of World War II, there was no football competition or a Louisiana Normal team from 1943 to 1944. Robinson had to coach football and girls’ basketball at Grambling High School during those two years.
The talented linebacker and running back Paul “Tank” Younger helped put Robinson and Grambling on the college football map. After Younger’s senior season, he was signed as a free agent by the Los Angeles Rams to play running back, becoming the first player from an HBCU to play in the NFL.
Other players that came along include Junious “Buck” Buchanan, the first player from an HBCU to be selected first overall in the NFL draft, Willie Davis, Willie Brown and Charlie Joiner. All four of these players are enshrined in the pro football hall of fame.
Quarterback Doug Williams was special because he was the first player from an HBCU to be considered for the Heisman Trophy but finished fourth in 1977. Williams went on to win Super Bowl XXII with the Washington Redskins and the Super Bowl MVP.
Williams is serving his second stint as head coach at Grambling.
What really put Grambling on the map was national exposure by playing other teams in stadiums across the country from Yankee Stadium to the Los Angeles Coliseum. Grambling played Morgan State twice at Yankee Stadium and even played across the Pacific in Tokyo two times against Morgan State and Temple. Then the Bayou Classic came along to bring black college football in front of a national audience.
The rivalry between Grambling and Southern University was taken to a new level with the first Bayou Classic. Although these two teams faced each other previously since 1936, this classic started in 1974 with Grambling shutting out Southern 21-0 in Tulane Stadium. The contest moved to the Louisiana Superdome the following year and has been held there since. Grambling holds the Bayou Classic series lead 20-18.
Among the many accomplishments Robinson achieved, he won 408 games, which was surpassed by the late Penn State coach Joe Paterno in 2011.
Robinson won or shared nine black national championships along with 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles, compiled 45 winning seasons with two of them undefeated, saw more than 200 players go on to play professional football and 80 percent of his players graduated with degrees. Only Notre Dame has cranked out more pro players than Grambling.
As Robinson neared the end of his coaching career, Grambling went through three-straight losing seasons and ended Robinson’s tenure on a six-game-losing streak in the Bayou Classic. Robinson retired from coaching after 1997 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame that same year.
Robinson remained supportive of Grambling despite signs of Alzheimer’s disease as he neared the end of his life. Robinson died on April 3, 2007.
“To me, he was the Martin Luther King of football,” former Jackson State coach W.C. Gorden said. “While he may have been a winning football coach, Robinson was considered by many as humble and showed young men how to open previously shut doors through getting an education. A role model on the gridiron and in life, he gave student-athletes a chance to become educated and productive contributors to society.”