Loss of a Legend
The day after Thanksgiving is a tradition like no other in New Orleans. Automobiles are backed up for miles along Interstate 10, as college football fans make their way to the French Quarter to enjoy the annual Bayou Classic showdown between Grambling State and Southern.
The lobby of the Hyatt Hotel is chaotic as Gramblingnites and Southernites stand in line to claim their hotel reservations, paying hundreds of dollars to be in the center of all the excitement.
Frat brothers and sorority sisters reminisce about the good old days, as it becomes apparent to causal observers that this weekend is more of a family reunion than a simple football game.
College students pack the Louisiana Superdome that Friday night for the Battle of the Bands and Greek Show, and the weekend culminates that Saturday for the main event between the Jaguars and Tigers. Many spectators make a fashionably late entrance prior to the halftime show, to show off their fancy outfits and mink coats.
After the game, visitors pack Bourbon and Canal as children tap dance on the corner and local jazz musicians bless the tourists with harmonic melodies.
The annual Bayou Classic, televised annually by NBC, became a reality because of Grambling’s iconic coach Eddie Robinson who recently passed away at the age of 88. Robinson receives credit for popularizing the classic, when he took the Grambling show on the road in an effort to reach their fan base, which was scattered across the country.
During his 57-year coaching career, he won 408 games and sent more than 200 players to the professional ranks. At the time of his retirement in1997, Robinson held the most wins by a coach in NCAA football history. The Robinson tenure produced 21 Southwestern Athletic Conference championships and 13 Black college national titles.
“There is no question that Eddie Robinson was a figure that was larger than life for most African American young men of that era,” University of Washington coach Tyrone Willingham said.
Robinson began his legendary Grambling career in 1941, leaving behind a 25 cent an hour job in a feed mill to pursue coaching at what was then know as The Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute.
Coach Rob, as he was affectionately known, had to make sandwiches for his players because they were not allowed to eat in restaurants during the era of segregation. Despite the hostility that he endured during those turbulent times, he remained patriotic and positive.
“Nobody in America, not even the President—there ain’t nobody out there that can out-American Eddie Robinson. He loved to wave that flag,” said former Grambling quarterback Doug Williams.
Williams became one of hundreds to go from Grambling to the gridiron of the National Football League. The legendary quarterback would go on to become the first African American quarterback to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory. Former Grambling star Paul “Tank” Younger became the first NFL player from a historically Black college.
However, Robinson was much more than a football coach. He was a father figure to many of his players who never had a strong male influence in their life. Grambling followers remember him for spending as much time with players headed to corporate America as those who had potential for a professional career.
“I remember Coach really, really concerned about graduating his players, preparing them for life. He’d come around with that cowbell every morning getting everyone up to go to class, go to church,” said a former player.
Because of Grambling’s success on the field during the Robinson era, many young African Americans who probably never dreamed of attending college began dreaming of one day becoming a Grambling State Tiger.
Robinson’s success on the sideline also opened up doors for future generations of Black coaches whose journey became easier because of Coach Rob.
“To me he was like the Martin Luther King of football. I have never seen him angry, derogatory toward any opponent or team that he played against,” said former Jackson State football coach W.C. Gordon.
In a year when America celebrated Tony Dungy’s Super Bowl achievement and the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier, America pays homage to the other iconic Robinson in American history. Thank you Coach Rob for the vision you had for young Black men and the rich legacy that you left behind for us to emulate. We will continue your dream and we will remember our dreams are now a reality because of your sacrifice and dedication. Thank you!
Smith is publisher of Regal Black Men’s Magazine.