At the end of the fall semester I was turning in a paper for Professor Chris Lamb’s Media and Society Seminar in the Department of Journalism and Public Relations at IUPUI. The paper described how Eddie Robinson changed college football through decades of work molding generations of Grambling State Tigers, and how he continues to influence the industry.
A month later, three days before the start of the spring semester, I found myself sitting next to his grandson at dinner.
If you’re a fan of college football fan, you know Eddie Robinson. With his 408 wins (third all-time behind John Gagliardi and Joe Paterno) and nine Black College Football Championships in 57 seasons, the 1996 College Football Hall of Fame inductee is remembered as one of the greatest and influential coaches in the history of the game.
In an era of segregation on many college campuses, Robinson developed players as one of the greatest minds to coach football at any level.
Not until this past semester, while doing research about the lack of diversity among college coaches did I realize just how important he was to college football. His success at Grambling and his influence inspired the proposed Robinson Rule, a college version of the National Football League’s Rooney Rule, to promote diversity in the hiring process for head college football coaches. Robinson passed away in 2007 at the age of 88.
On my first full day in Atlanta, I was invited to attend the annual dinner honoring past Presidents of the Football Writers Association of America. I took a short shuttle ride to the elegant Capital City Club and took the elevator upstairs to the Bobby Dodd Room, where a portrait of the famed Georgia Tech coach, in a white Tech T-shirt, looked over us.
Oh, and Eddie Robinson III was there.
He looked so much like his grandfather. We shook hands, and I hoped that at some point during the evening I would have a chance to talk to him.
When I found the place card at my assigned seat in the private dining room, I realized I had hit the jackpot. Eddie Robinson III would be sitting next to me and I had so many questions. My paper had just come to life.
He was here to present the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award, as voted by the FWAA, to Scott Frost, the coach who led the University of Central Florida to an undefeated record before leaving for his alma mater, the University of Nebraska.
I told him I was from Indianapolis and he began to share stories with me about his experiences in Indiana and some of the people he knew that worked at Eli Lilly. I learned things that I had not discovered in my research. I heard about the times Eddie Robinson would sneak into LSU games and how those experiences eventually inspired him to become a coach. I heard about how he was considered for the Los Angeles Rams job but chose to stay with Grambling because a player named Doug Williams coming in to play quarterback. Grambling would have a record of 36-7 with Williams at quarterback and won the Black College Football Championship in three of those four years. In 1988, as a member of the Washington Redskins, Williams would become the first African-American quarterback to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory.
There was so much more to discuss than the success of Robinson’s teams. Every time his grandson would talk about the accomplishments or how his grandfather never let race affect how he coached or lived his life, Eddie Robinson III repeatedly said one thing:
“He just loved football.”
It quickly became clear to me that Robinson used football as a way to unite people during extremely divisive times in this country.
Grambling still plays a major role in the life of the Robinson family. Robinson III never got the chance to play for his grandfather as a car accident and arm injury derailed his football career. That didn’t keep him away from the program. That was made very clear by the giant Grambling championship ring.
What I really loved is just how involved he is with his family. Throughout the night, Robinson III told me stories about his children, Chloe and Eddie IV, and their athletic and academic achievements. It was clear he is a very proud father as he showed me videos and pictures of Chloe, who is a track star, soccer star, and the kicker for her high school football team.
Not only had I learned about one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game, but I had enjoyed learning about a special man from a great family. It was clear that the legacy of Eddie Robinson has carried on.
By Joe Spears | @joe_spears7