MICHELE NORRIS, host:
A legendary figure in college football has passed away. Former Grambling State head football coach Eddie Robinson died late last night. He was 88 years old. In nearly 60 years at Grambling, Robinson turned the small, predominantly African-American school into a nationally recognized football presence. He was the first college coach to win 400 games.
And as NPR's Tom Goldman reports, his legacy extends far beyond the football field.
TOM GOLDMAN: As an African-American kid growing up in Louisiana, Eddie Robinson played football and he was good at it. But he recalled years later that when he went to games as a kid, he liked to hang around the bench and see what the coach was doing. He may not have known it then, but something about the job appealed to the innate leader and teacher inside Robinson. Doug Williams was one of his greatest players at Grambling State.
Mr. DOUG WILLIAMS (MVP Quarterback, Grambling State University): Born in 1919, coming from the South, probably would do from tough things in his life. Being able to coach at Grambling, coach some young black men, I think it was important to him then to instill in guys at that time that you could overcome whatever obstacles are out there.
GOLDMAN: In 1941, at the age of 22, Robinson got the head-coaching job at the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, which would change its name to Grambling State. He attacked his job with a vengeance, recruiting players with the promise to their parents that the young men would go to church and get an education. He matter-of-factly dealt with road trips through the segregated South by making sandwiches for his team, which often would be refused service at restaurants.
Even as he struggled against Jim Crowe, Robinson resisted defining all his work and success in terms of race. Instead, he clung to the constitutional promise of equality. And, says Doug Williams, Robinson constantly claimed that no one could out-American him.
Mr. WILLIAMS: No matter what struggle there was that he had to go through or you might have to go through, America was the only place that was going to allow you an opportunity to work your way through it.
GOLDMAN: This ruffled feathers in the African-American community. Some felt Robinson wasn't aggressive enough in pointing out racial injustice. Former college football coach Bill Curry says Robinson's gift was in teaching the value of cohesiveness, not division, in football and life.
Mr. BILL CURRY (Former College Football Coach): And the value of a team sport is being a part of a team and not trying to be individual stars, and not accentuating our differences, but rather our similarities, and teaching that we can live and work together.
GOLDMAN: Robinson was a master motivator, says Doug Williams, who in 1988 became the first black quarterback to play in the Super Bowl. He won the Most Valuable Player award. Robinson's 408 career wins was the record until a couple of years ago. Robinson was quoted as saying the real record I set over 50 years is the fact that I've had one job and one wife.
Robinson is survived by that wife, Doris, and scores of African-American men in football and business and education who are forever indebted to coach Rob.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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