GRAMBLING, La. — On the late January morning in 1983 when Paul (Bear) Bryant died, Eddie Robinson cried. Now, anyone who knows Eddie can tell you that he cries often, getting all misty at weddings, coaching clinics, sad movies and sometimes even at the sight of a well-executed draw play.
But when Bear died, it seemed as if part of Eddie did, too. Even though Robinson is the football coach at Grambling State University, a predominantly black college in rural north-central Louisiana, and Bryant was not exactly a civil rights leader during his years at Alabama, they had a friendship that lasted nearly 30 years. Eddie used to chase Bear all over the country just to hear him speak at coaching clinics. Bear often sought Eddie's advice on a variety of subjects because he knew the hardship and sacrifices Robinson had endured. Doris Robinson, Eddie's wife, recalls times at coaching conventions when the men would be so engrossed in conversation that she left, unnoticed, and went shopping.
"I used to call him Lord," said Eddie Robinson, whose voice starts cracking when talking about Bryant. "I had great admiration for him, and I believe he respected me."
It wasn't until well after Bryant's funeral that another thought struck Robinson, one that added to his sorrow. He would never be able to fulfill one of his more cherished dreams: Lining up his Grambling team against Bryant's Alabama team in what surely would have been a Fischer-Spassky duel of wits. They had come close once in the early '80s, but a scheduling conflict prevented it.
"When it looked like we were going to play, somebody said to me, 'Eddie, he might beat you.' I said, 'Well, he's beaten everybody else, so we got nothing to lose,' " said Robinson, his raspy laugh filling the room.
Lately, Robinson has been thinking about Bear a lot, and when he isn't, other people keep bringing him up. It is only natural, since Robinson enters the 1985 season, his 44th at Grambling, needing only four victories to break Bryant's record for most career wins by a college football coach. At present, the list shows Bryant with 323 wins, Robinson with 320, Amos Alonzo Stagg with 314 and Glenn (Pop) Warner with 313.
Some time this fall--it could happen as early as Oct. 5 when Grambling meets Prairie View at the Cotton Bowl--Robinson finally will have tracked down the Bear. Although some might contend that Robinson's achievement should be accompanied by a footnote because Grambling (currently Division 1-AA) has been classified as everything from small college to major college over the years. The NCAA record book will simply show that he is the best.
But Robinson, consistent with his unpretentious personality, still won't concede that. To Eddie's way of thinking, Bryant will always be college football's greatest coach, no matter how many more wins he gets at Grambling.
Robinson talks about Bryant the same way others now talk about Eddie.
"The guy was in a class by himself, that's it," Robinson said. "You ain't going to catch him even if you do get more wins than him. When I asked Bear about all those victories a few months before he died, you know what he told me? He said the hardest thing for him at that age was just to get to the practice field."
These days, Robinson also has problems making it to the practice field on time. It has nothing to do with his health. Robinson, 66, still shows blocking techniques to players and walks briskly around campus.
But there is so much to do, so many obligations, and so little time in which to do it. On this day, Grambling's morning practice had been canceled because of student registration, and it was eating away at Eddie. Walking slump-shouldered around campus, he kept muttering, "Lord, I wish we coulda got out there."
But the morning was anything but wasted. Robinson checked on the academic progress of a few of his players, presided over a brainstorming session of his coaches and talked to a few reporters. Normally, Eddie squeezes in interviews around practice, but he always finds time to talk. Coaching and talking are what Robinson does best.
With Bryant's record close to being broken, the national media has descended upon this small college in the Louisiana hills that has produced more professional players than any other school--211. Now, they are taking a closer look at the man who coached such notables as Willie Davis and Willie Brown, both in the Hall of Fame, Tank Younger, Buck Buchanan, Ernie Ladd, Charlie Joiner, Doug Williams, James Harris, Trumaine Johnson . . .
What they find is a refreshingly different situation and a man running it you can't help but like. Grambling's program is as far removed from the so-called football factories as the campus is from any of Louisiana's metropolitan areas. Where else can you find the basketball coach/associate athletic director vacuuming the carpet in the lobby of the athletic department?