GRAMBLING, La. — Perhaps nowhere else in America has the Land of Opportunity been more fertile than in this sleepy community in Northeast Louisiana. For Grambling is where the son of a sharecropper built, with his bare hands, one of the best-known and most successful football programs.
Before each Grambling State football game in the early 1940s, Eddie Robinson would mow the football field and line it. At the half, he would direct the band and the drill team. And when the game was over, because no one cared enough about a small black school deep in the backwoods, Robinson even would write the game story for the newspapers.
"I would tear out articles about other teams in the newspapers," Robinson recalled last week. "If we won big, I would just insert our name into the stories in which schools won by large margins. If we won a close game, I would rewrite the close game story and put our school in it. If we lost, I'd write an alibi.
"I wasn't too good," Robinson said, "but I'd start each story like, 'On a cold day in Grambling--, ' something like that. Then I'd send it off to Western Union."
And of course, during the games, Robinson would coach. That is what he liked most. That is what he did best.
"I've been very fortunate to be a part of this great country," Robinson, 66, said on the eve of becoming college football's all-time winningest coach. "A person has a chance to do anything here that he wants to, if he puts forth the effort."
Robinson has had 25 consecutive winning seasons and only two losing records in 42 seasons at Grambling. His teams have won 14 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles. And for those who think his school is just a football factory, his graduation rate has been estimated to be 80%.
This season, Grambling is 4-0 and ranked second in the nation among Division I-AA schools. It could be the school's strongest team since the 1980 squad went 10-2 and reached the I-AA playoffs.
There's something else--Grambling has sent more than 200 players to the pros. Robinson had 43 players in pro camps in 1971, more than any coach before or since. Two of his former players, Willie Brown and Tank Younger, are members of the NFL Hall of Fame.
But most people, when they remember Robinson, will remember his record of 324-106-15. Everyone, that is, except Robinson.
He has downplayed the significance of breaking the record of the late Paul "Bear" Bryant as college football's winningest coach ever since it became apparent he had the best chance to do it.
"The record is not Eddie Robinson's," he said. "The record is Grambling's, and that's the way it is."
In 1941, 22-year-old Eddie Robinson graduated from now-defunct Leland College in Baker, La. That summer, after the railroad closed, the town became economically strapped.
Times were even rougher for Robinson when he married his childhood sweetheart, Doris Mott, and the couple was expecting its first child. Robinson went to work in a feed mill in Baton Rouge, La., for 25 cents an hour.
Doris' aunt, who attended summer school at Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, a small college in the northeast part of the state, told Robinson that the school needed a football coach. The pay was attractive--$63.75 per month.
Robinson, who played quarterback at Leland, was hired. But on arrival, his first meeting with school president Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones was not encouraging.
"We fought about baseball, of all things," Robinson said. "See, I thought I was a pretty good hitter. He said he could strike me out. I insisted I could hit his curve. Well, this conversation got a little heated. We talked about borrowing a baseball and going to the yard.
"He also told me I couldn't coach. He told me I had to learn to coach."
Robinson did not have a full-time assistant coach, so he hired the night watchman. "He had to change his sleeping hours but not his regular job, because the president wanted him to remain the night watchman," Robinson said.
The school also changed its name to Grambling State. "I don't know why (Jones) did it, but I think it was because of the cheerleaders," Robinson said. "Before they could say 'Hold that line, Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute,' hell, the other team would score."
Robinson went 3-5 in his first year, but the team was 8-0 the next. World War II canceled the next two seasons, then Robinson returned in 1945 for a 10-2 season.
The school first achieved national acclaim when a big, powerful running back nicknamed "Tank" scored 25 touchdowns in 1948 and one year later attracted the attention of Eddie Kotal, a scout with the Los Angeles Rams. Finally, a black man would be paid to play football.