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Sports Weekend / Football '98 | J.A. ADANDE

Grumbling at Grambling

Legendary Robinson, Coaching Heir Williams Can't Seem to Coexist

September 04, 1998|J.A. ADANDE

GRAMBLING, La. — Eddie Robinson's face is painted on the sign that greets visitors to the school.

"Grambling State University," the sign reads. "Home of 'Coach' Eddie Robinson."

Eddie Robinson is in the drum beats bouncing off the dormitories and echoing around campus, beats produced by a school marching band that became famous playing at Grambling games around the country and the world.

His name is on a street and the school's football stadium.

Eddie Robinson is everywhere at Grambling except the one place he always stood, in the middle of the football team. For the first time since 1941, there's a new football coach on campus. It's former Grambling and NFL quarterback Doug Williams, who is taking over for the winningest coach in college football history.

And as Williams has quickly discovered, the hardest thing isn't replacing a legend. It's coexisting with one.

Friends of Robinson say he associates Williams with the struggle to oust him that took place in the two seasons before he retired last year, and it has damaged their relationship.

"We haven't talked that much," Williams said. "We've basically just been cordial to each other. Speak-and-keep-going type of thing.

"Without a doubt, it's been a strained relationship probably for the last couple of years, since the name Doug Williams popped up as a possible replacement.

"We had a super relationship. I guess you could say it just mellowed out. Or petered out."

Robinson didn't make the transition easy for the new coach. He remained in his large office at the end of the one-story Grambling athletic department after Williams took over in January, forcing Williams to work out of a trailer for most of the year. Williams finally took over Robinson's office two weeks ago.

"This is sad," said Collie Nicholson, a good friend of Robinson's who handled Grambling's public relations for 32 years. "But it's not as sad as it is unnecessary."Coach [Robinson] doesn't realize that he has created this rift. I don't want to think that it's done deliberately. I don't want to think that. But I do know there's some hard feelings."

The last few years weren't kind to Robinson. Robinson became the first coach to win 400 games on Oct. 7, 1995, but it was the only recent highlight in his glorious 57-year tenure. His teams finished with losing records for three straight seasons for the first time in his career. He fought an attempt to force him out after his team went 3-8 in 1996--and Williams' name began to be mentioned as a successor. Robinson survived, buying himself one more season, a chance to leave on his terms and a chance to go out a winner. Instead, 1997 brought another 3-8 record.

Robinson says he wanted Williams to get the job and that "I'm not bitter with anybody." He explains their lack of communication by saying, "Since he got the job, I've been on the run and he's been on the run."

That's the classy side of Robinson speaking. But it's worth noting that he went through a good portion of an interview without referring to Williams by name, and he might not attend the first game of the season Saturday against Alcorn State.

"I haven't decided," Robinson said Wednesday, "because I just don't want to do anything that might interfere with the new coach making a good start. Everybody would feel that I'm second-guessing him, and I don't need to second-guess him. He's had enough experience to do a good job."

Maybe Robinson has taken some of Nicholson's advice to heart and moved on.

"I tell him constantly," Nicholson said, "it's time for him and the rest of us to look forward, to understand what he can do to help bring the program back to its peak."

After so many years of success, the Robinson way wasn't working anymore. Recruiting was falling off. His wing-T offense was outdated and predictable. "Teams sometimes would call out our plays before we would run them," senior linebacker Claudell Sanford said.

The common theme from players: It was time for a change.

So Williams made several changes. He instituted pro-style offenses and defenses. He cut 31 players in the spring. He replaced all but two assistant coaches. He visited some of the forgotten recruiting stops. He even switched the team's athletic wear supplier from Nike to Adidas.

"It's just like our slogan, 'Dawn of a New Era,' " Williams said. "If I had come in here and kept everything intact, where was the new era? It was a coaching change. But I think because we have changed a lot, coaching staff, philosophies, a whole lot of things, it is a new era.

"I might look at it a little differently than most people do," said Williams, who still holds most of Grambling's passing records. "A lot of people put a lot of hype on replacing coach or whatever. Whoever would have replaced coach would have had to deal with the fact that he still had two back-to-back 3-8 seasons. I'm a realist."

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