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Inside College Football | Chris Dufresne / ON COLLEGE

Sadly, His Record Is Fading Away

November 06, 2003|Chris Dufresne

It is a sad fact that maybe the only person in football who doesn't know St. John's (Minn.) Coach John Gagliardi has tied Eddie Robinson on the all-time victories list is Eddie Robinson.

Gagliardi notched career win No. 408 last week and can pass Robinson on Saturday with a home win against Bethel.

This landmark event has not reached Robinson, 84 now and afflicted with Alzheimer's disease.

The legendary "Coach Rob," forced to retire in 1997 after 57 seasons as coach at Grambling, spends quiet days in the care of his wife, Doris.

"He's still getting up and coming to the table, which is encouraging," she said by phone from the couple's home in Grambling, La. "He eats pretty good ... we get up for breakfast, but as soon as he eats he's ready to go back to bed. He sleeps, and we get him up for lunch."

Asked if Robinson was aware his coaching record was about to be eclipsed, she said, "No. We are, but he's not."

She said her husband's disease has progressed in the last two years, though Robinson was able to give a speech last spring in Atlanta. She said her grandchildren wrote the script in large letters to make it easier for Robinson to read.

"He did well," she said. "That was last spring. He's gradually, gradually going down."

Robinson has some long-term memory, and is occasionally lucid enough to conduct interviews, but Doris said now is not a good time.

She does, however, feel comfortable in speaking for her husband as Gagliardi closes in on win No. 409.

"I don't believe he would be upset," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, records are made to be broken. When you're out there in the great big world, if you come up with one, somebody can top you."

The Grambling community has respectfully come to grips with the fact Robinson's mark is going to fall to a Division III coach in tiny, Collegeville, Minn.

Robinson became the all-divisions coaching leader on Oct. 5, 1985, when he won his 324th game and passed Bear Bryant.

Robinson kept right on coaching, up to a very bitter end. He finished with a career record of 408-165-15 -- but had three consecutive losing seasons to close the books.

Doug Williams, one of Robinson's star quarterbacks and now Grambling's coach, said he has nothing but admiration for Gagliardi's achievement.

"Four-hundred some-odd wins is a lot of wins," Williams said. "I don't care what level: Pop Warner, Sisters of the Poor, it doesn't matter. Winning is winning."

Williams too thinks Robinson would have been happy for Gagliardi.

"Coach Rob would be the first man to shake his hand," Williams said. "His speech has always been 'This is America, anything is possible in America.' "

Some may want to diminish Gagliardi's accomplishments because his wins were not recorded on the major-college level, or by ESPN cameras. Some made the same argument against Robinson and Grambling, a Division I-AA school.

It just doesn't wash, particularly in Robinson's case.

For years, his Grambling teams were relegated to the segregated black conferences of the South. Grambling produced scores of future NFL stars -- Tank Younger, Willie Davis, Buck Buchanan, Charlie Joiner and James Harris.

Williams, a Super Bowl most valuable player with the Washington Redskins, has no doubt the best Grambling teams could have whipped many of the so-called "major" college schools.

"Players in the ACC, SEC, Big Ten now, those players used to be at Grambling," Williams said.

Robinson won nine National Black College Championships and 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles.

His legacy is safe and secure -- record or no record.

Henry Aaron passed Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list, but Ruth is still Ruth.

And "Coach Rob" will always be "Coach Rob."

"Eddie Robinson is always going to be part of Coach Gagliardi breaking his record," Williams said. "You've got to break someone's record to get the record, right?"

For now, Doris Robinson has more pressing concerns than debating her husband's place in history.

"I hope this is not something people are jumping up and arguing about, is it?" she asked.

Her husband is frail and failing. He complains daily of terrible aches and back pain.

"When we got X-rays, you wouldn't see the structure of his back," Doris said. "It looked like scrambled eggs. You know, he went through all those years and never was ill."

She has become Eddie's prime caretaker, but doesn't regret a single day since the two high-school sweethearts married in 1941.

With Eddie's condition deteriorating, Doris in conversation often slips into the past tense.

"We had a great marriage," she said. "Some problems some people had, we just didn't have."

The Robinsons bore two children; one of their great grandkids, Quentin Burrell, is a junior safety at Notre Dame.

As the telephone interview wound down, Doris wanted to make one last point.

"I must add to everything that he was a great father and a husband," she said, again speaking as if Eddie, at least a part of him, has departed.

Sixty-two years married to one woman? Fifty-seven years coaching at one school?

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