On November 29, 1997, Grambling State University football coach Eddie Robinson coaches his last college football game. (Grambling’s Tigers played the Southern University Jaguars at the Superdome in New Orleans; Southern won, 30-7.) He’d been coaching at Grambling, a historically black college near Shreveport, for 55 seasons. His career record–408-165-15–was the second-winningest in college football. (The recordholder, John Gagliardi of St. John’s University in Minnesota, won 443 games. He broke Robinson’s record in 2003.) Robinson’s Grambling team sent 220 players to the NFL and four to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “Eddie Robinson molded as many great athletes as he recruited,” a former player for a rival team remembered. “If you were good enough to play for Grambling, you were good enough to play in the NFL.”
In 1941, Robinson was working days at a feed mill and nights on an ice truck when his sister told him that Grambling–then known as the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute–was looking for a football coach. Robinson impressed the college president and got the job. In his first season, the team went 3-5; in his second, they were undefeated and un-scored-upon. At a black college in the segregated South, there wasn’t much money for extras, so Robinson did everything there was to do: He painted lines on the field; made sandwiches before away games because the team couldn’t eat at Jim Crow restaurants; and once sent his entire team to help his star running backs pick cotton so they would be done in time to play in the championship game. (They were, and Grambling won.)
By the 1960s, Robinson had decided to build Grambling into a team with a truly national following. (He frequently compared his team to “a deep South version of Notre Dame.”) He took the Tigers on “barnstorming” tours from coast to coast, where they played before tens of thousands of people in venerable arenas like Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl and the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Just as Robinson was introducing a majority of Americans to black college football, black college football was beginning to fall apart. Southern state universities began to integrate their teams in the 1960s and 70s, and, while this was undoubtedly good for college football (and, as Sports Illustrated noted, “for humankind”), it wasn’t great for the Tigers. Robinson no longer got first crack at talented young African-American recruits. Though Grambling’s team survived, it had to start playing in a less prestigious division.
But Robinson hung on for 26 more seasons and hundreds more victories. (He passed Bear Bryant’s all-time win record in 1985 and kept on going.) He died in 2007 of complications from Alzheimer’s, but his legacy survives.