Profiles In Plagiar-Ageism: Eddie Robinson

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Profiles In Plagiar-Agism is an offseason series being run to examine the history of exit plans. We will be analyzing some of the greatest football coaches of all time and determining any parallels between their final days and those that are facing Joe Paterno.

(Previous episodes: Paul William "Bear" BryantLou Holtz, John Cooper)

Eddie Robinson Coaching Years: Grambling 1941--1997

Mythical National Championships*:  Nine total (S indicates shared); 1955, 1967 (S), 1972, 1974 (S), 1975, 1977 (S), 1980, 1983, 1992

Conference Championships:  17 total tied and shared (Southwestern Athletic Conference)

Backstory: Robinson, a native son of Louisiana, started the last job he would ever have in 1941 at what was then known as the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute (later to become Grambling). The school, a struggling African-American college working to survive in the segregated south, knew that some form of recognition needed to be built in order for it to survive. Then school president Ralph Jones hired Robinson as the man who would build the strong athletic department on which the academic division would rely on. Robinson would coach football, basketball and baseball, all while performing less desirable task such as lining the fields and writing the game wrap ups for the local newspaper.

While Robinson would eventually drop most of his other responsibilities to focus on football, he was first and foremost interested in his players and their futures. One of his players from the '40s, Fred Hobdy, explained after the coach's death, "The first thing he'd do, he'd assemble the players, tell them they had to get their education, had to get more out of this than football."

That's not to say he wasn't interested in winning. As part of his campaign to bring notoriety to his program, Robinson would schedule the vast majority of his games on the road. His efforts paid off when, in 1949, the LA Rams signed one of his running backs, Paul "Tank'' Younger.  Tank would go on to play in four Pro Bowls.

From there the dynasty grew.  Robinson would send over 200 players to the professional ranks and at one time maintain the title of winningest coach in college football history.  All the while, Robinson never lost site of what he was doing and what was important: "The real record I have set for over 50 years is the fact that I have had one job and one wife."

Like all good things, however, this one would come to an end.  After his final MNC in 1992, Robinson's effectiveness appeared to have diminished.  Two losing seasons in 1995 and 1996 led to calls for Robinson to retire.  Unfortunately, it wasn't just the play on the field that had become a problem.  His players had shown a lack of control.  Two were in the middle of an investigation for rape.  The league placed the program on probation for two years as a result of bylaw violation (attributed mostly to his son, Eddie Robinson Jr.).

All Robinson ever wanted to do was coach, and he gave the idea of stepping down no consideration whatsoever.  He wanted another year to prove himself:

"I want to prove I can still win at this age, " Robinson told Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated. "I ain't ready to sit in a rocking chair and wait for death to come calling on me."

...

Frank Lewis, a Robinson player who went on to the Pittsburgh Steelers, told Minutaglio: "I don't think he ever had, in his dreams, the thought of retiring. He was going to coach until he passed away." Lewis said Robinson did more for black athletes than anyone would ever know. "With all the good and wonderful things this man has done, he should have been able to set his own date for leaving.

 

Burn Out or Fade Away? Despite literally building both the athletic department and, essentially, the school, from scratch, the pressure to win drove the Grambling administration to (allegedly) attempt to force Robinson out.  Public outcry, and action from legislators in the state of LA, led to Robinson getting the opportunity to keep his job for one more year. 

The team didn't perform, however, repeating the previous season's record of 3-8.  Robinson was forced out and so ended one of the greatest coaching careers in the history of sports.  The legend was soon after diagnosed with Alzheimer's.  He died ten years later at the age of 88

Current Legacy.  Eddie Robinson will forever be remembered as not only one of the greatest coaches of all time, but also a great leader, educator, and pioneer for African-Americans in mainstream athletics.  The integration of many of the southern schools was a direct result of the talent Robinson was able to find, develop and send into professional sports.  He did things the right way; the players always came first.

After his retirement the Football Writers Association of America immediately added his name to the title of their "Coach of the Year" award.  His 408 wins are second only to John Gagliardi of St. John's, MN.

Similar to Paterno's Situation?   The situations are actually strikingly similar.  Both are credited with building the program.  Both have been loyal to the school and their players.  Both have coached into their elder years and showed no signs or interest in leaving the profession.  As a result, both faced harsh criticism to resign.

I think it's important, however, to point out the differences.

  • The off the field issues aren't exactly the same - To try and compare the two is a bit foolish, but I think it's important to note that they were comprised of 'different' problems.  You could make an argument that they all stem from the same type of weak institutional control, but I'm not sure I would buy it.
  • Health is important - Paterno still is in fine shape, by just about every account still very sharp, and is still very active during practices.  Most agree that Robinson was probably showing signs of Alzheimer's during his final years of coaching.
  • Paterno is still relatively competitive - Now if you want to compare this to the Dark Years, that's obviously fair, but Paterno has made it past that.  Penn State is coming off three consecutive seasons in which he finished ranked (as high as #3, as low at #25).  Grambling was at the end of three losing seasons.

So what did we learn? This has been by far the most interesting episode in this series to put together.  Robinson was a great man who won his games the right way.  You could say the same thing about Paterno.  While they faced different challenges, they approached the job with the same mentality.

Why Paterno was able to weather his own bad seasons while Robinson was not is a curious question.  The explanation is difficult to pin point.  Maybe the added pressure of off the field issued led to the tipping point.  Maybe it was Paterno's ability to not appear discouraged.  Or, more obvious, maybe his fan base was simply less patient.

Both men went on record and very clearly stated that they have/had no intention of retiring despite lowered performance on the field. It's a fine line between allowing a coach to live off his legacy and, alternatively, doing what is right for the program. Winning isn't, as it goes, everything. But finding that balance is difficult. Paterno has been able to dig the program out of the awful hole it had fallen into when the 2004 season ended.  Robinson, with a politically mandated additional year at the helm, was not when faced with a similar situation in 1997.

Despite Robinson's legacy and lasting respect, I can't help but feel as though the sour ending slightly smears an otherwise amazing story. The Bear had decided that his players deserved better and walked away; both Robinson and Paterno didn't/don't feel that a replacement would constitute an improvement. It can turn into a dangerous game of chicken, however, especially when national championship droughts grow larger. However, no mater what your achievements are over the years, nothing is certain. The future is important, and those whose jobs it is to look after the future aren't mandated to maintain the status quo...even if it means a bitter ending for a bonafide living legend.

So the story is really not about the coaches but about the administrations. Robinson was clearly not strong enough to ward off those that wanted him ousted, Paterno probably is.

"We are in agreement that a contract would have little practicality given Coach Paterno’s seniority. None of us see that as necessary," Spanier wrote in the e-mail Wednesday night. "Our preference is to continue to review the status of the program on an annual basis, and we will next do so at the conclusion of the 2008 season."

Maybe this is simply a delay tactic by Old Main, but the fact that just about everyone agrees with the above leads me to believe that the administration realizes resistance is futile. Paterno's career may not end up as perfect as he deserves, but the coach appears to at least have the opportunity to make his own bed here. It's important, for everyone, that he be able to put his decision in perspective.

 

ed- I relied pretty heavily on a couple of sites for the background section of this post, most notably a story by the NCAA as well as some compiled information from answers.com.  Check them out if you are interested in more of the backstory.

*Note that the Mythical National Championship for Historically Black Colleges was awarded by the Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper, from 1920-1980.  In 1981, two polls were used, hosted by the Sheridan Broadcasting Network and the American Sports Wire.

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