Sunday, April 08, 2007
A coach for life as well as sports
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Shanna Flowers is The Roanoke Times' metro columnist.
As far as black people are concerned, Eddie Robinson was the Vince Lombardi of coaches.
When CBS Sports announcer James Brown used that analogy to describe Robinson, the beloved Grambling State University football coach who died last week, I thought it couldn't have been more fitting.
People knew and respected the name of Lombardi, one of the most revered and winning NFL football coaches, even if they didn't follow football.
Same with Robinson.
He transformed a small black college in north Louisiana into a football powerhouse. By the time he retired in 1997 after 57 years at Grambling, Robinson had won more games in college football than any other coach -- and had managed that on shoestring budgets and through years of segregation. He sent more than 200 players to the NFL, including four Pro Football Hall of Famers.
But like Lombardi, Robinson also was a man who transcended sports.
"He was an outstanding man," my friend Dale Thomas, who graduated from Grambling in 1981, told me a few days ago. He didn't play football, but he rented an apartment in a building the coach owned.
Dale said one time he and his roommate had frittered away their rent money on stereo equipment and a few other touches for their apartment. They were behind on rent, and the building manager had started eviction proceedings.
But Robinson stopped the proceedings. He sent word that if the roommates were in school, they could stay in the apartment. Just catch up the rent when they could. They stayed, they caught up the rent -- and they both graduated.
That kind of benevolence certainly sounded like the Eddie Robinson I've read about over the past several days. Tributes from other coaches and former players painted the picture of a man who cared about winning but also about preparing his student-athletes for life after football.
Robinson didn't mind talking about the players he sent to the professional ranks, including Doug Williams, the 1988 Super Bowl MVP quarterback for the Washington Redskins. But Robinson also enjoyed talking about the teachers, social workers and businessmen he had once coached. One report said that in Robinson's nearly six decades of coaching, 80 percent of his players graduated.
"Coach Rob did a lot more for us than teach us about football," former Grambling and NFL cornerback Everson Walls was quoted as saying. "He used to come through the halls early in the morning with a cowbell, waking us up for class and for church."
Today's players could use that kind of guidance and personal development. I suspect if we had more Eddie Robinsons, the NFL would have far more positive role models than it has right now.
Shanna Flowers' column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.