The obituaries for Grambling State football coach Eddie Robinson, who died on April 3 at the age of 88, had a strained, distant tone, as if their writers weren’t sure who Robinson was. They probably weren’t. Robinson last coached in 1997, and many current sportswriters had never met him, much less knew the history of his 55-year career. Of all the pieces on Robinson, only the Newark Star-Ledger’s Jerry Izenberg and the Daily News‘ Dick Weiss showed an appreciation and understanding of Robinson’s significance. Eddie Robinson, the son of a cotton sharecropper, had more impact on football than any man in the game’s history since Knute Rockne—more than George Halas, Bear Bryant, or anyone. Robinson joined the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute in 1941 at age 22, coaching not only football but men’s and women’s basketball while teaching physical education, washing uniforms, driving the team bus, tending the field, and writing press releases. When I interviewed him for Inside Sports in 1983, he read me the lead from one of his game recaps: “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky . . . ”
“I wrote that in 1943,” he said with a grin. “I don’t think Grantland Rice will sue me for plagiarism.”
Robinson’s tiny school—through most of his career, Grambling had fewer than 4,000 students—sent an astonishing 222 players to the pros, most notably Doug Williams, the only black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Last February, the Indianapolis Colts’ Tony Dungy and the Chicago Bears’ Lovie Smith became the first African-American coaches to reach the Big Game. Both acknowledged their debt to Robinson. More than that, though, he helped educate young men who had no other hope of college—more than 80 percent of his athletes graduated—and he raised scholarship money for thousands more. That he was able to do so was in large part due to his friendship with a former Purdue assistant football coach named George Steinbrenner.
Most of the summaries of Robinson’s life and career tended to downplay his relationship with Steinbrenner, as if the Yankees owner’s longtime commitment to Grambling was just an easy tax write-off or mere public relations. He and Eddie Robinson went much deeper than that. When I met Robinson, I noticed an autographed picture of Jackie Robinson on his office wall. I was surprised at two other signed photos. One was Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, for years castigated by much of the media for his failure to sign black players. Eddie and Bear were friends; Robinson was one of the few men who understood the torment Bryant went through battling George Wallace behind the scenes to integrate the state university’s football team. The second picture was of George Steinbrenner.
Steinbrenner did not, as at least one writer claimed, initiate hosting the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Urban League Classic game at Yankee Stadium. The game, played annually under the auspices of the New York Urban League, showcases black college football teams and has raised more than $21 million to provide scholarship money to nearly 4,100 students. The man who first brought the game to Yankee Stadium was team president Mike Burke, but in 1976, when the Urban League’s strained finances prevented them from underwriting the game, Robinson, through Howard Cosell, put in a plea to George Steinbrenner. Steinbrenner provided financial backing for the game and continued to do so even after the game was shifted to Giants Stadium in 1987.
“I fell in love with George Steinbrenner in 1976,” said Robinson in his 1999 autobiography,
Never Before, Never Again (for which Steinbrenner wrote the foreword), “and love him even more today. He has become a close personal friend over the years. . . . His generosity to Grambling has been remarkable. He has given Grambling a great deal of support and has brought the Yankees to Grambling to play on our campus three times. No one really knows these things about him. Telling about our relationship is one the reasons I wanted to write this book in the first place. The TV people said they were so surprised when he cried in the locker room after the Yankees won the 1998 World Series. His reputation as a hard-nosed man is misplaced as far as the Robinsons and
Grambling are concerned . . . Doris [Mrs. Robinson] and I are so lucky that he is our friend.” The
sophisticated would be ill-advised to sneer at the sentiments expressed in those words.
Coach Robinson was wrong about “hard-nosed.” George Steinbrenner was and is that, and that’s a side that Robinson never got to see that we’ve seen all too often. It may seem absurd to us that anyone would place George Steinbrenner’s photograph alongside Jackie Robinson’s, but it’s intriguing that a black football coach from Louisiana thought otherwise.