Mostly because he spent his entire coaching career at Division I-AA Grambling State, the late great Eddie Robinson's name is not often mentioned alongside such coaching titans as Fielding Yost, Knute Rockne, Woody Hayes, Bear Bryant or Joe Paterno.
Robinson never won a Division I national championship, never saw his Grambling State teams secure a big television contract and never became a household name to quite the same extent that his big-school colleagues did. That being said, there is no denying this: Robinson was one of the most fantastically successful coaches in college football history, one of the finest leaders the game ever saw, and one of the most important men in the evolution of college football as a whole.
He was, in short, a legend.
Robinson spent 56 years as head coach at Grambling State, a historically black college located in Lincoln Parish, Louisiana. His tenure began in 1941 and lasted through 1997, and in the intervening years, he did nothing short of revolutionize the college football experience for young African-American players, providing opportunities for players that may not have been given a chance to shine elsewhere.
More than that, however, Robinson won. He won a lot, actually.
By the time Robinson retired, he had wracked up an amazing 408 wins (his overall record was 408-165-15), making him the winningest coach in Division I-AA history (that division is now known as the Football Championship Subdivision) and the second-winningest coach in all of college football history. Only John Gagliardi of Division III St. John's University and Paterno, of Penn State, won more games than Robinson, who also led his teams to 17 Southwester Athletic Conference championships and nine black college national championships. His teams posted winning records in 46 of his 56 seasons.
The success is all the more remarkable given Robinson's humble roots. According to the Eddie G. Robinson Museum, neither of Robinson's parents graduated high school. And yet, Robinson would push himself to earn a college degree, doing so at Leland College, where he played quarterback for his mentor, coach Reuben Turner. After graduation, Robinson found himself working in a feed mill in Baton Rouge, but eventually learned of a coaching opportunity the college then known as the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. He got an interview, impressed the powers that be, and eventually named the school's sixth football coach by Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones. The college would eventually become known as Grambling, and Robinson would eventually become the most dominant coach in black college football.
Robinson coached three eventual National Football League Hall of Famers-Buck Buchanan of the Kansas City Chiefs, Willie Brown of the Oakland Raiders and Charlie Joiner of the Houston Oilers-and more than 200 NFL players in total. One of those players was Doug Williams, who quarterbacked the Washington Redskins to victory in Super Bowl XXII, earning MVP honors in the process.
With his health failing him and his teams struggling on the field, Robinson finally retired in 1997. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame that same year. It was later revealed that he was suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. He died on April 3, 2007.
His passing was an occasion for mourning across the country. Then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco called Robinson "a great Louisianan and a true American hero." NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said that his league would be "forever grateful for the more than 200 young men he developed at Grambling who starred in the NFL and those who later coached the next generation of NFL players." And when Paterno broke Robinson's wins record more than a decade later, he was effusive in his praise for the Grambling legend.
Said Paterno: "I've told people many, many times two of the greatest people we've ever had in college football are Jake Gaither and Eddie Robinson. Jake was a head coach at Florida A&M. At 24 years of age, Eddie became the head coach at Grambling. Those two men opened up the doors for the African-American kid. They had no place to go. The Southeastern Conference didn't take any black kids. There were very few playing up North. Jake Gaither and Eddie Robinson went out and showed people what kind of athlete these kids could be. So for me; a kid from Brooklyn, whose Grandfather was an immigrant, to be something like this really means a lot to me."