Robinson keeps Tigers on the prowl

September 18, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Big Ten has 11 teams. The Big Eight is about to go to 12. The Southwest Conference is about to die.

But Grambling is still Grambling.

Ohio State, Oklahoma, Southern Cal and most of college football's old, traditional powers are shells of what they used to be, their strength sapped by scholarship limits and time's inevitable undertow.

But Grambling is still Grambling.

The Heisman Trophy was all of 5 years old when Eddie Robinson became the head coach at the school in 1941 and immediately began winning, going undefeated in his second season. It would take volumes to record what has happened in the ensuing 53 years of college football. Let's just say that nothing is the same as it was.

Nothing except Notre Dame.

And Grambling.

How's that for a fraternity of two?

The old stadium in which the Tigers battered Morgan State last night used to be the home of an NFL team, which is evidence that nothing in sports -- or much of life, for that matter -- remains the same. Grambling football is that rarest of exceptions, its history a singular chronicle, an epoch that has escaped the tentacles of mediocrity for more than five decades.

Robinson's Tigers have had only six losing seasons, two since 1959. (His opposing coach last night already has three in three seasons.) Robinson's Tigers have sent some 250 players to the NFL, their relentless presence on the draft rolls year after year as responsible as any factor for the pros coming to the then-radical understanding that black players were a good idea.

When Robinson coached his first game, football was just coming to grips with the concept of the forward pass. Think about that. The man has put down a line of uninterrupted success from the days of Sammy Baugh to the days of Deion Sanders, winning seven of every 10 games along the way.

It'll never happen again, not even close. The coaching profession is way too transient now, way too full of guys who always have their eyes on the next move, more money, a higher profile. Robinson, 75, is an anomaly in their company, a willful son of the Deep South who found his life's calling at a small, historically black college -- and turned it into one of the few icons on the sporting landscape to survive the passing of generations.

While it's true that he never had to coach against Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes and the other lions of his profession, he faced daunting circumstances that would have crumbled most coaches, particularly in the '60s and '70s when major state schools finally began using black players and Robinson had to settle for the leftovers. No matter. He kept winning. He kept funneling players to the pros.

As unthinkable as the whole history is, you could see its foundation clearly last night at Memorial Stadium. In a sense, the Tigers of 1954 or 1964 or 1974 or 1984 weren't much different than the 1994 team that took apart outmanned Morgan. Hard blockers. Hard tacklers. Tons of talented players just beginning to bloom.

Robinson paced the sidelines wearing a yellow slicker over a white dress shirt, tie and suspenders. Rain dripped from the brim of the dark baseball cap he wore to keep his eyes dry. He was intent, sharp, focused. His players were ready, driven, not the least bit overconfident even though they had every reason to be. They buried Morgan with a 38-point first quarter that had to be seen to be believed.

As much as the game was just target practice, there was a lesson in Grambling's authority. It was in many ways the story of Grambling football, of Eddie Robinson's peerless run of more than five decades. He has never taken his eyes off the prize. Never gotten lazy or self-satisfied. Never stopped teaching or recruiting or doing the leg work. He has taken every game as it comes, not worrying about the level of the opponent or any compromising circumstances. The next game is there to win. Simple. Basic. Let's do it.

The gentlest of men, he has never been anything less than a killer on the field. A great-grandfather, he is still talking trash and using his elbows. When Grambling scored to take a 44-6 lead halfway through the second quarter last night, he called for a trick play on the conversion. The kicker lined up as usual, but the center lobbed him the ball and he lobbed it to an eligible tackle in the end zone. Two points. In your face.

Then, with two seconds left in the first half and his team ahead, 53-6, he called a timeout that enabled his quarterback to throw another touchdown pass before halftime. In your face.

Some would say it was not particularly sporting. Robinson would say that he was just playing hard. Setting a standard. Showing an overmatched opponent how to play to win. If anyone had earned the right to take such liberties, he has.

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