Who’s the greatest college football coach ever? Some say it was Eddie Robinson, the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history. Samuel Freedman, author of the new book Breaking the Line, on how Robinson overcame racism to build Grambling State into a powerhouse.
One day in June 1941, a third-hand message reached a young man named Eddie Robinson at the feed mill where he worked in Baton Rouge, La. A tiny black college 200 miles upstate, the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, was looking to hire a football coach. The offer had made its way from Robinson’s wife Doris, who was attending a training course there for teachers, to her mother in Baton Rouge, one of the few black people in town with a home telephone, and finally on foot to the mill. Even if Negro Normal Institute was just a flyspeck of a place, commonly known as Grambling for the hamlet in the piney woods where it was set, this opportunity to coach football reached Eddie Robinson as a godsend.
For nearly his entire life, he had aspired to no other occupation. Robinson was the sole child of a third-generation sharecropper and a maid who earned a dollar a day. He had spent his first six years in the farming town of Jackson, sleeping on the floor of a shotgun shack without heat, water, or electricity, connected by a plank walkway to an outhouse. When his parents’ marriage broke up, he moved to Baton Rouge, where his father had found a job at the Standard Oil refinery. Soon after, as the elder Robinson moved through a series of homes and women, Eddie started his own working life. He shined shoes, hawked papers, hauled ice, cut hair, bussed tables, bagged shrimp, sold strawberries, delivered sandwiches. He learned to box and walked the streets with the gloves tied to dangle over his shoulders, practicing his punches, advertising another form of self-reliance.
Jim Crow had ruled Baton Rouge since the overthrow of Reconstruction, and from childhood, Eddie had had his own instructive encounters with white supremacy. Once, he was picked up by the police for supposedly stealing a customer’s watch while making ice deliveries. As the cops drove him to the station, Eddie recalled the stories he’d heard of jailhouse beatings and false confessions. Fortunately for him, the missing watch turned up before he was booked. Another time, Eddie snuck into Tiger Stadium for an LSU football game, not realizing Negroes were forbidden. Kicked out and sent home, Eddie then took a beating from his father’s belt for having crossed, however innocently, a treacherous racial boundary. He later found an acceptable way back into the stadium by joining the all-black maintenance crew that worked on game days.
Segregation felt permanent to Eddie Robinson, immutable, unchangeable. “We had come up with segregation all our lives,” he would later recall, “and nobody had ever told us it was wrong. We accepted it and you just grew up with the thing.” What the Negro could try to control and preserve was his sense of self-worth. Sports became Eddie’s chosen means of expressing that sovereignty.
He listened to all of Joe Louis’s fights on the radio his mother had bought for that specific purpose. During the broadcast of the Brown Bomber’s rematch against Max Schmeling, the German champion embraced by the Nazi regime, Eddie heard something astonishing: a Negro being referred to as an American. Much closer to home, Eddie saw a model of pride and purpose in the form of Julius Kraft—chemistry teacher, shopkeeper, amateur-theater director, and, most importantly, football coach at all-black McKinley High School. Every Monday and Wednesday during the autumns of Eddie’s childhood, Kraft would bring his team in full uniform through the black stores and gathering spots to sell tickets for the weekend game. Those players, Eddie noticed, called their coach “Sir.”
Still in elementary school, Eddie practiced football in his street clothes, and organized games on vacant lots. He sketched out plays in his school notebooks till his exasperated teachers snatched them away. By the time Eddie was a junior at McKinley, he was starting at quarterback, and he proceeded to lead the team to two straight unbeaten seasons and be elected class president for good measure. He went on to play quarterback at Leland College, a black Baptist school just outside Baton Rouge, and to be groomed for a future of coaching by his coach there, a northern-trained theologian named Ruben Turner. When Turner took along Eddie on recruiting trips around the state, and even more so when he brought him to a coaching clinic in Chicago, he was showing as much of the outside world as Eddie Robinson had ever seen.
Beginning in high school, Eddie courted a classmate named Doris Mott, and even young love contained an element of self-improvement. Doris was the daughter of the Negro middle-class—father a brakeman on the Illinois Central, mother and aunts all teachers—who even attended boarding school for a time. With the money from his odd jobs, Eddie treated her to movies, and later the jazz bands that played the Temple Roof Gardens, atop the five-story building that was the tallest in South Baton Rouge. He always said that he knew he’d won her when she danced with him to “Stardust.”
Yet by the summer of 1941, at the age of just 22, Robinson saw his dream of coaching already imperiled, swamped by the exigencies of daily life, circumscribed by the realities of segregation. He had eloped with Doris two months earlier, shortly after graduating together as English majors from Leland College. By midsummer, she was pregnant, and Robinson was working two jobs, nights on an ice truck and days at the feed mill, lugging 150-pound sacks for 25 cents an hour as boll weevils infested his skin. Plenty of lives in South Baton Rouge went no further. So when that message about the coaching job arrived, Robinson said yes to Grambling—sight unseen, salary undetermined, risks unknown or ignored.
In the racial geography of Louisiana, Baton Rouge’s hostility was mitigated by Catholic and Creole influences, as well as by Huey Long’s stint as governor, when he carved the political divide along the line of class rather than color. Grambling, by comparison, was a black pinprick in the state’s Protestant, redneck north. Long, who had grown up 50 miles from Grambling in Winnfield, was the exception that proved the rule: the surest way to defuse anger at the wealthy caste of planters and businessmen was to grant poor whites official superiority over blacks along with the extralegal latitude to wield it. In the early decades of the century, three parishes (counties) in northern Louisiana recorded the most lynchings of any county in the nation.
Ruston, the closest town to Grambling, had a particularly gruesome reputation. During the early fall of 1938, less than three years before Robinson’s trip, two white men had been beaten, one of them fatally, and a white woman sexually attacked. While a state laboratory was analyzing the fingerprints of a suspect, a black teenager from Ruston named W.C. Williams, a mob hunted him down. Williams was whipped with the belt from a cotton gin and raped with a heated metal poker until he “confessed.” Then, as several hundred spectators approvingly watched, the mob lynched him and riddled his body with bullets. No one was ever arrested for Williams’s murder. As the episode was reported nationally in the Negro press, it imparted palpable, lasting fear five miles away in Grambling.
The racial hierarchy applied even to enemies of the United States. Early in World War II, the government built an internment camp outside Ruston for German prisoners, many of them officers who were Nazi Party members. Grambling’s blacks cooked their food and washed their clothes, while the Germans were provided with recreation, a canteen, and a camp newspaper. Some, barely supervised, took outside work as loggers. Then, when the war ended, the POW barracks were sent to Grambling to be used for faculty housing.
The private high school that evolved into a junior college and ultimately Grambling had been founded in 1901 by a group of black farmers who pooled enough money to buy land and hire a young protégé of Booker T. Washington’s as principal. For nearly 40 years, the school-cum-college had no electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, or brick buildings. At one point in the late 1920s, the Negro Normal Institute raised money to continue functioning by ordering musical instruments from Sears on credit and sending around a student band to entertain wealthy whites with a minstrel show.
Even after some modern utilities and a few permanent buildings arrived in 1939 under the New Deal, the Negro Normal Institute continued to hold the most pragmatic goals. The school trained teachers for black elementary and secondary schools that, in many cases, only operated three months a year. It taught students how to farm and fix and build. In a program called the “College of Common Sense,” instructors traveled to the black settlements of northern Louisiana, installing toilets, assembling front steps, making beds out of orange crates. On Grambling’s own land, agriculture professors sent co-eds in their saddle shoes out to dig sweet potatoes. The village’s primary link to the outside world was a mail train that passed through twice daily. Often, in the absence of any other diversions, the townspeople lined the tracks to watch.
As for football, Robinson was taking over a failing, almost moribund, program. Negro Normal Institute had played only nineteen games since taking up the sport in 1928, winning exactly four times. During three seasons, it hadn’t even been able to field a team. Only 40 of its 175 students were male. Then again, it took a desperate school to make such a risky hire—a 22-year-old whose only coaching experience had been on Baton Rouge sandlots.
Robinson signed on for $63.25 a month and moved into a rooming house. City people until now, he and Doris got sick from bugs in the well water, and fell asleep to the foraging sounds of possums and raccoons. “It was,” she said years later of Grambling circa 1941, “just nowhere.” Without any assistants, save the school’s night watchman, Robinson not only coached football and basketball but lined the field, drove the team bus, trained the drill team for halftime shows, made sandwiches for the players on road trips, taped up the sprained ankles and knees, and called in game stories to local newspapers.
The news was not so good that first season. Grambling went 3-5, and Robinson returned home in a fury after each loss, tearing his hat off, getting so worked up Doris worried he’d have a heart attack. “Maybe we better go back to Baton Rouge,” she told him, “and you get a job at Standard Oil.”
In Robinson’s second season, 1942, Grambling was unbeaten and unscored-upon. With so many young men mobilized for World War II, the college cancelled its football seasons in 1943 and 1944, leaving Robinson to conscript co-eds to test the single-wing plays he was devising. In spite of isolation, lynching, illness, and anything else, he had made up his mind to stay in Grambling, and he expressed the conviction in words that consciously echoed some of Booker T. Washington’s most famous. “You have to put down your bucket somewhere,” he put it, “and draw water where you can.”
In the summer of 1945, with the world war nearly over and the football season soon to begin, Eddie Robinson drove Grambling’s station wagon to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. He was recruiting black veterans who had played high school ball and now could attend college on the GI Bill. He went house to house, wearing a coat and tie to impress the parents, and telling their grown sons, “I’m starting a program here, and for a good program, I need good people.”
It took no small amount of persuasion to persuade city folks to move to a campus one recruit recalled as “just a little old shanty-looking thing.” It took no small amount of will to convince men who had already been through war to take orders from a coach only 26 years old who had been safely stateside. Those players called Robinson “Mule” because he worked them hard as pack animals. After one particular loss, he confiscated their meal books for weeks, until they beat Grambling’s archrival, Southern, in a season-ending game.
But after taking commands from white officers in the military, those veterans appreciated having a black man in charge. And this black man, they soon discovered, was not above any task. When a player was going to miss a game because his father needed help with the cotton harvest, Robinson went into the fields with them. Besides, winning bred faith, and Grambling went 40-16-2 for the rest of the decade.
Bible in hand, like a circuit-riding preacher, Robinson traveled through the countryside, entering the shacks of sharecroppers and pulpwood cutters, assuring parents who hadn’t gone past elementary school: “Your boy will graduate college and your boy will go to church on Sunday.” To those boys, Robinson offered a gospel grounded in his own experience. “Football teaches the lesson of life,” he put it some years later. “It cultivates in the athlete the ability to pay the price. No struggle, no strength. No fight, no fortitude. No crisis, no courage. No suffering, no sympathy. No pain, no patience.”
As word spread about what Robinson was doing at Grambling, young players wrote him to beg for a chance. They sent letters listing their report-card marks and their times in the 100-yard dash; they sent letters composed in capital letters on lined paper. One hopeful apologized for the web of creases on a page, explaining, “Sorry my neace [sic] got to the letter when I was in the bathroom sorry!!!” Another told Robinson, “You have been reading the letters of a young man who has never had a taste of honey.” A third closed by stating, “Coach this may sound funny but you are the man for my future. Please help.”
In the midst of pervasive race hate, Robinson showed how to wear stoic dignity as psychic armor. He endured when Grambling’s team bus broke down and a white mechanic said, “Don’t bring that n***r bus in here.” He endured when the police kicked his team off a practice field in Montgomery, Ala., leaving it to drill in a parking lot. He endured when a white coach told a clinic how stupid a particular Negro player was to have returned a punt from the end zone. He endured when local newspapers, in the wake of the Brown decision, printed letters calling blacks “monkeys” and quoted state legislators describing integration as a “Grand Canyon of socialism.”
On the field and off, Robinson implemented his own version of separate but equal. In it, a black had to be better than a white merely to have an equal chance—better in the classroom, better on the field, better in his character. For Robinson, there was no point in railing against the unfairness of the world; resentment would devour you from the inside out. There was only the perpetual effort to improve the self and uplift the race. “When you get your opportunities,” Robinson often told his team, “make the most of them.” Football happened to offer an especially concrete way of proving what blacks could accomplish. Football had the same rules for either race, the same field, the same penalties and points. Excellence in the end had to be recognized. “If they throwing and catching, if they blocking and tackling,” Robinson said of white schools, “that’s what we doing, too.”
Adapted from Breaking the Line by Samuel G. Freedman. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2013 by Samuel G. Freedman.