Bill Little commentary: The hero in Eddie Robinson
It has been 20 years since the moment, but it is one of those that transcend time and place. The governing fathers of the NCAA, the university presidents, were flexing their muscle when it came to college sports. It was the summer of 1987, and the American Football Coaches Association had just had a lesson in the pecking order within the structure of America's colleges and universities.
By chance, the workshop of the College Sports Information Directors of America followed that meeting a week or so later. It was a time when the isolationism of college athletics at some of the nation's institutions was being called into question.
Eddie Robinson had flown all the way to Portland, Ore., to address the CoSIDA Kickoff Luncheon, and he was giving a "state of the union" speech of college football through the eyes of one of the game's true giants.
"They say, 'Get to know your president,'" he said in that unmistakable southern drawl. "I know my president...I recruited him...out of the ghetto."
They say in Louisiana and in Texas that it "ain't bragging if it's true," and Eddie wasn't bragging. And he wasn't saying he'd picked up some guy to serve as a figurehead at Grambling University.
Instead, he was talking about nurture. He was talking about the single-most important reason a university exists, and that is education. He was proud that his university president was a young man who had come to Grambling as a football player and had used the tools the university had given him to become president of that same university. And above all, he knew that his man, his university president, understood better than anyone the value of athletics, and in this specific case, what college football could mean in a life.
Eddie Robinson died Wednesday morning after battling a long illness. He served Grambling University as the winningest coach in the history of college football during his time there. He was a pioneer in America's historically all-black colleges. Like Jake Gaither at Florida A&M, he established the role of athletics as a conduit to a future for thousands of young people.
"They say, 'Your students should go to class,'" he said that day. "My students go to class. They get up in the morning, because I go into the dorm with a big bell, and I walk into their room clanging that bell until they get out of bed and are wide awake."
The image of the stately gentleman standing at the podium, firmly grasping a cow bell and relentlessly ringing it until you shook the sleep from your eyes and rolled out of the sack became personal. You could not only hear it, you could feel it.
It is important to remember that this speech came in 1987, in the middle of the 1980s, when the world was questioning the ability of universities to control college football. SMU had been thrown under the jail for NCAA violations that resulted in the "death penalty" eliminating their football program. Throughout the country, there were rumors of the same, or worse.
The leaders of the NCAA were in the process of establishing firmly a policy of "institutional control," and if a university didn't have control, the NCAA was coming with a hammer. It was clear that there were those who thought college athletics couldn't control itself, so university presidents were going to have to do it themselves.
And there, on that day in Portland, stood one clear voice that said to the skeptics, "There is a way."
He rose, and talked about values, about taking kids who had not been richly blessed as youngsters and giving them a chance for a better life. A number of his former players would go on and play professional football, and they served as Grambling's window to the world in sports.
The Grambling band would become a show band that entertained thousands, showing the link that defined the fun of college football, and a vehicle with which to display immense talent in the world of music.
Eddie Robinson understood that the main purpose of a university is not to graduate, but it is to educate. Graduation, for his players, was the end result of that education. And that is why his players went on to become doctors and lawyers and yes, university presidents.
Too often in our world today, we cross sports and life, and use terms that really don't belong. Wars are not games between two schools. Bombs are not long passes. And in most cases, we take terms like "bravery" and "courage" and misuse them.
But there is one that can transcend, and that is the word "hero."
Heroes fight in Iraq, heroes died on 9/11, heroes put themselves in harm's way for others. And heroes simply change lives, and make a difference in this world.
And Eddie Robinson was a hero.