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Eddie Robinson, 88; forged gridiron tradition, players' character

Eddie Robinson, with some of his players on the sidelines during game against Howard University at Giants Stadium in New Jersey . The Grambling University coach won 408 games. (file/new york times/1988)

WASHINGTON -- Eddie Robinson, the iconic former college football coach whose pioneering career spanned 11 US presidents and the civil rights movement, died Tuesday night in Ruston, La., following a long battle with Alzheimer's. He was 88.

Mr. Robinson won nine national black college titles and 408 games at Grambling State University, a small predominantly black school in Louisiana. But he will also be remembered for cutting through racial boundaries in what was once the segregated South and for, as he once wrote, challenging "racism by proving a black man could be a good football coach."

Mr. Robinson sent more than 200 players to the NFL, including Doug Williams, who became a Super Bowl-winning quarterback with the Washington Redskins. He also graduated about 80 percent of his players over a career that began in 1941 and ended in 1997, when he retired.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote in Mr. Robinson's 1999 autobiography, "Never Before, Never Again," that Mr. Robinson "developed minds before he developed muscles. The breakthroughs provided by the work of Coach Robinson might have been less dramatic than the day Jackie Robinson donned the Dodger uniform. However, they were no less meaningful. Two men named Robinson changed American life forever."

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco issued a statement yesterday: "Coach Robinson elevated a small town program to national prominence and tore down barriers to achieve an equal playing field for athletes of all races. Generations of Louisianans will forever benefit from Coach Robinson's fight for equality."

Mr. Robinson had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's shortly after retiring in 1997. He had been in and out of a nursing home in the past year.

"For the Grambling family, this is a very emotional time," Williams said. "But I'm thinking about Eddie Robinson the man, not in today-time, but in the day and what he meant to me and to so many people."

Mr. Robinson demonstrated excellence at both ends of his career. In 1942, he was 23 when he coached a team that was undefeated and unscored upon. In 1994, Mr. Robinson was 75 when he led the Tigers to a co-conference championship and was named the Southwestern Athletic Conference coach of the year. On his last team, Mr. Robinson savored the fact that he coached nine sons of his former players.

"Nobody has ever done or will do what Eddie Robinson has done for this game," Penn State Coach Joe Paterno has said. "Our profession will never be able to repay Eddie Robinson for what he has done for the country and the profession of football."

Born in Jackson, La., Mr. Robinson was the son of a cotton sharecropper and a domestic worker. When he was named head coach in 1941, Grambling was called the Louisiana Negro and Industrial Institute. He washed uniforms, drove the team bus, mowed and lined the field, and filled coffee cans with cement so players could lift weights. There was no locker room or weight room.

He also fixed sandwiches for road trips, because the players could not eat in the "white only" restaurants of the South.

He also coached the men's and women's basketball teams.

He received national attention in 1949 when one of his players, Paul "Tank" Younger, signed a contract with the Los Angeles Rams to become the first player signed by the NFL from a historically black college. Mr. Robinson produced seven first-round NFL draft picks and four future Hall of Famers: Younger, Willie Brown, Buck Buchanan, and Willie Davis.

Buchanan played 13 seasons in the NFL, but Mr. Robinson took particular pride in the fact Buchanan returned to Grambling to earn his degree. Mr. Robinson believed society did not always "ask (student-athletes) to be smart enough."

"If a boy can't tackle, we show him how," Mr. Robinson wrote about society's general expectations of a student-athlete. "I sometimes wondered if anybody cared enough to teach him to read."

Mr. Robinson made sure players valued education and discipline. He carried players' updated grades in his briefcase. He corrected grammar on the practice field. He required players to wear suit coats and ties to media interviews. In an old office, Mr. Robinson once kept an assortment of earrings in his desk; he didn't allow jewelry.

In 1985 he passed Paul "Bear" Bryant as the winningest college football coach when Grambling beat Prairie View A&M, 27-7. What Mr. Robinson said he cherished most about that team was that 20 players made the honor roll. (Coach John Gagliardi of St. John's, Minn., passed Mr. Robinson in 2003 and has 443 wins.)

Mr. Robinson remained committed to academics even in his mid- 70s, when he rang cow bells at 6:30 a.m. to make sure players rose from bed, ate breakfast, and attended class. If a player missed class, the coach made him run sprints up and down bleachers or would take away his meal card for the day.

"Leadership, like coaching, is fighting for the hearts and souls of men and getting them to believe in you," Mr. Robinson had said.

New York Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner, a friend of Mr. Robinson's, has called him the "greatest American I have ever known." Muhammad Ali has credited Mr. Robinson for "turning boys into men," calling him a "credit to his sport as well as a credit to humanity."

In 1960, one year after Grambling joined the Southwest Athletic Conference, Mr. Robinson won his first of 17 SWAC titles or co-titles. He was cited by the Football Writers Association of America in 1966 as the person who contributed the most to college football in the previous 25 years.

But Mr. Robinson always felt that family came first. He had said he didn't manage to coach for 60 years, but he was hoping to celebrate a 75th anniversary with wife, Doris, in 2016.

"People talk about the record I've compiled at Grambling, but the real record is the fact that for over 50 years, I've had one job and one wife," Mr. Robinson had said. "I don't believe anyone can out-American me."

Despite the hardships he faced in the deep South in the post-World War II years, Mr. Robinson was extremely patriotic.

"Nobody in America, not even the president . . . nobody out there can out-American Eddie Robinson," Williams said. "He loved to wave that flag."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Robinson leaves a son, Eddie Jr., a daughter, Lillian Rose, five grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.