Monday, January 20, 2014

For Longhorns, a lifetime of change now complete

What would Bubba say if he were around to see this?

The news that Charlie Strong, an African American, has been hired to be the next head football coach at the University of Texas . . .

The photo of UT president Bill Powers seated beside Strong at the press conference, shaking hands and introducing him as only sixth head coach of the Longhorns in more than a half-century . . .

And comments such as, “It really is a wonderful day for the University of Texas,” from Powers himself  . . .

All are milestones Bubba Smith likely wondered if he’d ever see, and which he would have appreciated more than most of us can.

To fully grasp the significance of Charlie Strong’s ascension to the pinnacle of college football, consider the story of how Bubba Smith of Charlton-Pollard High School in Beaumont, Texas became one of the most famous Michigan State Spartans of all-time – instead of one in the long line of renowned Texas Longhorns.

Bubba graduated from high school in 1963, the year Charlie Strong turned three.

It was a monumental year in the civil rights movement: blistering fire hoses and snarling police dogs in Birmingham; the sniper murder of NAACP official Medgar Evers in the front yard of his home in Jackson, Mississippi; Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington; and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, just as he prepared to achieve Congressional passage of what, in the aftermath of his death, became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

The University of Texas had desegregated in 1956, but still resisted integrating its athletic teams, especially football.  Darrell Royal, who became head coach in 1957, nevertheless met with the big lineman from Beaumont.

In a TV documentary 45 years later, Bubba recalled telling Royal it was his dream to play for the Longhorns, and the Texas coach’s response. “He said, ‘Bubba, I can probably get you a scholarship, but I don’t know when the football program is going to integrate.’”

Bubba Smith became a two-time consensus all-American at Michigan State, and played in one of the most famous college football games of all time, the 10-10 tie with Notre Dame in 1966. He was the first pick in the 1967 National Football League draft, and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1988.

Texas finally enrolled its first African American football player – Julius Whittier – in 1969. As a freshman when first-year student-athletes still were not eligible to play on the varsity, Whittier watched Texas defeat Arkansas 15-14 to win the 1969 national championship.

Those Longhorns would be the last all-white team to win the college football national championship. Whittier would letter each of the next two years.

In the four-plus decades that followed, Texas rode many outstanding black athletes to heights on the gridiron – Earl Campbell, Vince Young, Kenneth Sims, and Ricky Williams, to mention only a few.

One might commend Texas for integrating its football program so extensively. Yet it’s one thing to recognize that African American athletes can help elevate a football program to championship caliber. It’s quite another to extend that diversity to the head man on the sidelines.

And that’s what makes Charlie Strong’s selection as the 29th Texas head football coach in 120 years so important.  Call it the end of hypocrisy where football is religion.

The major football powers of the Deep South – Louisiana State, Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss and Georgia – have all benefitted from opening their programs to black talent. But they all are yet to hire their first black head coach.

None of this, of course, is to say that Charlie Strong – even with a 12-1 season in 2013 and overall 37-16 record in four seasons at Louisville – is universally accepted or supported just because he’s been hired.

Red McCombs, the 86-year-old Texas billionaire who has owned two professional basketball franchises and, briefly, the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL, doesn’t speak for everyone in Texas. But he is an influential booster, and what he had to say after Strong was introduced at a press conference in Austin no doubt reflects the old-line feelings of one segment of the alumni-fan base that Strong will have to ignore, prove wrong and win over.

“It’s a kick in the face,” he said “I think he would make a great position coach, maybe coordinator,” McCombs also said. “But I don’t believe (he belongs at) what should be one of the three most powerful university programs in the world right now at UT-Austin.”

So what WOULD Bubba say about Charlie Strong? We can only guess since he died in 2011 at the age of 66.

But he’d probably agree with the former Texas staffer who said: “All he has to do is win football games. Nothing else matters.”


Denny Dressman wrote the biography of iconic Grambling football coach Eddie Robinson that is now the basis for an award-winning screenplay titled “Coach Rob.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A surprising experience in personal discovery

I was born August 10, 1945—the day after Nagasaki and four days after Hiroshima. What little I knew about rationing, scrap metal drives and war bonds I learned by listening to my dad, who experienced them as a father of three already in his early 40s. I first became aware of the warfare part of World War II by watching some of the popular movies of my childhood. Thirty Second Over Tokyo; Run Silent, Run Deep; Bataan and Mr. Roberts come immediately to mind. After I reached adulthood, I started reading books about the war—dozens of books. My fascination related to having come along right on its heels as I did, and being exposed to its fresh memories as I was.

When I was approached about turning the transcripts of Dr. John Elliff’s interviews with the Sterling Heroes into a book, I relished the opportunity to work on a subject that interested me so much. I thought I knew a lot about the war by this time; more, certainly, than most post-war Americans. What a surprise that awaited! At the beginning of this project, I also assumed that a book of this sort would appeal, most of all, to the generation that had lived the war day after day for almost five years. What a mistaken premise!

If another historical event exists about which more has been written, published and (in this era) posted than World War II, I have somehow missed it. WWII likely exceeds even baseball—with all of its lore and statistical achievements recorded in countless books, articles, videos and Web sites—for the sheer volume of its recorded milestones and memorable moments. Every unit that served; the crew of every ship or squadron; and every major battle each has its own Internet site. Every ship, airplane and military honor has its own curriculum vitae, as it were, in print or online. And the books. Thousands of books explore every imaginable facet of the greatest global conflict man has ever known.

Sterling Heroes exposed me to this vast panorama—teaching me how little I really knew. So to ensure that the references to historic people, places, events and phenomena that appear in every first-person account are understood in their historical context, bits of history supplement each chapter. It may not be possible to condense more than four years of danger, death and destruction—and slices of life during that time—into snippets of a few hundred words apiece, but that is what “Historical References” attempts to do at the end of each chapter.

Part of what makes Sterling Heroes unique within this unmatched written record is the microcosm the lives of these 36 veterans represent. Here is rural, small town America at a time when larger cities shared many more of their traits. Here are American teenagers leaving home to risk their lives, just as real adulthood drew near. In these cases, they usually were leaving the farm or ranch, but the experience was virtually the same no matter what kind of family environment a boy was leaving. They all went in “for the duration” and were moved around the country, usually to four or five newly constructed training camps—regardless of their branch of service—before shipping out to Europe or the Pacific. What they left behind was a nation totally preoccupied with the “war effort.”

The Sterling Heroes served in the Army, Navy, Marines and Army Air Corps. They saw service in North Africa, Italy, France, Germany, the Aleutians, New Guinea, Australia, the Philippines, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, every little atoll in the seemingly endless Pacific and—not to be forgotten or underestimated—in America itself and along her shores. As a result, their stories, collectively, document the truly global nature of World War II and the unimaginable scope of the mobilization that occurred on the home front, while shedding light on the patriotism and commitment that dominated America through years of sacrifice.

Nearly all of the World War II veterans that I have known in my life were reluctant, if not outright unwilling, to talk about their experiences during the time they spent in uniform. They did what they had to do. It was, in most cases, violent, terrifying, heart-breaking and sadly wasteful. For those lucky enough to come home, it was time to get on with life. They would reminisce with each other, through their reunions and alumni associations, or remember quietly on their own.

This is another element that makes Sterling Heroes such an exception in the realm of World War II literature. Widely respected and ultimately trustworthy, Dr. Elliff persuaded three dozen men to talk about their places in that war—to confide their fears and heartaches; to admit at least some of their shenanigans; to share dramatic moments during combat; and to reveal personal feelings about family, faith and the future course of their lives. Of the thousands of books that deal with some aspect of World War II, precious few offer the broad sense of Americans facing this time in the way that Sterling Heroes does. Most deal with military analysis of a particular battle; re-create a pivotal event; or profile a given individual. Some attempt to chronicle the entire global conflict, or everything that occurred in one of its theaters.

Each Sterling hero has his own chapter. Each chapter is original, personal—one of a kind. Yet there are threads that connect some to others. “The Coincidental Patient” and “The War Correspondent” show how small the world can be—even the world at war. “The Weary Warrior,” “The Battle Baby” and “The 99th’s Memorialist” illustrate the horrors of ground warfare, and “The Frightful Flier,” “The Flying Ace” and “The Early Centurion” paint a vivid picture of combat in the skies. The gripping accounts in “The Indomitable POW,” “The Forgiving Captive,” “The Intrepid Escapee” and “The Post-War Citizen” provide different perspectives on being captured by the enemy. And life aboard ship ranges from “The Pearl Survivor” to “The Dual Personality,” the “The Deliveryman” and “The First In Line.” The infrastructure of war is captured in “The Unsung Pilot,” “The Flight Instructor,” “The Sudden 1st Sergeant” and “The Plains Yachstman.” And Okinawa—the last battle of the war—is recounted in “The Combat Engineer,” “The School Teacher” and “The Grieving Son.” Believe it or not, this is barely half of the chapters.

Members of what has been dubbed “The Greatest Generation” may well enjoy Sterling Heroes, as I originally thought they would. But I now realize that this book offers much more to those who, like me, were born after World War II—whether that refers to the late 1940s, the second half of the 20th century, in the New Millennium or sometime beyond. There will never be another war like it, nor another time when the United States, as a nation, is so galvanized by a single cause. Thanks, to the Sterling Heroes for sharing, and to Dr. John Elliff for asking them to.

D.D. 2012

Monday, June 20, 2011

The story behind the biography of Eddie Robinson

Before undertaking the only biography thus far of historic African American college football coach and role model Eddie Robinson (Eddie Robinson " . . .  he was the Martin Luther King of football"), I decided to go to school.

Literally and figuratively.

It's not that I wasn't already an experienced professional.  I'd won awards as a reporters and columnist during a 43-year newspaper career; had written three books, and had edited and produced four others; and had written for several magazines.

But I had never even attempted a biography.  And I had never dealt with the history that provides the context for a person's life story.

So I enrolled in a course in the University of Denver's University College Enrichment Program that dealt with writing narrative history - the reference text for the class was David McCullough's 1776, and a lecture by McCullough himself was the final session.  After learning by listening to McCullough discuss his work for more than an hour -- without notes, I searched for books on biography and life writing.

I have always been a great fan of William Zinsser's On Writing Well.  When I found that he had published Writing About Your Life, A Journey into the Past, I was certain that his view on capturing life events would be very instructive, even though he was writing from the perspective of relating one's own experiences.

Indeed, Zinsser's appreciation for unique details to bring dimension and color to personal experiences applies equally to the small elements that enrich the telling of a moment from any life.

Even more pivotal in my "training" in the art of biography, though, was a fabulous little (5 1/2 by 7 inches) book by the noted biographer Nigel Hamilton, called How To Do Biography - A Primer.

I recommend it not only to those interested in writing a biography, but also to anyone who enjoys reading biographies, because Hamilton's explanation of what should go into a biography also tells readers what to expect and how to judge/appreciate a biographical work.  If I were in a reading group, this would be my nomination for our next title, followed by a biography (Eddie Robinson, of course).

I read all 346 pages of Hamilton's primer twice, highlighting passages the second time through. And then I typed those highlighted excerpts into my own abstract, to which I referred throughout my work on Eddie Robinson " . . .  he was the Martin Luther King of football."

"The intrinsic aim of biography," Hamilton wrote in what I treated as his guiding principle, " . . . (is) to penetrate the moral core of a life, to interpret it -- and thereby not only learn the facts and information, but also acquire insight and lessons that could be serviceable in one's own life, either as warnings or inspiration. . . . Ultimately, the reader wants to know the meaning of that life, what it amounted to . . . "

Hamilton is the author of many acclaimed biographies, but his three-volume life of British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery is perhaps his most recognized achievement. A reference to that masterwork in How To Do Biography shaped my approach to telling Eddie Robinson's life story.

"I realized," wrote Hamilton, "that I was not only writing Montgomery's life story, but contributing to the military history of World War II in Europe and the Mediterranean . . . "

That statement inspired me to do all that I could to incorporate the history of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement into the chronicle of Eddie Robinson's remarkable and historic accomplishments and contributions.

I am pleased to say that the book has been cited for excellence in both biography and in historical non-fiction. Though I would never equate this book to any of Nigel Hamilton's biographies, the dual recognition at least suggests to me that I was able to execute his written general guidance with some degree of success.

I'm also proud that the book is the basis for a K-12 character education curriculum developed by the State of Louisiana, and that it will be included in a list of recommended reading for a Leadership n Sport class to be taught this summer and fall and the University of Kansas.

I hope you enjoy reading the story of a great American who transcended college athletics and racial prejudice.  I welcome your comments here, or you also can email me at

Monday, May 23, 2011

Discovery on the Heroes and Heritage Trail

The trademark red clay along the side of Interstate 20, which darts across the top of the Louisiana boot from Shreveport to Jackson, Mississippi, was dusted white with a rare light snowfall on the second weekend of February, 2010.

Above that odd sight, a newly installed sign not only informed passersby that Exit 81 leads to Grambling State University but also announced the Pelican State’s two newest tourism attractions: the Eddie G. Robinson Museum and the Heroes and Heritage Trail.

A unique conceptual network of historic attractions, the Heroes and Heritage Trail winds its way from the fishing hamlet of Lafitte, 24 miles below New Orleans at the southern end of Louisiana Highway 45, to equally small Oil City in the far northwest corner on Louisiana Highway 1, about four miles east of Texas and less than 20 miles south of Arkansas.

The route, ties together 16 local museums that were largely hidden gems for many years.  It was conceived by then-Secretary of State Jay Dardenne as a way to promote them absent tourism marketing funds. Elected Louisiana Lieutenant Governor in November, 2010, Dardenne unveiled the idea at the dedication of the long-awaited Robinson Museum, originally proposed more than a decade ago, on February 13 – the late coach’s birthday.

To encourage vacationers to embrace the Trail, Dardenne’s office came up with a game called Passport to Adventure.  It promises the “Ghost of the Castle” Sleepover, an overnight stay at the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge, and a VIP tour of the site to those who visit at least 11 sites along the Heroes and Heritage Trail. 

While each museum is a destination in itself, the Heroes and Heritage Trail makes it easy to visit small groups of them in a series of driving trips.  And because the museums are funded and operated by state government, admission is free!

Many of the museums feature famous (and sometimes infamous) figures from Louisiana history – from notorious pirate and smuggler Jean Lafitte to colorful politicians, war heroes and celebrities. But only one focuses entirely on a single individual’s life and career, his achievements and contributions.

Eddie Robinson coached football at Grambling – and developed educated and disciplined contributors to society under Jim Crow and amid the tumult and aftermath of the civil rights movement – for 57 years. From 1941 to 1997 his teams won 408 games – the most of any college coach at any level through his retirement at age 78 – and his players achieved a level of renown that made Grambling, during those years, the “black Notre Dame” when it came to producing pro stars. 

The amazing career and remarkable life of the most significant black coach in the history of American collegiate athletics are impressively preserved with Hall-of-Fame-caliber presentations at the Eddie G. Robinson Museum. It is located in a renovated early campus building where “Coach Rob” also coached basketball for 13 years – winning 288 games and developing national scoring champion Robert Hopkins.

At other stops along the Trail:

-- The Delta Music Museum and Arcade Theater in Ferriday tells the story of three famous cousins – piano-pounding early rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, country icon Mickey Gilley and television evangelist Jimmy Swaggert – and documents the role of the Mississippi River in nurturing the distinct sounds of Southern music, from gospel to country to blues.

-- Chennault Aviation and Military Museum in Monroe – named for Gen. Claire Chennault, daring leader of the famed Flying Tigers in the Pacific Theater of World War II – preserves the history of Selman Air Field (now Monroe Regional Airport), where more than 15,000 American navigators were trained and Delta Airlines later was born.

-- The Louisiana State Cotton Museum in Lake Providence features an extensive array of interpretive exhibits, including life-size dioramas, farming equipment, a re-created “juke joint”  (a community room for slaves on a plantation), and more. All are packed into a replica gin house along with authentic plantation buildings, including a sharecropper’s cabin.

-- The Mansfield Female College Museum, 45 minutes south of Shreveport, exhibits the artifacts and memorabilia of the pioneering young women who attended the first female college west of the Mississippi. Founded in 1855, Mansfield Female College was closed during the War Between The States and its buildings used as a hospital for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Mansfield.

-- The Jean Lafitte Marine Fisheries Museum near Bayou Barataria is dedicated to both the legendary Jean Lafitte and the fishing industry that developed along the little strip of land bordered by swamp on one side and open water on the other after his demise in the early 1800s.   While there, adventurous visitors often sign up for a swamp tour by airboat.

A detailed description of each museum, and the rules of the Passport to Adventure game, can be downloaded using the following link: 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Recalling and Living Up To the Great Example of 'Coach Rob'

When the coach, an assistant at South Carolina State, approached me at my book booth at the American Football Coaches Association convention in Dallas, I knew immediately that he, as others before him, wanted me to sign his copy of Eddie Robinson " . . . he was the Martin Luther King of football."

And as I did with everyone who came to me with a copy of my biography of the legendary Grambling coach, I asked: "Did you know Coach Rob?"

"I sure did," the man answered enthusiastically.  "I carried his briefcase for him one time at this convention."

I, of course, wanted to know more.  As I signed his book, he told me the following story:

"I came here one year with a friend, another coach, and we met Coach Rob in the lobby.  He didn't know us, but when we said hello to him, he stopped to talk with us.  Coach Rob would always take the time to talk with a stranger and make him feel good.

"He said to us, 'I've got some advice for you two. A lot of guys, especially the young guys, come to this convention to drink beer and have a good time. My advice is, don't ever leave this convention without learning something.'

"We nodded, but he wasn't finished. He said, 'Like now. There's a session coming up on how to play againsgt the option. We've got two teams on our schedule next season that run the option. So that's where I'm going right now. Where else can I learn how to defense the option?'

"Then he said, 'You guys want to go with me?' I looked a my friend, and said, 'Yes!'

"Coach Rob said, 'Good. You can carry my briefcase for me.'"

That briefcase was one of Eddie Robinson's trademarks. In my book, I wrote about him carrying it to practice daily, and quoted Jackson State's W.C. Gorden relating his reaction the first time he saw Coach Rob walk to the opposing sideline carrying it.

"When we would make our game plan, as defensive coaches, we'd have one page, front and back," Gorden said.  "Eddie had a briefcase! I wondered, 'What's in this briefcase that he can thumb through to help him make adjustments during the game?' I thought he possibly had our coaching history -- how we coached and how we thought, that sort of thing."

All biographers strive to capture their subjects as the persons they were, and, if honest about their innermost feelings, pray they have presented an accurate and complete portrait. On those serendipitous occasions when a depiction is confirmed, the feeling is one of intense satisfaction.

The visitors who had their Eddie Robinson books signed at the 88th AFCA Convention provided just such validation for me. In their words, they sketched a likeness consistent with the one I pieced together from 40 interviews and extensive research.

"Did you know Coach Rob?" I asked repeatedly, knowing he had attended more than 50 of the annual meetings.

"I heard him speak once, and I decided right then that I wanted to be a coach the rest of my life," said one.

"I sure did," answered another. "He once had an ice cream cone with me."

"One time," recalled a third, "I took a flight from Colorado all the way to North Carolina, just so I could hear him speak. It was worth the trip."

Echoing AFCA executive director Grant Teaff, several coaches recalled: "He was always in the front row at the sessions, asking questions."

Jack Lengyel, perhaps best known as the coach who took over what little was left of the Marshall University football program following the tragic plane crash that killed 75 players and coaches in 1970, also stopped by and offered a personal recollection of Coach Rob.

"He was everybody's friend," Jack said. "I remember at one convention we went into a restaurant together, and were sitting at a table by a window.  A policeman walked past outside, and glanced in the window. He recognized Coach Rob and started pointing and waving to him.

"Coach Rob didn't know the man, but he motioned for him to come in. And when that policeman came in, Eddie invited him to sit down with us and have a cup of coffee. The guy couldn't believe it, but that's just how Coach Rob was."

June Jones, who revived the University of Hawaii football program and is doing the same thing now at Southern Methodist, has said of Eddie's life story: "Every coach should read this book. It is a history lesson that needs to never be forgotten."

A high school coach from Connecticut agreed. When asked if he wanted his copy signed to him by first name or as "Coach" with his last name, he replied:

"Sign it to my football team. Those kids don't know anything about Coach Rob, but they sure should.  And they will when they finish reading this book."

Quickly searching for words appropriate to that sentiment, I inscribed: "May we all learn from, and live up to, Coach Rob's great example."