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."

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