Grambling State's Eddie Robinson moves past Joe Paterno as winningest coach

Eddie Robinson Jr. (center), son of the late Grambling St. coach, speaks about the change in record.
Eddie Robinson Jr. (center), son of the late Grambling St. coach, speaks about the change in record. (ARLEY D. CASTILLO / The News-Star)
Posted: July 25, 2012

A university president, a museum president and the son of a legend stood Monday afternoon in front of a brick building, its walls accented by photos illustrating the classic moments of their small town's largest figure. The three men talked of competing emotions - happiness for the memory of Eddie Robinson, sadness for Joe Paterno, both.

Robinson, who won 408 games in 55 years at Grambling State, again ascended atop the Division I football coaches all-time wins list on Monday morning. As part of Penn State's punishment for its child sex-abuse scandal, the NCAA vacated all 111 of Paterno's victories from 1998-2011, pulling the former symbol of the game's purity down to eighth on the all-time wins list.

Robinson retired in 1997 and remained in Grambling, La., until his death five years ago. His son Eddie Robinson Jr. spoke Monday on behalf of his family. He said they respected the NCAA's decision to strip Paterno of his victories, but they didn't agree with it.

"If I was a player and I played at Penn State during that era, and I know we didn't play any ineligible players, I might ask, 'Hey, what's that got to do with me?' " Robinson Jr. said. "My heart really goes out to the families of the victims and to Joe Paterno's family, too. . . . To me, it's a lose-lose situation. I don't know if I'm saying the right things, but I'm saying what's in my heart. I keep going back to the players themselves. They didn't know anything about this. I'm out there playing my heart out for four years. I got a busted knee, busted shoulder, whatever. I'm asking, 'What that got to do with me?' "

Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden also moved up the list with the NCAA's decision. Bowden, who retired in 2009 with 377 victories after himself vacating 12 wins because of NCAA sanctions for playing academically ineligible players, found himself at times in a back-and-forth race with Paterno for the most wins in Football Bowl Subdivision history. In 2003, he passed Paterno on the list, only to later slide back. He now ranks first all-time among FBS coaches.

"I don't want people thinking I am glad that happened so I can do this," Bowden told the Associated Press. "All of the things that have happened aren't worth it - not worth it at all."

On Oct. 29, Paterno coached Penn State to a 10-7 win against Illinois. It was the 409th of Paterno's career, inching the coach one victory ahead of Robinson for the most ever. At Beaver Stadium, signs congratulating Paterno propped up, and the university broadcasted the postgame news conference for fans still waiting in their seats.

"It really is something I'm very proud of, to be associated with Eddie Robinson," Paterno said at the time. "Something like this means a lot to me, an awful lot."

One week later, former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested, and the Penn State board of trustees then fired Paterno.

Last Wednesday, Grambling City Attorney Pamela Breedlove and Mayor Edward Jones penned a letter to the NCAA asking the governing body to strip Paterno of some of his victories, thereby driving Robinson back to the top of the list. Breedlove said Monday that she didn't know if her letter impacted the NCAA's decision, but she felt it was a necessary one.

"In 10 years, when we look at the winningest coach in college football, it won't be associated with such a tragedy," she said. "But nobody's leaping up and down saying, 'Yay!'"

Echoing Robinson Jr.'s statement, Breedlove insisted that neither she nor any other leaders in Grambling were happy about Penn State's misfortune, and she complimented the university several times for releasing the Freeh Report to the public. They didn't have to do that, she said.

Breedlove, who began working as the city's attorney about 21/2 years ago, never met Robinson. But she painted the town's relation to its old coach in similar hues as the bond between State College and Paterno.

Grambling is a tight-knit community where the fall 2011 enrollment at the historically black college (4,994 students) outnumbers the town's population of 4,949 - 97 percent of whom are African American.

Robinson began coaching at Grambling State in 1941, and many credit him with helping put the school on the map. He won 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference Championships and eight Black College National Championships.

His fans also have celebrated Robinson's ability to mentor players. Breedlove said she attended a Grambling State athletics hall of fame induction two weeks ago, and a former player told a story in which Robinson promised to walk through "hell and high water" for him.

"He was such a part of this community," Breedlove said. "We're a small town. We're a very small town. . . . Everybody in the city knew him. They would see him at church on Sunday. They would see him wherever he went."

When you enter the Grambling State campus, the Eddie G. Robinson Museum is the first building to greet you. And there, Monday afternoon, university president Frank Pogue stood with Robinson Jr.

"We at Grambling State University," Pogue said, "will continue to feel and acknowledge that the legendary Eddie G. Robinson will be forever, as far as we are concerned, the winningest Division I football coach in the United States."

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