Letter from the editor
By Gloria Johnston, Editor
Appropriately, for Black History month, a wonderful book has been released about the great Eddie Robinson. Denny Dressman, a former president of the Denver Press Club and the Colorado Press Association, spent years conducting interviews and research to produce an interesting and thorough account of Eddie Robinson's life and career.
Robinson won 408 games as the football coach at Grambling. He helped open pro football to athletes from historically black colleges, and was one of the most influential black men in the South throughout the civil rights era.
Eddie Robinson's contributions were not limited to sports. Denny not only captures the legacy of Robinson, but also captures life in the Jim Crow South through the Civil Rights Movement. It is our pleasure to feature Denny Dressman.
Until next week,
The Denny Dressman Interview
By Scott Bershof
Swing Vote: On the cover of your book it says Coach Eddie Robinson was 'the Martin Luther King of football.' It's a fairly bold statement. Is what you are trying to infer, independent of athletics, in his social impact, did he have as much influence as someone like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali or Roberto Clemente?
Denny: The sub-title is a direct quote from W.C. Gorden, the head football coach at Jackson State for about twenty years while Eddie coached. When Eddie died, Gorden was asked for his reaction and he said, "To me, he was the Martin Luther King of football." That is the origin of it. I recognized it immediately as a quote that would really serve well as a part of the book title. Denny Dressman But I had the same questions and concerns that you just raised -- was that really an accurate reflection of this man's contributions? I spent a great deal of time interviewing a lot of people -- I interviewed about forty people and most of the people I talked to, I was trying to get their feeling and determine to my own satisfaction whether or not in fact that was accurate. The conclusion I reached is that it is absolutely accurate.
Swing Vote: The athletes that were just mentioned -- Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Roberto Clemente transcended sports and are considered cultural icons. Coach Robinson is probably not quite on that level to be considered a cultural icon. Why do you think that is?
Denny: A big part of it is that for so long, for so much of his career during the height of segregation particularly in the South, the white press ignored black college sports. They ignored black news. So a lot of what he accomplished and a lot of his contributions took place before the nation was paying attention.
Swing Vote: This is obviously a 'what if' situation, but do you think Coach Robinson would have been as successful as a coach at a major school -- such as Ohio State, Michigan or Notre Dame?
Denny: I think if you asked his players from any decade that he coached, they would say yes. But there is no denying that a major part of his success was the depth of talent he was able to attract because of segregation. He had virtually a corner on the market on black athletes from the 50s through the 70s. If you think about it, Mark Ingram who won the Heisman Trophy at Alabama this year, couldn't have gotten into Alabama before 1970. He probably would have played for Eddie if he had been a college student in the 60s.
Swing Vote: On an extension of that last question, the fact that Coach Robinson didn't coach at a major school -- from a cultural and social standpoint, did he have a greater impact by staying in the Deep South at an all-black school?
Denny: I think most definitely, and I think that's part of the origin of the quote from W.C. Gorden in the sub-title of the book. Eddie Robinson was first and foremost concerned with developing the young, mostly poor, mostly single-family black kids who came to Grambling in most cases from families that had never had anyone go to college. His whole approach was, 'Get an education and show what you can do by achieving not only on the field but in the classroom and then in life.'
Swing Vote: Today in the NFL there are a lot of successful black coaches. Obviously, the first one that comes to mind is Tony Dungy, who retired recently. Marvin Lewis was just named Coach of the Year, Jim Caldwell just went to a Super Bowl, Mike Tomlin won a Super Bowl last year and Lovie Smith went to a Super Bowl recently. Do you see their careers indirectly linked to the success of Coach Robinson?
Denny: I think the success of African-American coaches and African-American players in pro-football is directly tied to Eddie Robinson's contributions. When he sent Tank Younger to the Los Angeles Rams in 1949, the only black players to ever to play in pro-football where three or four that Paul Brown had lined up, and none of them had come from a historically black college. He opened the door in pro-football to all those black athletes who weren't playing in the north or mid-west or on the west coast. That was the bulk of black athletes at that time. He also eventually opened the door to black quarterbacks. His goal was that his star black quarterback not be turned into a wide receiver or defensive back when he got to the pros. Now you have had several including an MVP with Steve McNair. Everything he did paved the way for the current generation of coaches or players who are African-American.
Swing Vote: We just mentioned all the successful black head coaches in the NFL. For a long time we had the term 'black quarterback' applied because it was so rare to see a black player as a quarterback. Now we have someone like Donovan McNabb who is really just considered a 'quarterback' now. Do you see that changing as well with coaches? Are they still 'black coaches' or are they just becoming 'coaches'?
Denny: I think in the NFL that may be more likely the case. The numbers are still not very good in major college football. As long as they keep statistics and percentages -- how many black coaches are in college or for that matter, how many head coaches in the NFL -- as long as you still have to have a Rooney rule, I think they will still be recognized by their race. I wish it were different, but I think that is the society we live in still.
Swing Vote: What are the main stereotypes Coach Robinson broke down and maybe even shattered?
Denny: That is a difficult question to answer only because it can't be answered simply. You have to understand the society in which he began coaching and coached in for a number of decades. It was a segregated society, a society that discriminated on the basis of race to a great deal. Denny Dressman The stereotypes he attacked were the idea that black students and black athletes could not achieve -- that they could not graduate, that they could not be dependable citizens, that they could not perform under pressure. There were a lot of those things that existed in the 50s and 60s that were eventually brought down by the Civil Rights Movement and all the courageous people who led the marches, protests and demonstrations. Interestingly, Eddie's approach to all of that was to tell his players and students and others in the community that in his view, the most important thing was to get an education and be able to go into the world and do the job when you get the chance. You could probably summarize by saying the stereotype he attacked was the belief that black people at that time couldn't achieve in a way or at a level comparable to any white person.
Swing Vote: In a stereotypical way, we usually think of football coaches as irate -- always screaming, never satisfied with a player's performance. Usually who comes to mind are coaches like Woody Hayes, Bill Parcells or Bill Cowher. That really wasn't Coach Robinson's style, was it?
Denny: It wasn't. But if you talk to some of his former players they'll tell you that they certainly took plenty of heat from him and he was fully capable of coming down very hard on them. I was talking to Willie Davis just the other day on a program interview that I did and Willie talked about being really berated by Coach Robinson in practice. Willie said that you knew when you did wrong and when you weren't satisfying him. But he would always be the first one to come back to you in the locker room after practice or walking off the field and would say, 'You know I really just want you to do your best. I just want you to accomplish as much as you're capable of.' Unsaid, 'That's why I'm doing this. That's why I'm riding you so hard.' His was a very controlled thing. It wasn't a public thing like most of the guys you named who did it publicly and made it part of their personality. He was a behind the scenes, on the practice field, between you-and-me kind of thing. He would encourage them and treat them like human beings the rest of the time.
Swing Vote: He began coaching in 1941 during the Jim Crow South about twenty-five years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When he retired in 1997, how different was he as a person from the point where he was in 1941 to when he retired in 1997?
Denny: I think in fundamental ways, no different. Obviously he had aged, and he was not as successful a coach in his last five years. By then, he was in his late 70s and the years had taken their toll. But in terms of what he stood for -- his values, his principles, I don't think he changed that much. If you talked to his former players they will tell you without exception that he was the most patriotic American they've ever met. Not the most patriotic Black-American, the most patriotic American. He was always teaching and preaching the virtues of America. He would say, "We are living in the greatest country in the world." He would say, "If it can be done anywhere, it can be done in America. And if it can't be done in America, it can't be done anywhere else." He would always extol the virtues of America and that was from the 1940s to the time of his death. I think that's the thing people would remember the most. Denny Dressman That and the fact he never complained about any of the indignities or any of the problems he was faced with growing up black in a segregated society. He never had a chip on his shoulder about that. His attitude, his approach was, 'Things will get better but when they do, you got to help make them better and you've got to be ready when they get better because if you're not, then it won't be lasting.'
Swing Vote: One of his former players who would ultimately succeed him as head coach at Grambling, Doug Williams, in Super Bowl XXII had the most prolific second quarter in Super Bowl history. He was the first and is still the only African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Do you think that was Coach Robinson's proudest moment as a coach?
Denny: Certainly one of them. He had four Pro-Football Hall of Fame players and he delivered the introductory speeches for Willie Davis and Charlie Joiner, and he attended all of them. Those of course were proud, proud moments and so many other things. He talks about the first game they played in Tokyo; being called an American in a foreign country was an amazingly proud moment for him. There is a story in the book about Eddie meeting Doug in the runway at the end of the Super Bowl. Doug told me this story where Coach met him, hugged him, told him how proud he was, not just of the accomplishment and the performance, but the fact Doug had gotten up off the deck. He had suffered a knee injury late in the first quarter and they weren't sure if he would play in the game again. He hobbled out there and had, like you said, the most prolific second quarter in Super Bowl history. When Eddie hugged him, he said, "It was just like me watching Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling." Then Doug said he couldn't see that; he was a kid then. He listened to it on the radio. But he was picturing it. That statement alone gives you a pretty good idea that was a very proud moment.
Swing Vote: What do you think Coach Robinson would personally say he is most proud of from his 50-year coaching career?
Denny: There is no doubt in my mind that the thing he is most proud of is every player who played for him, who graduated, who went on to success in life, whether that be in business or as a family man. There is a quote at the end of the book that sums it up as well as anything I could say. This is a comment from one of his former players who became a state legislator in Louisiana: "'Coach' described him but it did not define him. In the aftermath of his death a lot of attention will be devoted to all the players he sent to the NFL. That's not his legacy. It's the thousands of young men who went to Grambling with no hope of having a life in the NFL. His legacy is the thousands of men who are good fathers, good husbands, good businessmen, good employees and good leaders." And I think that mattered more than anything else.
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