By Scott Latta
UA Media Relations
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. Doug Williams remembers the 5,000 people who showed up that April morning in Louisiana to honor former coach Eddie Robinson.
He has committed to memory almost everything about it: “Eye on the Sparrow” bringing Doris Robinson, newly a widow, to tears; the Grambling State band leading the crowd in the school’s alma mater; Jesse Jackson on stage thanking God for the man who had brought them all together.
Almost every aspect of the funeral still sticks in his mind, yet there is one that sticks a little more than most: Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Grambling cornerback Willie Brown at the podium, asking everyone in the crowd who ever played for Coach Robinson to stand.
And they stood. On the left side of Grambling’s Assembly Center, dressed in their black and gold suits, they stood. On the right side, in the middle, and in the rafters, they just started to stand up.
“Five hundred, maybe 600,” Williams said. “And that might be on the conservative side.”
The former Grambling coach and NFL Super Bowl MVP remembers thinking about the players who were standing that played in the NFL that day, but more so about those who didn’t, and the impact their former coach had left not just on their lives, but the lives of their families.
And more than anything, he remembers what he felt when he joined the congregation of former football players to stand to his feet: cold chills.
“To see them rise like that, all dressed well with school colors, it was almost like it was one of those times to go out and represent Grambling,” he said. “It was the first time the new Assembly Center had ever been used, and there ain’t a better way to use it.”
There is a verse in the 22nd chapter of Proverbs that Steve Skipper thinks about when he thinks about Eddie Robinson. It’s the final verse of the chapter, penned by King Solomon, and Skipper thinks it might as well have been written about the coach himself.
Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men.
Solomon’s words are one of the reasons Skipper, a Birmingham artist who has produced more than 200 works in the last 25 years, felt that a series of sports prints honoring some of football’s greatest coaches would be incomplete without one honoring the man who won more games than any of them.
“Coach Robinson said the greatest men he stood before were not presidents, but the men that he coached,” Skipper said. “It was his love for his players and love for what he did. Coaching was the only job he ever did and Grambling was the only school he ever coached at.”
Skipper, who among his paintings has captured some of Alabama football’s greatest moments on canvas, began work on a pencil sketch of Coach Robinson in his last season based on a photograph taken of Robinson during a farewell tour. Along the way, he said, he began to uncover an Alabama connection to Eddie Robinson, including a former coach who loved him and a current coach who respected him.
“I found out how close he and Coach Bryant were,” Skipper said. “On the night Coach Bryant broke the record, one of the first phone calls he got was from Coach Robinson. He had a print of Coach Bryant in his office. He admired him that much.”
Robinson’s impact as a coach is one largely unmatched in the history of college football. In 56 years as head coach at Grambling State, Robinson won 408 games, losing just 165. He is second all-time on the college football list of wins behind St. John’s University’s John Gagliardi.
After Robinson passed away in April, Skipper began talking with Williams, now a front office executive in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ personnel department, about Robinson’s relationship with Alabama coach Nick Saban. Saban, Williams said, had the opportunity to meet Coach Robinson and his family when he won the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award after leading LSU to a national championship in 2003.
After reading Saban’s comments in an article after Robinson’s passing, Skipper said he realized what Robinson meant not just to the sport, but to Saban himself.
In July, he presented the completed sketch to Saban, titled “Diligence,” embossed in a 24-karat gold frame.
“His reaction was great,” Skipper said. “In fact, I had been told that he was, like the media says about him, tough to get along with and everything, which ended up being one of the greatest lies that’s ever been told by anybody because he’s a very, very nice man and he was very impressed with the sketch.
“Nick Saban thought a great amount of Coach Robinson.”
Today, the portrait hangs in Saban’s office. It is valued at around $500 after an initial retail value of $157 and should continue to appreciate over time.
Much like the coach’s legacy, Saban said, should appreciate as well.
“Coach Robinson was not only one of the most successful coaches in football history, he inspired the people he came in contact with to make a positive difference and a significant impact on society,” Saban said.
Doug Williams thinks that there are plenty of similarities between his story and the story of the coaching lineage at the University of Alabama. Like many of the men who have walked the sidelines in Tuscaloosa, Williams followed a legend after succeeding Robinson when he retired in 1997.
And despite leading Grambling to three consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference titles from 2000-2002, Williams said there is still no doubt who the sidelines belong to in Eddie Robinson Stadium.
“When you talk about Grambling, it’s always going to be about Eddie Robinson,” he said. “You can cut it up any way you want, you just hope you go in and do a good job, and we were able to do that at Grambling.
“At end of the day when you talk about Alabama, the first name (that) comes up is Bear’ Bryant and that’s the way Grambling was. No matter who you hire at Grambling, the first name that is thought of is Eddie Robinson because of that precedent and legacy.”
Williams’ experiences in the NFL with Tampa Bay have given him a professional glimpse of the current Alabama coach, having watched this spring’s NFL Draft from an executive’s perspective and having seen four first-round picks JaMarcus Russell, LaRon Landry, Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis all recruited out of high school by Saban.
With the potential to repeat his previous coaching successes at Alabama, Williams said, he knows Saban won’t forget the men who laid the groundwork in the world of college coaching before him.
“We all know what Coach Saban can do and what he’s capable of doing and what he’s done,” Williams said. “I’m sure being around coaching all his life, I think he respects the men who went before him who worked with him.”
Steve Skipper is working on another painting. It’s one of Eddie Robinson, coaching one of his hundreds of games for one of his 56 teams at Grambling, commanding the sidelines as he did for so many years for the Tigers.
It’s a painting of a game that might have been like any other October contest, like any other 20-point win Robinson earned as a coach, except for one storyline: it is win No. 324, and Eddie Robinson has passed “Bear” Bryant as the winningest college football coach with a 27-7 win over Prairie View A&M.
The proceeds of the painting, like those of the sketch, will go to raise funds for the Eddie Robinson Museum.
“He’d always say: one job, one school, one wife,” Skipper said, “and I’ve taken great pride and a lot of inspiration from him concerning that.”