Friday, September 5, 2014

A Whistle-Stop School with Big-Time Talent

Jerry Izenberg (b. 1930)
From Football: Great Writing about the National Sport

Eddie Robinson on the cover of the
October 15, 1985, issue of Sports Illustrated.
On October 5, 1985, Eddie Robinson, who had been Grambling State University’s football coach for more than four decades, surpassed Bear Bryant’s historic record to become the winningest coach in NCAA history. The achievement landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and a decade later he became the first college coach to surpass four hundred victories. During the course of his incredible career more than two hundred Grambling players were drafted by professional football teams. Yet, when Jerry Izenberg profiled Robinson and his team in 1967, few Americans had heard of him or, for that matter, the college—even though national football scouts had already been beating a path for several years to the campus in the small all-black town of Grambling, Louisiana.

After Izenberg’s article appeared in True magazine, it inspired a television program that put Grambling on the map and made Coach Robinson a celebrity. Samuel G. Freedman, writing in Tablet magazine, summarizes:
The resulting documentary, Grambling: 100 Yards to Glory, debuted in early 1968 on New York’s WABC with Izenberg as writer and producer. The film was shown with such reluctance by WABC’s leadership that it was consigned to an hourlong position at 10:30 on Saturday night. It might never have been seen at all without [Howard] Cosell’s imprimatur as benefactor and executive producer.

. . . In the documentary’s immediate aftermath, influential sportswriters such as Shirley Povich in The Washington Post and syndicated columnist Red Smith added their endorsements. Six months after its obscure premiere, Grambling: 100 Yards to Glory received a national broadcast on the ABC network in a prime-time slot preceding the annual game between a college all-star team and the defending NFL champs. An Emmy nomination arrived several weeks later.
By the end of 1968 the other two television networks had likewise broadcast special programming about Grambling’s football team. Jackson State coach Rick Comegy would later recall in an interview with the Associated Press, “Everybody wanted to play at Grambling. [Robinson did] such a fantastic job. He was on national TV, you know, and that was the first time I’d ever seen a black college football team on TV growing up.”

Coach Robinson retired in 1997, the year he was inducted into the College Hall of Fame, and died in 2007.

Note: The selection opens with a brief headnote by John Schulian, who offers a few additional comments about Jerry Izenberg.

Coda: At the very end, Izenberg mentions that Robinson predicted that “a junior named James Harris” would be the “first Negro quarterback to make it big in the pros.” Weeks after the article appeared, Harris was named MVP at the Orange Blossom Classic; two years later he would become the first African American to open a season as a pro-team quarterback, playing for the Buffalo Bills.

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