The trailblazers who integrated college football extend beyond the players to include several legendary head coaches. Both College Football Hall of Fame inductees, Eddie Robinson (Grambling State) and Willie Jeffries (South Carolina State, Wichita State, Howard) achieved an impact far beyond their combined 12 black college national championships between 1955-1992. Robinson ranks second only to Hall of Famer Joe Paterno in career wins, and Jeffries, the only man to coach against Robinson and Hall of Famer Paul “Bear” Bryant, became the first African-American head coach of a Division I-A football program at a predominantly white school when he took the job at Wichita State in 1979.
Born in Jackson, La. in 1919, Robinson graduated from McKinley Senior High School in Baton Rouge, La., in 1937. After earning his bachelor’s degree at nearby Leland College (La.), Robinson took a job at a feed mill for 25 cents an hour. Raised during the era of Jim Crow discrimination, he had to forego his dream of coaching college football anywhere other than a traditionally all-black school. When he heard of a head coach opening at Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute (now Grambling State), he immediately applied.
Robinson, who was only 22 years-old, assumed the head coaching duties at Grambling State. Predating the development of coordinators, position coaches, etc., he handled every aspect of the team. He coached the offense. He coached the defense. He even mowed the field and wrote game recaps for the newspaper. When the Tigers traveled to towns that would not serve Robinson and his team, he even prepared meals for them.
Despite settling at a traditionally all-black school, Robinson told Sports Illustrated later in life that his philosophy was, “whatever league you’re in, whatever level, win there.” In his first season in 1941, Grambling finished 3-5-1. After recruiting new players and removing those who didn’t follow his strict policies on conduct and education, the Tigers had a new look to them. In 1942, they went 9-0 and didn’t allow a single point.
After a two-year hiatus due to the onset of World War II, Grambling State resumed play in 1945. Robinson claimed his first black college national championship in 1955 with another perfect season (10-0), capped off by a 28-21 win over Florida A&M in the Orange Blossom Classic. From 1960-90, Robinson recorded just one losing season and won or shared 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference championships. The Tigers were named black college national champions in 1967, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1980 and 1983. In 1980, Grambling State was one of four teams selected for the Division I-AA Playoffs, losing 14-9 in the semifinals to eventual national champion Boise State.
Entering the 1985 season, Robinson had accumulated 320 wins, sitting three wins shy of Bryant for the top spot on the all-time wins list. Robinson and his team received plenty of media attention surrounding the record, and some people feared he would be the target of white hatred similar to Hank Aaron when he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. However, Robinson didn’t attract any of that, even from the southern fans that worshipped Bryant. Before a crowd of 36,652 at the Cotton Bowl on Oct. 5, 1985, Robinson broke Bryant’s record with a 27-7 win over Prairie View A&M for his 324th career victory.
”You’re all part of a legacy, a tradition,” Robinson told his players after the win. ”I just feel lucky to have had the opportunity to coach you.”
Robinson retired in 1997 with a record of 408-165-15, nine black college national championships and 18 SWAC titles. In 1992, he received the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award after winning his final black college national championship with a 45-15 win over Florida A&M. Robinson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997. He passed away on April 3, 2007 at the age of 88, but his legacy lives on in numerous ways.
Robinson coached all four Tiger players inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame including defensive tackles Buck Buchanan and Gary Johnson, fullback Paul Younger and quarterback Doug Williams, who went on to become the first African-American quarterback to win the Super Bowl. He also saw more than 200 of his players make it to the NFL and 80 percent of his players graduate, including fullback Floyd Harvey, a 1972 NFF National Scholar-Athlete.
Built in 1983, Grambling State’s football stadium was named in his honor. Since 1994, the Eddie Robinson Trophy has been given to the top Historically Black College player. The Football Writers Association of America presents the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award to the top coach in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), and the Sports Network presents the Eddie Robinson Award to the top coach in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). In 2010 during Black History Month, the Eddie G. Robinson Museum opened on the campus of Grambling State as a tribute to his unparalleled contributions.
Willie Jeffries, who was born around the time Robinson graduated high school, battled many of the same issues as Robinson during his path to Hall of Fame coach status. Growing up in Union, S.C., Jeffries attended segregated schools like Robinson, and he went on to play football and graduate from South Carolina State College. In 1961, he landed his first head coaching job at Granard High School, an all-black school in Gaffney, S.C. Jeffries won three straight state championships and went 64-8-2 in seven seasons before taking a defensive line coaching position at North Carolina A&T. He spent three seasons at North Carolina A&T and one as an assistant coach at Pittsburgh in 1972, where he would coach his first white player.
With the chance to become a head coach at the college ranks, Jeffries took over at South Carolina State, his alma mater, in 1973. In his first stint with the Bulldogs from 1973-78, they went 50-13-5 and won five Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles and back-to-back black college national championships in 1976 and 1977. He realized that to ascend the coaching ranks he would have to leave his comfort zone and do what no one else had done. In 1979, he was introduced as the 32nd football coach at Wichita State, becoming the first African-American coach at a predominantly white Division I school.
Even the school wasn’t quite ready for a black football coach, publishing his name as “Jeff Jeffries” in the 1979 team guide, because Willie sounded “a little too black.” Throughout his first season, in which the Shockers went 1-10, he endured many racial comments, letters and phone calls. He credits his childhood job as a caddy at the Union Country Club in South Carolina with teaching him how to deal with people. Jeffries enjoyed his best season at Wichita State in 1983, finishing 8-3 and second in the Missouri Valley Conference. He was approached by Army and Michigan State about coaching openings, but he stayed in Wichita. In 2009, Jeffries was inducted into the Wichita State Sports Hall of Fame for breaking the coaching color barrier. Despite a 21-32-2 record during his tenure at Wichita State, he made a lasting impact as a racial pioneer.
After five seasons at the helm for the Shockers, Jeffries returned to coaching in the MEAC for Howard University from 1984-88. He would finish his career with a second stint at South Carolina State, leading the Bulldogs to another MEAC title and black college national championship in 1994 and capping off a 10-2 season with a 31-27 win against Robinson and Grambling State in the 1994 Heritage Bowl. He achieved a career record of 180-132-6 in 29 seasons of coaching. In 1988, South Carolina Governor Carroll Campbell presented Jeffries with the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor for those who make a statewide impact. During his final season at South Carolina State in 2001, he was awarded the companion honor of the Order of the Silver Crescent, honoring those who make community or professional accomplishments of local significance.
“Coach Jeffries is truly admired by so many. Not just for his achievements in athletics, but also for his humanitarian contributions to this community, this state and society,” said former South Carolina State Director of Athletics Charlene Johnson in 2010, when Jeffries was named Head Football Coach Emeritus by the South Carolina State University Board of Trustees. “He has used football and his great personal skills to bring about better community relations in Orangeburg, the Palmetto State and beyond.”
Safety Donnie Shell and linebacker Harry Carson, both members of the College Football Hall of Fame, played under Jeffries in his first stint at South Carolina State. In his second stint, he coached offensive lineman and 1997 NFF National Scholar-Athlete Jerrell Moore. Jeffries was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010, thanks in part to a recommendation letter from Herman Boone, a fellow assistant at North Carolina A&T. Boone, the subject of the movie “Remember the Titans,” wrote that, “without his leadership and example, there would not have been ‘Remember the Titans’ or the advancement in race relations in sports that we have witnessed.”