With a schedule that includes the likes of Bethune Cookman and Prairie View, Grambling State, which faces Cal Saturday in the season opener, looks the part of a typical lower echelon team seeking temporary exposure and a decent payday by taking on a school from a "Power Five" conference.
Usually such lower profile visitors come in without much history and little tradition.
Not so with Grambling, whose frankly glorious past is filled with dozens of sports legends. Granted the Tigers in recent years have fallen into the obscure realms of the college football universe, but there was a time that no discussion of the truly good teams of the game was complete without mentioning Grambling. They may even have sometimes fielded the best teams,, but just never had the chance to prove that.
"The teams we had in the 1960s and early 70s could have played with anybody," former Raiders star and Grambling alum Willie Brown said in a recent interview. "Notre Dame, Michigan, Michigan State, whoever …We would see those guys on TV and say, 'We know we're better than that team.' ''
Similar boasts have been made in many sports, most of them lacking credibility. But Brown and the Grambling people back it up. "My last year (1962) we had 13 seniors on the team," Brown said. "All 13 signed pro contracts, every one of them."
Grambling was able to build such quality teams for much the same reason the school was unable to truly display them: segregation. Until the mid-1970s African-Americans were not allowed to attend major southern schools such as Alabama, Mississippi, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, etc . The elite black athlete in the South basically had three choices, go west, go north or go to Grambling. Those that chose the latter came under the influence of coach Eddie Robinson. Everyone was the better for it.
"He taught me a lot about football and about life in general," former Grambling star and five-year NFL veteran Nate Singleton, father of Cal freshman receiver Brandon Singleton, said in a telephone interview. "I think one of his strengths was that he could inspire young men to try to be great.
Robinson spent 56 years, from 1941 through 1997, inspiring young men at Grambling, winning 417 games, most in Division I history. He had 45 winning seasons, won or shared 17 Southwest Athletic Conference championships and nine black college national titles. The campus stadium where Grambling plays its home games bears his name.
When he was hired by school president Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones -- who in addition to running the school coached the baseball team -- Robinson was literally a one-man football operation. He was the coaching "staff" and also lined the playing field, laundered the uniforms, drove the team bus, wrote the press releases and occasionally filed the game reports for the local newspaper. Writing your own "gamers" is a burden, but it is one way to avoid being misquoted.
The situation would improve but only gradually. "I think when I was there he had five assistants," said Brown, aware that most schools, including Grambling, now have twice that number. "And if you wanted to lift weights you had to go cut logs off a tree. We didn't have a weight room. We didn't have much of anything in the way of facilities."
What they did have was great players. By comparison, Cal has one player, Les Richter, enshrined in the National Football League Hall of Fame. With Tony Gonzalez, Aaron Rodgers and Marshawn Lynch all potential candidates, the Bears could have four total inductees within a decade. That would pull them even with Grambling, which has Brown, Buck Buchanan, Charlie Joiner and Willie Davis already in Canton.
Robinson sent more than 200 players into pro football including James Harris the first black to start an NFL season opener at quarterback, and Doug Williams, another quarterback who would become MVP of the Super Bowl. Williams would succeed Robinson as Grambling's head coach in 1998, and was fired two years ago. His dismissal and complaints over substandard facilities would lead to a well-publicized "strike and boycott" by the Grambling players. Despite their contrasts in size (Grambling has roughly 5,000 students, Cal 30,000) and geography the two campuses do share a history of student confrontations with the administration. The Grambling players' action called to mind the Berkeley student protests of the 1960s.
While many of his players would go on to the NFL, Robinson never got the chance. He was interviewed for the Rams head coaching job when the team was still based in Los Angeles. But he was offered a job as an assistant and turned it down.
"There is no doubt Eddie Robinson could have been a successful head coach in the National Football League, no question about it," Brown said. "But when he was interviewed I was hoping he wouldn't take it because I wanted him to stay at Grambling."
The elder Singleton agreed with Brown that Robinson would have won at the higher level. "I'm sure he would have. He knew the X's and O's, and he had great attention to detail," Nate Singleton said. "He just loved the game. Football was his life."
That life is forever linked to Grambling, which was founded in 1901 as Colored Industrial and Agricultural School and located in northern Louisiana. Four years later, the school moved a few miles to its present location and was renamed the North Louisiana Agricultural and Industrial School. It was officially renamed Grambling in 1946 after a sawmill owner who donated a parcel of land to the school. It gradually grew in size and prestige, offering degrees in many undergraduate pursuits including Business Administration, Nursing and Criminology. With the addition of accredited graduate programs in 1974 it was officially renamed Grambling State.
Robinson was still successful even as the bigger southern schools integrated and lured the better players that earlier might have gone to Grambling. "We don't have the players today we did back in my day," Brown said. "Blacks went to the black schools whites went to the white schools. … You could recruit the best black players in the word. Now to choose between Notre Dame and Grambling. That's tough."
"We still had good teams," said Nate Singleton, who played at Grambling from 1988 to 1991 and who had offers from LSU among others. "I would have loved to have played against Notre Dame or Miami. We had plenty of talent."
For whatever reason, Grambling has not played many top-flight schools. Cal will be the first team from a "Power Five" conference the Tigers have met since 2012, and third since 2008. Their last victory over such a school was in 1985 when they beat Oregon State.
"It will be great for Cal and great for Grambling," Brown said. "I am grateful to Cal. It will mean a lot to the Grambling players. And they are going to work out at our (the Raiders) facility."
At least one Bear has a special stake in it. "It's funny how it works out," said Brandon Singleton, who as a freshman behind a bevy of quality receivers on the Cal depth chart, is unlikely to see much action but will be an eager spectator from the sidelines "I've heard a lot about Eddie Robinson, and how he as a no-nonsense kind of guy. My dad says he was the best coach he ever had."
Singleton is one of the few Bears with any knowledge of the Grambling legacy. It won't be that way for long, as Cal coach Sonny Dykes plans to educate his players about what the school and its legendary coach have contributed to the sport.
"I think it's important that our players understand the history, and what Grambling is and what they've meant for college football and Eddie Robinson's impact on the game," Dykes said in a conference call Sunday. "I spent three years in Louisiana and have a respect for what it's all about."