A Tale of How Great Journalism Became Revisionist History: Grambling State U Football

There’s an old joke that goes like this: a newlywed couple sits down for dinner and right before the wife serves the roast she asks the husband, “Can you cut the edges off of the roast?” The husband replies, “Why do I have to cut off the edges?” The wife replies, “Its a family tradition. The open edges lets the flavor circulate and it tastes better.”

The husband cuts off the edges and the roast is delicious.

A few weeks later the wife’s parents come over for dinner. Roast is served again and the husband once again cuts off the edges, and his mother in-law comments, “Hmmm this roast is so delicious, I’m so glad he cut off the edges, it makes it taste so much better.”

Weeks later, the wife’s parents and grandparents come over, and once again roast is served and once again the husband cuts off the edges. The grandmother comments, “I see you’ve already trained your husband to follow the family tradition I started.” To which the husband responds, “Oh yes, cutting off the edges makes the roast taste so much better.”

The grandmother looked at him confusedly and said, “That’s not why I started the tradition. I started it so that I could fit the roast into the tiny pans I had”.

Silly as this joke is, it illustrates how a practical action at a specific point in time can be misinterpreted over a longer period of time. This is not unlike how a great piece of journalism, which captures the spirit of the times in which it was written, can become revisionist history years later.

The story of Grambling State University football highlights this great journalism/revisionist history perspective.

Talk to just about any knowledgeable football fan and they will tell you that Grambling State football under head coach, the late Eddie Robinson was the most successful football program in the history of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). They’ll tell you with great confidence that Grambling football placed over 200 players in professional football, and many will say that the lion share of the players that made the pros participated before 1970.

Having heard this line repeated word for word dozens of times, I began to feel like Frank Sinatra’s Captain Bennett Marco in The Manchurian Candidate. Which is to say it sounded like I was listening to brainwashing. I didn’t have the nightmares that Sinatra’s Captain Marco did, but I did have the same desire to get to the truth.

In my search for the truth about Grambling State football, my goal was not to be iconoclastic. Grambling’s accolades were well deserved, but common sense told me that some of the reasoning behind the accolades defied logic and deserved serious inspection.

The first of these logic defying points was the idea that Grambling placed close to 200 players in the NFL before 1970. It’s true that Grambling placed a significant amount of players in the pros before 1970. But close to 200+ players in the NFL primarily before 1970? Did 200 black players even play in the NFL before 1970? That number turned out to be dubious. Coming into the 2011 NFL season, Grambling had placed a grand total of108 players in the NFL. A very impressive number but a far cry from 200+. Further, only 35 of those players were in the pros prior to 1970.

Given that that wildly inaccurate number was the cornerstone of how Grambling football was viewed pre-1970, I began to study more data on several HBCU programs from 1940-1969, with the hope that Grambling could be objectively ranked against other HBCU programs of that era. To my knowledge nobody had ever taken the time to rank black college football programs, and this was a good place to begin separating fact from fiction.

I modeled my ranking system on the Prestige Ranking system that ESPN used to name the greatest college football programs of all time. My system took into consideration the following weighted data points: 1) Number of Pittsburgh Courier Black College National Championships 2) Number of undefeated seasons 3) Number of conference championships 4) Number of Pittsburgh Courier all-americans 5) Number of college football Hall of Famers 6) number of NFL Hall of Famers and 7) number of Pro Bowl players.

Though there will always be the opportunity to gather more data, what I’ve done to date is thorough enough to draw some surprising conclusions. The most surprising being that Grambling checked in as the #6 program prior to 1970, behind Florida A&M University (FAMU) Tennessee State, Morgan State, Southern U, and Prairie View.

FAMU’s number one ranking has a direct bearing on how Grambling became top of mind when discussing black college football. As the story goes, in 1966 sportswriter Jerry Izenberg was given an assignment by the Saturday Evening Post’s sports editor, Roger Kahn, to come up with a sports story about black college football, and immediately suggested FAMU. At the time because of it’s black college national championships, it’s historic founding of the Orange Blossom Classic, and it’s legendary coach Jake Gaither, FAMU had a higher profile than Grambling.

Looking for an angle to interest the general reader, Izenberg researched which school had placed more players in pro football, and according to Izenberg, Grambling had significantly more (the actual numbers are 35-31 in favor of Grambling). Because Grambling had so fewer students than FAMU, their pro placement record was impressive, and Izenberg’s reporter instincts told him that tiny Grambling could be cast as an underdog, giving the story more legs than one on the dynastic FAMU. Kahn agreed.

Ironically, The Post rejected Izenberg’s story. Fortunately another publication True Magazine bought the story, and Izenberg simultaneously pitched it to ABC Television sports reporter Howard Cosell.

Izenberg’s work became an ABC sports special, Grambling College: 100 Yards to Glory aired in New York in January 1968, and executive produced by Cosell. The segment aired nationally in July of the same year. It was perfect timing to raise Grambling’s profile.

The country was mired in racial strife, exacerbated by the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and the Grambling story was one that could help along America’s healing process. It also helped that the Grambling program was on the ascent, for though the Univerrsity placed a few more players in the NFL than FAMU, as its number six ranking shows, Grambling was not known as an historically dominant program at that time. Fortuitously, when the show aired, Grambling was entering1968 as the defending black college football national champion — only its second in Eddie Robinson’s 28 year reign as coach at that time.

Though history is important in pro sports, winning is paramount, and Grambling’s defending champ status, coupled with its pro player placement pedigree set it on a path to true star power. The final piece of its burgeoning stardom was when the program was “adopted” by Howard Cosell. Cosell constantly trumpeted the program and Eddie Robinson’s “genius” as a coach. Cosell’s advocacy and the turbulent times contributed to Grambling becoming synonymous with black college football, and it is at this point where Grambling football became a larger than life sensation.

Had there been more interest in understanding the dynamics of black college football from the ’40s through the ’60s, it would have been noted that Grambling, though outstanding, was not always the beacon of college football. Robinson’s teams and his “genius” was frequently bested by coaches like FAMU’s Jake Gaither, Prairie View’s Bill Nicks, Maryland State’s Vernon McCain and Southern University’s Ace Mumford. Fortunately for Grambling, all of those coaches except for Gaither had retired by 1968, and Gaither retired a year later in 1969.

Even Grambling’s claim of having more pro placements than any other HBCU has to be scrutinized from an historical perspective. Most of the football players from black colleges entered the pros after 1961, yet teams like FAMU, Prairie View and Tennessee State, fielded their best teams and best players in the ’50s and early -60s — a time of extreme racism in the admittance of black players into the pros. Though much is made of Grambling’s placement of William “Tank” Younger into the NFL in 1949 — making Younger the first player from a black college to be drafted — the simple truth is that during that time period, on balance, Grambling’s program had not quite hit full stride, and its players weren’t consistently as good as the players from the programs which I have ranked higher.

According to Michael Hurd’s Black College Football: 1892-1992 One Hundred Years of History, Education and Pride in the’50s Grambling only had one black college national championship, and five Pittsburgh Courier All-Americans. Meanwhile, FAMU had six national titles during that time frame, Prairie View three, and Tennessee State, two. More importantly FAMU, Prairie View, Tennessee State and Maryland State had 17, 13, 12 and 11 All-Americans, respectively, during that time frame. All of those numbers are significantly more than Grambling’s. Had racism subsided in the ’50s instead of the ’60s (to the extend that it did ‘subside’ in the ’60s) it’s realistic to believe that Grambling would have had fewer players in the NFL than the other programs and not more, and Izenberg may have written a very different story.

Nonetheless, Robinson and Grambling were in the right place at the right time and thanks to the combined efforts of Robinson, Grambling President Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, and Grambling Sports Information Director Collie J. Nicholson, they seized the opportunity to “grow the Grambling brand”, if you will. Furthermore, Izenberg’s and Cosell’s journalistic instincts helped to soften and expand American race relations. Yet for all of the good will and good information generated by focusing on Grambling, there’s still a deeper story to be told about the other great black college football programs and coaches. Telling this story in an even wider context could create a rich dialogue about the history of race and sports in America, and serve as a benefit to us all.