IT IS IRONIC that Eddie Robinson died nearly 39 years to the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered.

Robinson was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1997, shortly after his 57th and final season as head football coach at Grambling State University. He had been in declining health, and had been in and out of a nursing home during the last year.

In his own way, Robinson, who was 88 when he died late Tuesday night in a Ruston, La., hospital, was as much of a champion of civil rights as Dr. King. Except that "Coach Rob," as he was affectionately known by his Grambling players during a career that spanned from 1941 (when the school was known as the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute) through '97, did not advance the cause of equality by marching, carrying picket signs or taking part in demonstrations.

He did it with football, which is something even white southerners could understand during a time when Deep South governors like Ross Barnett, George Wallace and Lester Maddox were adamant that integration would never take place in their states or on white college campuses.

But the success Robinson had at the tiny, predominantly black north Louisiana college - more than 200 of his players went on to play professional football, four of whom (Willie Brown, Buck Buchanan, Willie Davis and Charlie Joiner) are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame - helped sway social mores even as it led to the erosion of a dynasty referred to as the "Notre Dame of black college football."

The NFL-quality standouts who could not have gained admittance to Southeastern Conference schools in the 1950s and '60s stopped arriving when doors previously closed to them finally opened. And while it is undeniable that the primary tool used to open those doors was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it also might be said that supporters of SEC teams accepted change more readily because it meant access to a previously untapped talent pool of homegrown wide receivers and defensive ends that had been hoarded by black programs like Robinson's powerhouse Grambling Tigers.

Robinson loved to win and did it more than anyone (his 408 career victories were the most in college football history until he was passed 4 years ago by John Gagli-ardi, of Division III St. John's, Minn.), but not if it meant his roster was so well-stocked only because some of his players were denied the right to choose because of the color of their skin.

"America is, or should be, about the right to decide who you are, what you want to be and where you want to go," Robinson once said.

Even as he had to pack bologna sandwiches for his players on long bus trips in the early days, because they weren't allowed to eat in white diners, Robinson maintained his optimistic view that someday there would be a colorblind America. The son of a sharecropper and a domestic worker, he attended as many coaching clinics as he could, soaking up knowledge about the game, and the care and handling of the people who played the game.

He was an unabashed admirer of Alabama coaching icon Paul "Bear" Bryant, so much so that he had an autographed portrait of Bryant hanging in the conference room where Robinson and his assistant coaches met.

"If Bear were alive, I'd still be chasing him," Robinson said of Bryant, who retired after the 1982 season with a then-Division I record of 323 victories, before he entered his 1997 farewell season. "I'm no better than any other coach. But I've heard the best coaches in America and learned from them for close to 60 years."

Penn State's Joe Paterno, another coach whom Robinson admired, described him as "an innovator who ranks among the greatest college football coaches of all time. He will be missed."

But Robinson did not innovate so much as develop a system that worked for him, and to instruct his players in that system until they knew it by rote. Robinson's winged-T offense was considered antiquated for years, but he never felt the need to adapt because few opponents were able to stop it.

"When we got off the bus, we knew we were going to win," said former Grambling quarterback Doug Williams, the MVP of Super Bowl XXII and perhaps the best-known of Robinson's players. "We didn't have a doubt. I mean, none at all. We were that dominant. We put fear in the other teams' hearts because we were Grambling."

Grambling stopped being Grambling toward the end of Robinson's run, in part because segregation had long since ended but possibly because he was affected by the onset of Alzheimer's. Grambling's then-president, Dr. Raymond Hicks, wanted to force Robinson out after the Tigers went 3-8 in 1996, but Coach Rob's supporters, wanting him to go out a winner, lobbied for him to get one more season. The result was another 3-8 disaster.

"You'd see kids here and they'd be talking on the sideline, looking up in the stands, goofing around," Williams said upon succeeding his old coach in 1998. "That sort of thing just didn't happen when I played at Grambling. I don't know how it ever got to be that way."

The relationship between Robinson and Williams, who is now in the personnel department of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, turned frosty when Williams scrapped the winged-T, fired several of Robinson's longtime assistants, changed the uniform scheme and even took a verbal swipe at his aging predecessor.

"Did John Wooden win a championship at UCLA when he left?" Williams asked. "He did, didn't he? What was Bear Bryant's record his last season at Alabama? I'm not sure what it was, but I know he wasn't 3-8. I'm quite sure he wasn't 3-8 back-to-back."

But Robinson's death hit Williams hard, as it did everyone with an attachment to Grambling. You can replace a coach, but never someone who, through 11 presidential administrations, treated his job as a labor of love.

"For the Grambling family, this is a very emotional time," Williams said. "But I'm thinking about Eddie Robinson the man, not in today-time, but in the day and what he meant to me and so many people."

Eddie Robinson is survived by Doris, his wife of 61 years, two children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. *