COLUMBIA, S.C. – There is nothing James "Nate" Thompson wanted to do more on Wednesday, the day after Eddie Robinson died, than recall the time in the mid-1990s he was able to listen to the legendary Grambling coach speak at a football clinic down in Atlanta.
Coach Rob was something that day, all days, really. Not just what he said, but how he said it, the way he carried himself, the way he commanded everyone's respect, white or black, black or white.
Thompson had been waiting for that day from when he was a middle school kid in the 1960s and first dreamed of being a football coach, even though he was black and that was nearly unheard of in his then still-segregated South Carolina.
"He was our Bear Bryant," said Thompson, 50, now the head football coach at little Carvers Bay (S.C.) High School in the heavily black, rural South where Robinson was an inspirational icon. "I got into high school coaching because of my brother-in-law. And the way I look at it, he stood on Eddie Robinson's shoulders and I stand on his shoulders."
So, yes, the loss of Robinson at 88 due to Alzheimer's should mark a day of sadness yet celebration for a force of nature coach who in 1941 took a small black college then called Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute and with 408 victories and more than 200 NFL draft picks showed the white powerbrokers of American athletics that blacks couldn't just play the game, they could think the game.
Wednesday should have been about what Thompson clearly recognizes: If it weren't for Eddie Robinson, he might not be even a small town head football coach today.
But that reality also is what gives so many such as Thompson pause. The number of black head coaches in college football is deplorably low; the NFL only slightly better. But the lack of opportunity is maybe even worse, and the impact certainly greater, at the high school level, where Thompson works and wonders: Did anyone who does the hiring really pay any attention to Eddie Robinson?
"I'm the only black head coach in two counties," Thompson said. "Thirteen high schools, one black coach. My team is about 96 percent black."
Statewide, South Carolina has 195 football playing schools, and while the South Carolina High School League doesn't keep statistics on coaches' race, Thompson said according to the state coaches' book there are 10 black head coaches in the entire state. There are none at the 4A (big school) level and just two at the 3A level.
While there are no national numbers available for high school diversity, South Carolina’s 5.1 percent is not considered out of the norm. This is bad all over. Still, in a state where 30 percent of the population is African American, there are just 10 black coaches?
"Are we fading footprints?" Thompson asked.
When Thompson was growing up many schools still were segregated. Black kids were taught football and life by black coaches. But when integration rightfully and thankfully came along, so did something not so rightful and thankful, a sudden paucity of black high school coaches.
"When most of the black schools and white schools merged, the black coach became the assistant," Thompson said. "The white coach became the head coach."
I once had dinner with Walter Payton's old high school coach in Columbia, Miss. He had been the head coach at the all-black school Payton attended until 1970, when just before Payton's senior season, it integrated with the white high school. The teams merged and the black coach, despite bringing most of the talent, including Payton, was made the assistant to the white school's coach.
Why didn't you get to be the head coach, I asked naively. He just spit out his soup in laughter.
Incredibly, the trend of making blacks assistants hasn't changed much. As ridiculous as it sounds, 30, 40 years ago black players had more black head coaching role models to look up to, to follow, to receive a helping hand into the business, than they do now. They may have had more opportunity.
African Americans Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith led the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears, respectively, to January's Super Bowl, but those are far-off faces on television. They can inspire from afar, but nothing is quite like your coach in high school, where day-in, day-out interaction and inspiration shapes lives far from the game.
That is where Thompson fears we are losing so many potential leaders, where our pool of coaches is being drained because of the appearance of a lack of opportunity. Why would a young man devote his life to coaching if he can't see an opportunity to be even a high school coach, if he sees closed doors in his own community, his own school?
"No one gets into high school coaching for the money; you get into it to help the kids," Thompson said. "But we have to show these kids that investing in that job will pay off. We have to show it will be worth the time and effort."
Thompson's road to Carvers Bay isn't exactly enticing. He spent 15 years as an assistant at his alma mater in Conway, S.C., annually being turned down for head coaching jobs. Finally, in 1998 tiny, underfunded Choppee High in Georgetown County was interested.
Of course there was a catch. The job was open but the school was set to close in two years. He got the offer because almost no one else wanted what was quite possibly the worst head coaching position in America.
"I took it anyway," he laughed. "I was looking at just trying to get any job."
In 2000, Choppee, which was predominantly black, merged with Pleasant Hill, which was predominantly white, to form Carvers Bay. Thompson pressed to be hired for the new job, and in a bit of a surprise to even himself he got it.
In 2002, Carvers Bay won the Class 2A state title. Last year it won the Class 1A state title.
And how many bigger schools called this year to see if an experienced, talented coach who won two state championships in five seasons might be interested in doing the same at their place?
"None," he said. "None at all."
Not that Thompson is bitter about that. He knows the numbers. He is thankful for what he has. He knows plenty of qualified black assistants who just want what he wanted, a chance to compete, a chance just to interview even. And he knows, Eddie Robinson or not, there isn't much being done to change anything, either.
"We don't advocate a position on that one way or the other," said Jerome Singleton, executive director of the SCHSL. "Nothing has been brought to our office on that concern. That concern may be out there, but doesn't fall under anything we deal with."
Is there anyone who does deal with it?
"Not to my knowledge," Singleton said.
So there was Thompson on Wednesday, talking about Eddie Robinson, talking about hearing his speech, talking about following footprints and dragging younger football minds up the ladder.
He was talking about how a generation ago there were all these young black coaches such as him in all these small Southern towns, all these little places far from the spotlight and the media, all ready to coach, to lead, to improve their communities, all ready to cash in on Robinson's legacy of changing minds among the people who invariably do the hiring.
And here was Thompson, now wondering what happened. Now wondering what he can do to fix it.
So much attention is paid to the NFL and NCAA hiring practices, but few Americans have any influence over who a billionaire owner or powerful athletic director chooses to consider for the job. But everyone has a local high school. Everyone can ask if all qualified candidates are being considered, being sought out for interviews.
"Eddie Robinson made things change and made people realize that it's OK to have a black head coach," Thompson said. "They began to accept us. The younger generation, he paved the way for us. Now we have to continue to pave the way."
He paused and thought about the enormity of that task for a second but remained hopeful.
"I do think change is coming. I really do."
Eddie Robinson's life inspired so much. Maybe his death can inspire so much more.