2011 Hall of Fame Feature: Richard Stebbins
By Roscoe Nance
No doubt football is king at Grambling State, and it has been ever since Eddie Robinson set foot on the north Louisiana campus in 1941. But for a shining moment the school's gridiron exploits took a backseat to its track team, thanks in large part 2011 SWAC Hall of Fame inductee, Richard Stebbins.
Stebbins was a record-setting sprinter for the Grambling track team and the youngest member of the 1964 U.S. Olympic squad that included Bob Hayes, who ran the anchor leg. Stebbins - at Hayes' behest - ran the third leg on the U.S. 4x100 relay team that won gold at the Tokyo Olympics and set a world record.
Stebbins earned a spot on the Olympic team at age 19 after just two scintillating seasons at Grambling where he was a member of what was touted as "the best sprint relay team in the United States. Time magazine featured the relay team members, all of whom were from Los Angeles, in its May 15, 1964 issue.
"That was quite historic in that day," says Stebbins, one of six SWAC greats who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame during a ceremony Thursday night in Birmingham, Ala. "That was before ESPN. To make Time magazine was big. We literally put Grambling on the map. There had been some football players, Willie Davis, Tank Younger, Roosevelt Taylor and Ernie Ladd, who had distinguished themselves. But they weren't household names. This put a large spotlight on Grambling."
Stebbins ended up at Grambling as part of package deal that also included Don Owens, Vernus Ragsdale and Don Meadows. The four grew up in the same neighborhood and knew each other well. Tom Wilson, a fast-talking Californian who was a running coach in Los Angeles before becoming track coach at Grambling, signed Owens in 1962.
The following year, he came back for Stebbins, Meadows and Ragsdale. Stebbins had planned to attended Southern California or Arizona State because they had the top sprint programs on the West Coast. Wilson, who doubled as recruiter for the football team and landed Pro Football Hall of Famer Buck Buchanan for the G-Men, however, convinced him that Grambling was the place for him.
"Tom was quite a persuader," says Stebbins, a retired educator and corporate executive who lives in Columbia, Md. "He was charismatic."
Coming to Grambling from Los Angeles was a culture shock for Stebbins in more ways than one. The first Gramblingite he met when he arrived on campus was Buchanan, 6 feet, 7 inches and 270 pounds of him.
"I turned to Coach Wilson and said, ‘What he do?'" says Stebbins, who was told that the Kansas City Chiefs had recently made Buchanan the first player from an HBCU to be a No. 1 overall draft pick. "He was massive. I had never seen anybody that big."
Stebbins also says he had never seen anyone as talented as many of the athletes who were at Grambling - and in the SWAC - during that time. He recalls a basketball game against Southern when Willis Reed scored 45 points for Grambling and Bob Love scored 51 for the Jaguars, who won 142-128.
He called his friends in Los Angeles raving about how the Tigers fast break was better than the Boston Celtics' and how UCLA, which featured Gail Goodrich, Walt Hazzard and Keith Erickson couldn't beat them.
"The guys I saw there, I knew they would do great things in pro sports," Stebbins says, "and they did. SWAC was the premier conference for athletics until integration took over."
Stebbins' feats rank with those of the athletes that he raved about.
He was a four-time All-SWAC selection; he was a member of the 4x100 and 4x400meter relay teams that set meet records at the Texas Relays, Mt. San Antonio Relays, Modesto (Calif.) Relays and Coliseum Relays in Los Angeles. He was among the first black athletes to compete in the Sugar Bowl Track Meet in New Orleans when he finished first in the 100-meter dash in 1964.
John Outlaw, who played cornerback and ran track at Jackson State before playing 10 seasons in the NFL, went head-to-head against Stebbins in the 100 meters, 200 meters and the 4x400 meter relay.
"The thing remember about Stebbins," says Outlaw, "where it took you one, two, or three steps to get out of the blocks, his first step he was wide open. He was smooth. It was like he could shift gear. You be running alongside him, and he could pull away from you. He was one of those tremendous athletes. He was one of the tops in the world, and he did it four straight years."
SWAC Hall of Famer James Harris was Grambling's starting quarterback when Stebbins joined the football team as receiver his senior season, unbeknownst by the general public. The coaching staff had put in a deep pass play for Stebbins and planned to unveil when the Tigers played Jackson State, which featured All-American cornerback Lem Barney. They knew Barney liked to play bump-and-run. Not being aware that it was Stebbins he was covering, they figured Barney would play him tight, and Stebbins could blow him for an easy touchdown.
When Stebbins lined up at wide receiver, Grambling's public address announcer proudly proclaimed, "Now at wide receiver for Grambling, Olympic gold medalist Richard Stebbins."
Barney immediately gave him a 20-yard cushion.
"He's deserving of being in the SWAC Hall of Fame," Harris says. "It was a long time coming. He was one of the best sprinters in America. He could run the curve with the best of them."
Stebbins went on to play three seasons in the NFL with Houston Oilers and New York Giants.
"I feel privileged to be able to walk into the SWAC Hall of Fame," Stebbins says. "I know what we had in the 60s in every sport. There was no conference in United States that approximated SWAC, including the Pac 10 and the Big Ten. It was a wonderful experience for me."