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Robinson, Will

Will Robinson

1911-2008

Basketball coach and scout

Will Robinson made history in 1970 as the first African American to coach at a Division I school when he was hired as the head basketball coach by Illinois State University. Prior to joining the Redbirds, Robinson coached for twenty-six years in the Detroit public school system. In 1975 he became a scout for the Detroit Pistons, a position he held until 2003, when he retired at the age of ninety-two.

Faced Discrimination as a Student Athlete

Robinson was born in the small town of Wadesboro, North Carolina, on June 3, 1911. Both of his parents had not reached their fifteenth birthday when he was born, and both died before they turned thirty years old. He was raised by his grandparents, who moved to Pennsylvania and then to Steubenville, Ohio, where Robinson attended junior high and high school. At the age of twelve he began to caddie at the Riverview Country Club, where professional golfer Bob Hillis taught him the game of golf. He learned to swim in the Ohio River that flows alongside Steubenville.

A versatile athlete, Robinson earned fourteen letters in five sports—football, basketball, baseball, track, and golf—at Steubenville High School. Two days before the start of the 1930 football season, Robinson was moved to quarterback, becoming the first African American to ever play the position at the school. The team went undefeated, never allowing an opponent to score the entire season. Robinson was also captain of the golf team, and despite not being allowed to play on the same course as the white players, he finished second in the state golf tournament. Robinson recalled to the Detroit News, "We went to the state tournament in Columbus, and they wouldn't let me play with the others. I started alone at seven in the morning. I couldn't stay in the dormitory at Ohio State. I couldn't eat at the banquet they had that night. They gave me a sandwich. I finished second."

Robinson can tell many other stories of the struggles he encountered because of his race. "I remember when I went to a school counselor [in high school] and told her I thought I should take up typing, and she said: ‘Typing? Why, you're going to be a janitor,’" he once told the Detroit News. Despite the many barriers in his way, Robinson's motivation was unwavering. After graduating from high school he moved to West Virginia to coach at a segregated black school, but it was during the Great Depression and he received no salary. The school gave him a nickel for transportation to the school, which he put in his pocket and walked. After two years without pay Robinson requested a salary but was told that without a college degree, he was not qualified. As a result, Robinson enrolled in West Virginia State College. During his college career, Robinson earned fifteen letters in four sports—football, baseball, basketball, and gymnastics—and captained the football, baseball, and gymnastics teams.

Became a Legendary High School Coach

After earning his college degree in 1937, Robinson took a coaching job at the Central Avenue Recreation Center in Pittsburgh. He coached basketball in the YMCA league, taking his team to the national championship. He also arranged practices for the New York Rens, a hall-of-fame, all-black professional basketball team that barnstormed around the country (no professional league would accept an all-black team). Through the Rens, Robinson met many of the African-American stars of the day, including Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson, and honed many of his coaching skills. Robinson moved to Chicago and worked at a YMCA before beginning his high school coaching career in 1943 at Chicago's DuSable High School, where he coached basketball and swimming.

In 1944 the Chicago school superintendent threatened Robinson that he should accept a transfer to Detroit, or he would never find work again. "I didn't want to come to Detroit," Robinson told Christopher Williams in the Pistons Insider. "I was happy in Chicago, and when I came and visited (Detroit) the school gym was as big as this room, no pool, no field, it had nothing at all." Nonetheless, Robinson—at the age of thirty-three—began a twenty-six-year stint in Detroit as a high school coach. Robinson arrived in Detroit a year after violent race riots that had resulted in the death of twenty-five blacks and nine whites, and racial tensions were still high. The second African American in the school's athletic department, Robinson coached basketball and football at Miller High School for the next thirteen years, winning six championships despite the lack of a proper gym or a home football field.

After a stint at Cass Tech, in the early 1960s Robinson began coaching at Pershing High School, where his teams won the state basketball championship in 1967 and 1970. Five players from the 1967 team, including Spencer Haywood and Ralph Simpson, went on to play professional sports. Haywood told Marty Burns in Sports Illustrated in 2001, "Will Robinson was always about more than X's and O's…. He taught us about life. He stressed education, and he made sure we did the right thing at all times. He was more like a father than a coach." In Haywood's case this was almost literally so: Robinson actually became his star player's legal guardian. When Haywood wanted to play professionally after his sophomore year of college, with Robinson's support he sued to invalidate the National Basketball Association (NBA) rule that kept underclassmen from playing in the league, a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Haywood won, and as a result the NBA is required to accept underclassmen in cases of "hardship," a rule that has benefited some of the greatest players in basketball history.

At a Glance …

Born William Joseph Robinson on June 3, 1911, in Wadesboro, NC; died on April 28, 2008, in Detroit, MI; married Helen, 1967; children: William Jr. Education: West Virginia State College, BA, 1937; University of Michigan, MA.

Career: DuSable High School, Chicago, coach, 1943; Miller High School, Detroit, coach, 1944-57; Cass Technical High School, Detroit, coach, early 1960s; Pershing High School, Detroit, coach, 1960s-1970; Illinois State University, basketball coach, 1970-75; Detroit Lions, talent scout, 1960s(?); Detroit Pistons, talent scout and assistant to the president of basketball operations, 1975-2003.

Awards: Redbirds Athletics (Illinois State) Hall of Fame, 1980; Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, 1982; Michigan High School Coaches Hall of Fame; West Virginia State Hall of Fame; The Upper Ohio Valley Dapper Dan Hall of Fame; The Afro-American Sports Hall of Fame and the Michigan High School Basketball Hall of Fame; John W. Bunn Award, James Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, 1992; Alvin N. Foon Award, Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, 1995.

Robinson became a coaching legend, winning 85 percent of his games during his time as a coach in the Detroit school system. He also worked on the side as a scout for the Detroit Lions, becoming the first African-American scout in the National Football League. Most of the schools were still segregated, and Robinson's job was to cover all the black colleges in the South, where he discovered future hall-of-fame cornerback Lem Barney at Jackson State in 1967. Yet, because he was black, many opportunities passed him by. In 1969 he was promised the University of Detroit coaching job, but the school pulled out at the last minute, much to Robinson's disappointment.

Hired as the First Black to Coach Division I

In 1970 Robinson became the first African American to coach at a Division I school when he was hired by Illinois State University to head up the school's men's basketball program. At the time, Doug Collins, an All-American player who would be selected as the number one pick in the 1972 NBA draft, was a sophomore at Illinois State. "The first time I met him, I was blown away," Collins told the Dallas Morning News in 2004. "When you looked into his eyes, you saw a dignified, honorable man. He told me, ‘You have talent, and I'll take you where you want to go.’ To this day, I love him as a father." Robinson coached the Redbirds from 1970 to 1975, compiling a record of seventy-eight wins and fifty-one losses, without posting a losing season.

Although Robinson's charismatic personality and superior coaching skills won the respect and adoration of his players, his groundbreaking role as an African-American coach in the college ranks was not as readily accepted by the public. Many wondered aloud if the team would change its name from the Redbirds to the Blackbirds. Robinson had trouble getting on the schedule with other teams, and he was often verbally abused with racial slurs at away games. Additionally, officials sometimes penalized the Redbirds with unfair calls.

Tired of the continual heckling and struggles with scheduling games, Robinson left Illinois State in 1975 to join the front office of the Detroit Pistons as a scout. Although he only coached Division I basketball for five years, Robinson opened the door for other African-American coaches. In 1972 George Raveling was hired by Washington State University, and Fred Snowden became the coach at the University of Arizona.

For the next twenty-eight years, Robinson—whose official title was assistant to president of basketball operations—scouted talent for the Detroit Pistons. His many discoveries included Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, and John Salley. Robinson retired in 2003 at the age of ninety-two as the oldest professional basketball scout. Robinson had plenty to be proud of in his long career, but one thing brought him particular pride: "The thing I like most about my life," Robinson told the Detroit News, "is that I have been instrumental in sending over 300 men and a few women to college at no cost to themselves. That's what I'm most proud of because those are the people that make this country strong." Robinson passed away on April 28, 2008, at the age of ninety-six. Joe Dumars, as quoted by ESPN and other publications upon Robinson's death, remembered the man he called "a legend" with admiration and gratitude: "He was a huge inspiration for me and so many others. He was simply the best."

Sources

Periodicals

Daily Vidette (Indiana State University newspaper), March 18, 2003; April 23, 2003.

Dallas News, February 23, 2004.

Detroit Free Press, February 14, 2002.

Detroit News, June 6, 2001; March 20, 2002; October 29, 2003.

New York Times, April 30, 2008.

PR Newswire, September 29, 2003.

Sports Illustrated, November 19, 2001.

Online

"Legendary Coach Robinson Passes Away," Illinois State University Athletics Program, April 28, 2008, http://goredbirds.cstv.com/sports/m-baskbl/specrel/042808aaa.html (accessed July 31, 2008).

"Pistons Scout Honored for 28 Years of Service," February 18, 2005, Pistons.com: The Official Site of the Detroit Pistons, http://nba.com/pistons/news/pistonshonor_willrobinson_040211.html (accessed July 31, 2008).

"Will Robinson Dies, Was First Black Coach of Division I Program," ESPN.com, April 28, 2008, http://sports.espn.go.com/ncb/news/story?id=3371978 (accessed July 31, 2008).

Williams, Christopher M., "Will Robinson: A Tribute to a Living Legend," Pistons Insider, October 1991, reproduced on Pistons.com: The Official Site of the Detroit Pistons, http://www.nba.com/pistons/history/bhm_wrobinson.html (accessed July 31, 2008).

"Willie Robinson: Profile," Illinois State University, Redbird Athletics Hall of Fame, http://goredbirds.cstv.com/genrel/robinson_willie00.html (accessed July 31, 2008).

—Kari Bethel and Derek Jacques

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"Robinson, Will." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Robinson, Will

Will Robinson

1911

Basketball coach, talent scout

Will Robinson made history in 1970 as the first African American to coach at a Division I school when he was hired as the head basketball coach by Illinois State University. Prior to joining the Redbirds, Robinson coached for 26 years in the Detroit public school system. In 1975 he became a scout for the Detroit Pistons, a position he held until 2003, when he retired at the age of 92.

Struggles of a Black Athlete

Robinson was born in the small town of Wadesboro, North Carolina, on June 3, 1911. Neither of his very young parents had reached their 15th birthday when he was born, and both had died before they turned 30. He was raised by his grandparents, who moved to Pennsylvania and then to Steubenville, Ohio, where Robinson attended junior high and high school. At the age of 12 he began to caddie at the Riverview Country Club, where professional golfer Bob Hillis taught him the game of golf. He learned to swim in the Ohio River that flows alongside Steubenville.

A versatile athlete, Robinson earned 14 letters in five sportsfootball, basketball, baseball, track, and golfat Steubenville High School. Two days before the start of the 1930 football season, Robinson was moved to quarterback, becoming the first black to ever play the position at the school. The team went undefeated, never allowing an opponent to score the entire season. Robinson was also captain of the golf team, and despite not being allowed to play on the same course as the white players, he finished second in the state golf tournament. Robinson recalled to the Detroit News, "We went to the state tournament in Columbus, and they wouldn't let me play with the others. I started alone at seven in the morning. I couldn't stay in the dormitory at Ohio State. I couldn't eat at the banquet they had that night. They gave me a sandwich. I finished second."

Robinson can tell many other stories of the struggles he encountered because of his race. "I remember when I went to a school counselor [in high school] and told her I thought I should take up typing, and she said: 'Typing? Why, you're going to be a janitor,'" he once told the Detroit News. Despite the many barriers in his way, Robinson's motivation was unwavering. After graduating from high school he moved to West Virginia to coach at a segregated black school, but it was during the Great Depression, and he received no salary. The school gave him a nickel for transportation to the school, which he put in his pocket and walked. After two years without pay Robinson requested a salary but was told that without a college degree, he was not qualified. As a result, Robinson enrolled in West Virginia State College. During his college career, Robinson earned 15 letters in four sportsfootball, baseball, basketball and gymnasticsand captained the football, baseball, and gymnastics teams.

The Road to Detroit

After earning his college degree in 1937, Robinson took a coaching job at the Central Avenue Recreation Center in Pittsburgh. He coached basketball in the YMCA league, taking his team to the national championship. He also arranged practices for the New York Rens, a hall-of-fame, all-black professional basketball team that barnstormed around the country (no professional league would accept an all-black team). Through the Rens, Robinson met many of the black stars of the day, including Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson, and honed many of his coaching skills. Robinson moved to Chicago and worked at a YMCA before beginning his high school coaching career in 1943 at Chicago's DuSable High School, where he coached basketball and swimming.

In 1944 Robinson, at the age of 33, began a 26-year stint in Detroit as a high school coach. Robinson arrived in Detroit a year after violent race riots that had resulted in the death of 25 blacks and nine whites, and racial tensions were still high. Robinson had been encouraged to go to Detroit by the Chicago school superintendent who believed that Robinson had demonstrated the ability to work with both blacks and whites. The second black in the school's athletic department, Robinson coached basketball and football at Miller High School for the next 13 years, winning six championships despite having neither a gym nor a home football field.

After a stint at Cass Tech, in the early 1960s Robinson began coaching at Pershing High School, where his teams won the state basketball championship in 1967 and 1970. Five players from the 1967 team, including Spencer Haywood and Ralph Simpson, went on to play professional sports. Robinson became a coaching legend, winning 85 percent of his games during his time as a coach in the Detroit school system. He also worked on the side as a scout for the Detroit Lions, becoming the first black professional sports scout. Most of the schools were still segregated, and Robinson's job was to cover all the black colleges in the South, where he discovered future hall-of-fame cornerback Lem Barney at Jackson State in 1967. Yet, because he was black, many opportunities passed him by. In 1969 he was promised the University of Detroit coaching job, but the school pulled out at the last minute, much to Robinson's disappointment.

First Black to Coach Division I

In 1970 Robinson became the first black to coach at a Division I school when he was hired by Illinois State University to head up the school's men's basketball program. At the time, Doug Collins, an All-American player who would be selected as the number one pick in the 1972 National Basketball Association draft, was a sophomore at Illinois State. "The first time I met him, I was blown away," Collins told the Dallas Morning News in 2004. "When you looked into his eyes, you saw a dignified, honorable man. He told me, 'You have talent, and I'll take you where you want to go.' To this day, I love him as a father." Robinson coached the Redbirds from 1970 to 1975, compiling a record of 78 wins and 51 losses, without posting a losing season.

Although Robinson's charismatic personality and superior coaching skills won the respect and adoration of his players, Robinson's groundbreaking role as a black coach in the college ranks was not as readily accepted by the public. Many wondered aloud if the team would change its name from the Redbirds to the Blackbirds. Robinson had trouble getting on the schedule with other teams, and he was often verbally abused with racial slurs at away games. Additionally, officials sometimes penalized the Redbirds with unfair calls.

Tired of the continual heckling and struggles with scheduling games, Robinson left Illinois State in 1975 to join the front office of the Detroit Pistons as a scout. Although he only coached Division I basketball for five years, Robinson opened the door for other black coaches. In 1972 George Raveling was hired by Washington State University and Fred Snowden became the coach at the University of Arizona.

At a Glance...

Born on June 3, 1911, in Wadesboro, NC. Education: West Virginia State College, BA, 1937; University of Michigan, MA.

Career: DuSable High School, Chicago, coach, 1943; Miller High School, Detroit, coach, 1944-57; Cass Technical High School, Detroit, coach, early 1960s; Pershing High School, Detroit, 1960s-1970; Illinois State University, basketball coach, 1970-75; Detroit Lions, talent scout, 1960s(?); Detroit Pistons, talent scout, assistant to the president of basketball operations, 1975-2003.

Selected awards: Redbirds Athletics (Illinois State) Hall of Fame, 1980; Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, 1982; John W. Bunn Award, James Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, 1992; Michigan High School Coaches Hall of Fame; West Virginia State Hall of Fame.

Addresses: Office c/o Detroit Pistons, The Palace, 2 Championship Drive, Auburn Hills, Michigan, 48326.

For the next 28 years Robinson, whose official title was assistant to president of basketball operations, scouted talent for the Detroit Pistons. His many discoveries included Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, and John Salley. He retired in 2003 at the age of 92 as the oldest professional basketball scout. Robinson had plenty to be proud of in his long career, but one thing brought him particular pride: "The thing I like most about my life," Robinson told the Detroit News, "is that I have been instrumental in sending over 300 men and a few women to college at no cost to themselves. That's what I'm most proud of because those are the people that make this country strong."

Sources

Periodicals

Daily Vidette (Indiana State University newspaper), March 18, 2003; April 23, 2003.

Dallas News, February 23, 2004.

Detroit Free Press, February 14, 2002.

Detroit News, June 6, 2001; March 20, 2002; October 29, 2003.

PR Newswire, September 29, 2003.

Sports Illustrated, November 19, 2001.

On-line

"Pistons Scout Honored for 28 Years of Service," Detroit Pistons, http://nba.com/pistons/news/pistonshonor_willrobinson_040211.html (February 18, 2005).

"Will Robinson," Illinois State University, Redbird Athletics Hall of Fame, http://www.redbirds.org/HOF/Robinson.shtml (February 18, 2005).

Kari Bethel

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
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"Robinson, Will." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Robinson, Will." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/robinson-will

"Robinson, Will." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/robinson-will