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RIP, Coach Will Robinson

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  • RIP, Coach Will Robinson

    Will Robinson, 1911-2008, coach, scout, legend.
    • * 1944 - First African-American coach in Detroit Public School League (Miller, later Cass Tech, then Pershing)
      * Pershing won state basketball championships in 1967 (Spencer Haywood was one the starters) & 1970
      *1970 - First African-American coach of NCAA Division I basketball (Illinois State - Doug Collins was one of his players)
      * 1975 - Became Detroit Pistons scout (helped discover Joe Dumars & Dennis Rodman

    Basketball pioneer, former Pistons scout, was a legend

    Terry Foster / The Detroit News

    DETROIT -- Caregivers at the Belmont Nursing Care facility in Harper Woods always knew where to look when the wheelchair with the Pistons blanket was missing from the dining room.

    More often than not Will Robinson would be perched at the front door, trying to make one of his great escapes.

    Robinson never did like barriers. He spent much of his life breaking them down.

    Robinson, 96, died at 12:45 Monday morning in Henry Ford Hospital. In the immediate aftermath, people from around the country began expressing sympathy -- people he touched as a mentor, father figure or coach.

    "He is like family," Pistons guard Richard Hamilton said.

    Robinson maintained a youthful outlook to life, even as he spent the past 15 months in nursing homes and hospitals.

    "This is not the place you want to be," he said softly at the nursing home a while back. "I want out of here. But I've led a full life."

    Indeed he did. Robinson wore a number of hats during his life. Often his job descriptions were preceded by the word "legendary."

    He was the first African-American coach in the Detroit Public Schools and first NCAA Division I head coach when he guided Illinois State (1970-75).

    He led Detroit Pershing to state championships in 1967 -- a legendary team that featured Ralph Simpson and Spencer Haywood, who was Robinson's adopted son -- and '70.

    Robinson was an NBA and NFL scout. He was a journalist, and he sold nickel pies during the Great Depression.

    As an athlete, he still owns records for most varsity letters at Steubenville (Ohio) High School and West Virginia State, where he excelled in baseball, football, basketball, golf and gymnastics.

    He finished runner-up in a high school golf tournament in Ohio, although he was not allowed to golf with the other competitors or stay in the dormitories at Ohio State because of his skin color.

    He teed it up in the morning before the other golfers and was not allowed to use a caddie. While the other golfers dined at a postmatch banquet, Robinson was given a sandwich.

    "It is mind-boggling to think times were like that but that is what you had to do as a black man back then," Robinson said.
    Special bond

    When Robinson died, he was just five years removed from being special assistant to Pistons president Joe Dumars. He began with the Pistons as a scout in 1976, a job he secured by hanging around the Pistons, telling them they needed his help.

    He became a mentor to Isiah Thomas, who called Robinson a father figure; Jerry Stackhouse; Grant Hill and Dumars.

    "It was love at first sight for me," Thomas said. "I felt like he was someone who had no agenda other than seeing me grow and mature as a man. It was no payoff or financial gain for him."

    Players enjoyed the sometimes salty banter with Robinson. When he came off a scouting trip he'd often tell players: "I was out looking for your replacement."

    "He was the most honest and direct and unpretentious person I have ever met in my life," Dumars said. "He told it like it was whether it was good, bad or indifferent. And that is what truly made him great."

    Former Pistons general manager Jack McCloskey sent Robinson to scout a player back in the 1980s. During the game another player scored 50 points and stole the show. McCloskey asked Robinson what he thought of the player he was sent to scout.

    "He was all right," Robinson said.

    Then McCloskey asked Robinson about the guy who scored 50.

    "Someone scored 50?" asked a surprised Robinson. "Well, whoever that guy is, he can't play."

    Thomas chuckled at the retelling of the story.

    "I am sure whoever that guy was never made it to the NBA," Thomas said.
    Eye for talent

    As a Pistons scout, Robinson pushed for the team to sign Dumars and Dennis Rodman. Working for the Lions, he discovered cornerback Lem Barney (Jackson State) and tight end Charlie Sanders at the University of Minnesota.

    Sanders planned on accepting a contract with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. But Robinson showed up at Sanders' wedding in St. Paul, Minn., with a Lions blanket and began recruiting. Sanders said he still has that blanket, along with fond memories of Robinson.

    Robinson brought Haywood to Detroit from the cotton fields of Mississippi and taught him to become a better basketball player and to deal with society.

    "He gave me a new way of life," Haywood said from Las Vegas. "He showed me how to get on a roll in life. He was very special. I mean, this is a man who was hanging out with Jackie Robinson. He has been helping people out for years. Every benefit that I got and a lot of other people got came through Will Robinson."

    For many black players Robinson was a buffer to Detroit. He told them what clubs they could go to and which to avoid. He gave them tips on apartments, barber shops and shopping.

    "He was the liaison for black players in breaking down barriers and making them feel comfortable," Sanders said. "That was one of the reasons why he was tied to the Pistons and the Lions."
    People mattered

    Robinson is enshrined in seven sports halls of fame, including the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.

    During his coaching days in the Detroit Public Schools he sent more than 300 students to college through athletics and academics.

    "The funny thing is he never talked about those things," Thomas said. "Those were things you found out from other people. But when you talked to him, you knew instantly you were speaking with someone who had a great wealth of wisdom and he was willing to share it."

    Robinson's take: "I always liked people."

    Robinson was born June 16, 1911, in Wadesboro, N.C. He moved with his grandparents to Steubenville as a youngster and was clearly the best athlete in town, but that did not mean things were easy for him. He grew up in an era where things for blacks and whites were separate and unequal.

    The town was up in arms when Robinson was named the first black quarterback in school history. Tensions eased when Robinson proved he was the best man for the job.

    "My coach caught hell for it until we started winning," Robinson said with a smile.

    Prejudice and ignorance surrounded him, but Robinson kept a quiet dignity and fought the times by being better than everybody else.

    "He always said if you are going to do something, you might as well do it with a smile on your face," said Jim Grossman, who is working on Robinson's biography. "That worked to his advantage, and that explains why people liked him so much and wanted to help him. Even though he grew up in segregated Steubenville people went out of their way to help him."
    The route to Detroit

    It was bigotry that brought him to Michigan. After attending West Virginia State, Robinson decided to go to graduate school, but no West Virginia school would accept him. But the state had a law that said if an institution rejected a student because of race it must pay for tuition at a school that would accept him.

    Robinson's next stop was the University of Michigan.

    After coaching basketball and swimming in the YMCA system in Pittsburgh and Chicago, Robinson moved to Detroit in 1944, when he accepted a job at Miller High School and was the only black Detroit coach for 16 years.

    In 1970, Robinson accepted the coaching job at Illinois State. One of the highlights was coaching All-American Doug Collins, who later became Pistons coach and is now a basketball analyst for TNT.

    Robinson posted winning seasons but tired of racial taunts and trying to make up a schedule against schools unwilling to compete against a black coach.

    "That was tough," Robinson said.

    But as much as the stars whose lives he shared, Robinson was a guiding light for countless other students he touched.

    People like John Kirk, who left Mumford, his neighborhood school, in 10th grade because he wanted to play for Robinson at Pershing.

    Kirk went on to play in college but was cut by the Atlanta Hawks. Robinson told him to give up hoops and enlist in the military. Kirk, of course, followed orders.

    "It was just an uplifting experience playing for him ... he turned me around," Kirk said.

    "Just from the advice and mentoring he was all business. Playing for him was the best thing for me."

    Robinson is survived by his wife, Helen, son Will Jr., and sister Bessie Pettress.

    Detroit Free Press article.
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