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Will Robinson

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."



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.


"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

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dudley Randall Biography - A Poet from an Early Age to Ferrol Sams Jr BiographyWill Robinson Biography - Struggles Of A Black Athlete, The Road To Detroit, First Black To Coach Division I