Will’s power: Trailblazing Redbird coach lifted the game of basketball
This story was originally published in Illinois State alumni magazine in August 2003. Robinson died in 2008 at age 96.
Will Robinson learned about racial injustice early in life. When he was growing up in Ohio nine decades ago, his great-grandmother shared vivid Civil War memories. Born a slave, she was 13 when the war started. “She used to tell me a lot of crazy stories,” Robinson recalls.
Now 92 years old, Robinson can relate quite a few crazy stories of his own from the years when he made history at Illinois State University as the first African-American basketball coach at a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I college.
He coached the Redbirds for five winning seasons from 1970 to 1975, producing an astonishing array of talent that included the school’s only Consensus All-American, Doug Collins ’73. Along with victories came strange and troubling moments that occurred when his Redbirds ventured into hostile territory, especially where segregation had been a way of life.
“Once we scored on a fast break and the ref nullified the basket because he said we were in the three-second lane too long,” Robinson remembers. “How in the hell can you be in the three-second lane on a fast break?”
He recalls when the Redbirds were mugged trying to put the ball in play while protecting a two-point lead in the last few seconds of another competition.
“We never got the ball inbounds until they got ahead. They would wrestle us and take the ball and shoot the layup,” Robinson said. “That was the main reason I left Illinois State. I was tired of the abuse.”
Robinson left the University for a scouting position with the Detroit Pistons. He has been beating the bushes for talent throughout the country for 28 years. He has survived battles with prostate cancer, a benign brain tumor, and a ruptured appendix. A mild heart attack in November 2002 and a severe cold in the spring of this year barely slowed him down, although, they explain why he missed the ceremony marking his induction into the Missouri Valley Conference Hall of Fame in March. He was back on the road the following week, but he is weighing a decision to retire before next season.
“The thrill is gone. I don’t enjoy it anymore,” he said. “The reason I’ve lived as long as I have is that I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve gotten a certain satisfaction out of it that I don’t get now. The young kids want the job, and rightly so.”
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Waning enthusiasm comes as a surprise for a young-at-heart person who contends he’s been a teenager his whole life. What’s even more surprising is that he has sustained his zeal despite continually confronting racism that closed the door to many opportunities.
“I lived that tough hundred years when blacks were always denied,” he said.
Robinson had to start coaching for YMCA programs in Pittsburgh and Chicago before landing a high school job in Chicago. After the 1943 race riots in Detroit, that city’s school system recruited him as the first black coach in Michigan. In 26 seasons, his high school teams won 85 percent of their games. Robinson revolutionized the style of play by introducing the fast break on offense and full-court pressure on defense.
His teams won state championships in 1967 and 1970. His first Prep All-American, Sammy Gee, played baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Mel Daniels, Spencer Haywood, Ralph Simpson, and Ira Harge were among those who played in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Ted Sizemore played Major League baseball. Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb played pro football.
In all, Robinson sent 16 players to the pro ranks, yet he remains most proud of the fact that more than 300 of his high school players graduated from college. Big-time college teams loved to recruit his players, but they never offered him a chance to coach. Robinson, who was Haywood’s legal guardian, said the University of Detroit promised him the coaching job when he steered Haywood to the Titans. They hired someone else.
“It wasn’t that I was too old,” Robinson observed, “it was that I was too black.”
New era at Illinois State
He finally got his college coaching opportunity in 1970 when Illinois State’s athletic director, the late Milt Weisbecker, sought him out to lead the Redbirds into Division I basketball. They talked at their first meeting late into the night about issues that could surface if Robinson came to Illinois State. No major college basketball team was coached by an African-American at the time.
“I told Milt ‘If you’ve got enough courage, I’m your guy,”‘ Robinson said. He was 59 years old when Weisbecker and then President Samuel Braden named him head coach of the men’s basketball team.
Thus began a remarkable and exciting period in Illinois State basketball history. Budding superstar Doug Collins was already on the roster and Robinson began recruiting an impressive array of talent. Freshmen were not eligible to play varsity basketball in that era so the preliminary games became a major attraction. Horton Field House was rocking.
“He brought in so much talent that we had 6,000 to 7,000 fans come early for the freshman games,” Weisbecker recalled before his death.
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The parade of Illinois State stars included Robert “Bubbles” Hawkins and Calvin Harper from Robinson’s last state championship high school team, as well as Ron deVries, Jeff Wilkins, Rick Whitlow ’78, Roger Powell ’79, Billy Lewis, Randy Henry ’76 and Cyrus Mann—all of whom were drafted by professional teams. Hawkins and Wilkins had prominent years in the NBA, with deVries ticketed for a slot with the Los Angeles Lakers before a back injury ended his career.
The most famous player of that era was Collins. He flourished under Robinson and became the hero in the controversial 1972 Munich Olympics. Collins was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and became the only first-team major college All-American in Illinois State history. The Philadelphia 76ers made him the No. 1 NBA draft pick in 1973.
It was a magical time for Redbird fans. They packed the field house and revised a popular beer jingle to sing, “When you say Doug, you’ve said a lot of things no other school can say.” A recording titled “Doug the Jet” became a hit song on local radio. Even fans of opposing teams honored Collins with special ceremonies when the Redbirds came to their town.
Robinson is proud of his role in helping Collins develop his talents. “That’s the only time as of today that a black coach coached a white boy who was a No. 1 pick in the NBA,” Robinson pointed out. “It gave him a life. He’s somebody now.”
After an all-star playing career, Collins became an Emmy-winning television commentator and professional basketball coach for the Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, and the Washington Wizards. Collins still has close ties with his former coach and says Robinson was a strong influence because “he has so much wisdom.”
Robinson needed both wisdom and courage to survive the difficulties of assembling a major college schedule when Illinois State moved up in the basketball world. Most of the big-time schools would only play the Redbirds on their own courts, if at all.
So Robinson took his team from coast to coast. Winning on the road is never easy but it was particularly tough for Robinson and his Redbirds. “We were ahead by 21 points at the half in one game,” Robinson recalled. “As we were leaving the floor, one of their fans said to me, ‘Coach, that won’t be enough.’ He was right. It wasn’t enough.”
Despite such adversities, Robinson’s teams posted a five-year record of 78-51. His last team gave him two especially satisfying victories against Mai shall University of Huntington, West Virginia, and West Virginia University. Both schools in Robinson’s home state were closed to blacks when he went to college. “They wouldn’t even let me in their gyms to watch a game,” he said.
Robinson the athlete
Robinson was a gifted athlete who would be widely recruited today. He won 14 letters in five sports at Steubenville High School, located across the river from West Virginia in eastern Ohio. He was quarterback for a football team that was not only undefeated but unscored on in one season, while running up a national high school record of more than 400 points.
“The coach did a hell of a job letting me play quarterback,” Robinson said, noting that he was one of just three black athletes on the squad.
Segregation reared its ugly head when Robinson played in the Ohio state high school golf tournament in Columbus. As the only black player, he was denied the practice round all other players completed and was sent onto the course alone early the morning of the tournament. Still, he shot a one-over-par 73 and finished second.
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Robinson went on to win 15 letters in four sports at West Virginia State College and quarterbacked its football team to the 1936 National Negro College Championship. His roommate, Wendell Smith, became famous as the sportswriter who helped Jackie Robinson break Major League baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Years later, when Smith was president of the Chicago Press Club, he gave a boost to his former college roommate by presenting Collins with the Abe Saperstein Memorial Award for being the nation’s top college player.
Smith is gone now. So is Weisbecker, who Robinson remembers with gratitude as the man who hired him and launched the Redbirds into major college basketball. Those eventful years at Illinois State will always be vivid and fond memories for Robinson.
“I loved the people there. They treated me wonderful, better than any place I had been,” Robinson said. “That’s the only thing I miss—the friendships that were there and Milt Weisbecker, who had the nerve to give me a shot to go from high school to head coach in college. That was unheard of, especially for a black kid.”