On the campus of Illinois State University stands a unique statue of a basketball coach and player. The coach is Will Robinson and player is Doug Collins. In 1970, Robinson became the first African-American coach of a Division 1/NCAA team. During five years, he achieved a 78-51 record. Collins, who is white, went from the Illinois State team to play for the Philadelphia 76ers and then coached several NBA teams. Collins said that Robinson was “far more than a teacher of basketball. He was a life coach.”
Robinson was born in Anson County in 1911 to Mary Robinson, a cook and maid for white families, and husband, Will Staten, who worked in a saw mill. By the time he reached high school, the younger Robinson was living with his maternal grandmother, Sophie Willoughby, and her second husband in Steubenville, located at the eastern edge of Ohio on the Ohio River. At Steubenville High School, when he was 5-feet 8-inches tall and weighed only 140 pounds, he was the quarterback who led the team to an undefeated season and he also played on a championship golf team. He loved the years at West Virginia State College, a college for blacks, where he didn’t have to experience racism. He gained weight and lettered in four sports. The next step was to endure a difficult year back in the white world at the University of Michigan, where he earned a master’s degree in sports education.
Robinson’s first breakthrough was when he got the job of athletic director, and was therefore the only full-time staff member of a modern YMCA for blacks in Pittsburgh. The facility included a gym and swimming pool and he added several new programs during his four-year stay. During a year in Chicago, when he was not accepted into the military, he became a teacher and coach in a high school.
In 1943, his next step was to accept a job at a high school located in a struggling slum in Detroit. This was a huge challenge. It was the beginning of his love affair with sports in the city of Detroit. He had to organize a football team. He gained a reputation of taking care of his players, even when they needed food, clothes or transportation. He continued to teach and coach several sports at high schools in the city until 1970, establishing specialties in coaching football and basketball. Even while teaching, he worked part-time as a scout for the Detroit Lions football team.
The next step was coaching the Illinois State basketball team, where he became nationally known. In 1970, the Detroit Pistons basketball team hired him as their first full-time black staffer and assigned him to scout college players, which required traveling all over the nation. He was responsible for recruiting Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman, key players when the Pistons won the NBA championships in 1989 and 1990. For several years, he was also assistant general manager.
When Robinson died at age 96 in 2008, he was survived by two former wives and a son, William Jr., two granddaughters, and a great-granddaughter. John Telford, who wrote a book about Robinson, said it best: “Will Robinson was unquestionably a legendary coach, educator, and mentor.”
Walter R. Turner, former historian with the North Carolina Transportation Museum, is editor of the Anson County Historical Society’s newsletter.