Legendary Coach Robinson Passes Away
April 28, 2008
NORMAL, Ill. - The Illinois State athletics family suffered a great loss early Monday morning, when legendary and influential former head coach Will Robinson passed away. Robinson, who also served more than 30 years in various capacities within the NBA's Detroit Pistons organization, was 96. He died at a Detroit-area hospital.
Robinson was the first African American coach of an NCAA Division I men's basketball program, after former athletics director Milt Weisbecker hired him in 1970 at the age of 60. Prior to his stint at ISU, Robinson was a legendary high school coach in Michigan, where he also served as the state's first-ever African American high school mentor.
"He (Weisbecker) had the courage to hire me when no one else would," Robinson told the Pantagraph in 1992. "It wasn't that I was too old. I was too black."
Robinson retired from ISU following the 1975-76 season. In 2003, he was presented the lifetime achievement award by the Missouri Valley Conference.
"With the passing of Will Robinson, Illinois State University has lost a legend and a hero," said Illinois State President Al Bowman. "On this day, his family is uppermost in our thoughts. His vision, integrity and pursuit of excellence will remain in our memories forever."
ISU Director of Athletics Sheahon Zenger echoed Bowman's sentiments.
"This is a sad day for Illinois State University and the basketball community," said Zenger. "Will Robinson was an icon, not only on our campus, but at the national level. We will always remember his courage, vision and strength, and forever be thankful for all that he did for Redbird Athletics."
Robinson moved to the Pistons in 1975 to become assistant to the director of player personnel and helped shape the 1989 and 1990 NBA championship teams. He was rehired in 2004 as a scout to the organization at the age of 92. Two of Robinson's key findings were Joe Dumars, the Pistons' current general manager, and Dennis Rodman, who played 14 years in the NBA.
Robinson spent three seasons coaching the legendary Doug Collins, who used the stage as a springboard into an influential career in the NBA as a player, coach and television analyst; a role he still occupies at Turner Sports. Collins became the school's only consensus all-America selection, and was drafted No. 1 overall in the 1973 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers.
Robinson's name still actively lives on in ISU basketball history, as the Will Robinson Endowment Fund, an investment in leadership, is one of 15 endowed scholarships available to Illinois State student-athletes. Proceeds from the 1994 Doug Collins Golf Outing and a special announcement reception established the Will Robinson Scholarship. The scholarship also funds an internship with the Pistons.
"The Redbird family is very sad to hear the news of coach Robinson's passing," said ISU head coach Tim Jankovich. "He was a pioneer and a legend who made a great mark on Illinois State. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family."
Born June 3, 1911 in Wadesboro, N.C., Robinson quarterbacked the Steubenville High School (Ohio) football team and finished second in the Ohio high school golf tournament, despite not being allowed to play the course at the same time as whites. He won 15 letters in four sports at West Virginia State College before graduating in 1937.