‘Will the FIRST: The Saga of Sports/Civil-Rights Pioneer WILL ROBINSON’

May 25, 2016

Will Robinson made history in 1970 as the first African American to coach at a Division I school when he was hired as the head basketball coach by Illinois State University. Prior to joining the Redbirds, Robinson coached for twenty-six years in the Detroit public school system. In 1975 he became a scout for the Detroit Pistons, a position he held until 2003, when he retired at the age of 92.

On this edition of In Black America, producer/host John L. Hanson Jr. speaks with Dr. John Telford, former Detroit Public Schools Superintendent and author of ‘Will The First: The Sage of Sports/Civil Rights Pioneer Will Robinson.’

Telford has written a spellbinding book about his coaching colleague at Pershing High School (Detroit, MI) – the late, legendary Will Robinson.  Both men were All-Americans – Telford as a sprinter at Wayne State University in the 1950’s and Robinson as a quarterback at West Virginia State in the 1930’s.

Robinson became the first African-American head coach in Division I history when he accepted the position at Illinois State University in 1970. He scouted for the Detroit Pistons for 28 years, and worked 22 years for the Detroit Lions as a part-time scout. Robinson, who is a member of seven athletic halls of fame, was also the first black high school coach in Michigan, winning two state championships in basketball.

Robinson was born in Wadesboro, North Carolina, on June 3, 1911. He attended Steubenville High School in Steubenville, Ohio, where he quarterback  the football team and played on the golf team. Robinson led his football team to an undefeated, unscored upon season, and finished second in the state golf tournament despite not being allowed on the course with the white players. He was also the captain of both the golf and football teams and also played baseball and ran track, the only player in state history to letter in five sports. Robinson also lettered in four sports at West Virginia State University, graduating in 1937.

After earning his college degree, Robinson took a coaching job at the Central Avenue Recreation Center in Pittsburgh. He coached basketball in the YMCA league, taking his team to the national championship. Robinson moved to Chicago and worked at a YMCA before beginning his high school coaching career in 1943 at Chicago's DuSable High School, where he coached basketball and swimming.

In 1944 the Chicago school superintendent threatened Robinson that he should accept a transfer to Detroit, or he would never find work again. Robinson at the age of thirty-three, began a twenty-six-year stint in Detroit as a high school coach. Robinson arrived in Detroit a year after violent race riots that had resulted in the death of twenty-five African Americans and nine whites, and racial tensions were still high. The second African American in the school's athletic department, Robinson coached basketball and football at Miller High School for the next thirteen years, winning six championships despite the lack of a proper gym or a home football field.

Robinson became a coaching legend, winning 85 percent of his games during his time as a coach in the Detroit school system. He also worked on the side as a scout for the Detroit Lions, becoming the first African-American scout in the National Football League. Most of the schools were still segregated, and Robinson's job was to cover all the black colleges in the South, where he discovered future hall-of-fame cornerback Lem Barney at Jackson State in 1967. Yet, because he was black, many opportunities passed him by. In 1969 he was promised the University of Detroit coaching job, but the school pulled out at the last minute, much to Robinson's disappointment.

Robinson joined Spencer Haywood in a successful legal challenge to the NBA's ban on underclassmen. Haywood, a member of Robinson's Detroit Pershing 1967 state championship high school team, left the University of Detroit to sign with the ABA's Denver Rockets.

Robinson was inducted into a number of halls of fame, including the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1982. Accolades aside, he took pride in helping more than 300 youngsters attend college on sports scholarships.

Robinson died on April 28, 2008 at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. He was 96.