His name is Dave Robbins. Unless you live in Richmond, you may never have heard of him. He quietly retired last spring as the head basketball coach at Virginia Union, with a record of success that qualifies him as one of the true greats: In 30 seasons, he went 713—194 and won Division II national championships in three different decades.
But that's only part of the reason he deserves induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Robbins worked the sideline at a historically black college, in the historically black Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. As its first white coach.
"We gave that boy hell," my coach at Winston-Salem State—the late, legendary Clarence "Big House" Gaines—used to tell me. "It didn't matter, though. Robbins just kept coaching. Kept kicking our tails. He earned everyone's respect."
As we embark upon another college basketball season, perhaps it's necessary to pause for a moment and reflect. Not on legends who've stepped away from the game, like Bob Knight, or on those who are still around, like Mike Krzyzewski, but on someone just as significant. Robbins emerged as a cross-cultural figure in the capital of the Confederacy only a few years after a bitter fight over court-ordered busing to desegregate public schools. This was 11 years before Douglas Wilder would be elected Virginia's—and the nation's—first African-American governor and 30 years before Barack Obama would be elected president.
Those things were as inconceivable in 1978 as the idea of a white guy coaching in the CIAA. Robbins, now 66, says at first he didn't understand the ramifications of his new job. He'd previously coached at the predominantly black Thomas Jefferson High School in Richmond. "The race factor may have been prevalent in everyone else's mind, but not mine," he says. "I never even thought about it. I coached one white starter in my last five years at Jefferson. My principal was black, and so were my players. To me, I was just going across town to coach better, stronger and older kids. Being naïve may have been necessary at the time. I don't know. What I do know is that there was a time when one high-ranking CIAA official told me that Union's decision to hire me set black coaches back 20 years."
It's understandable that black coaches—so many of whom were overlooked and underestimated—would feel this way. It's also no surprise that Robbins experienced his own frustrations. He was often bypassed for CIAA Coach of the Year honors, even after he won a national title in his second season at Union. And when his Panthers, led by Charles Oakley, went 31—1 in 1985, he shared the honor with two others.
Robbins never made a big stink about the lack of recognition, but his school president did. That prompted Gaines to say at a CIAA coaches meeting, " 'Let's just put it all out on the table right now: The reason you never get voted for the honor is because these coaches think you cheat,' " as Robbins recalls.
"At that moment, I stood up and said, 'If anybody in this room knows of me cheating, then stand up and say it to my face!' You could've heard a pin drop. Nobody said a word. I believe the next year I was voted Coach of the Year."
Robbins recognized the obvious. "These were great coaches," he says. "Coaches who deserved the opportunity to coach on the Division I level. But because of the times, that was not going to happen for them, and it hurt. That's why I always looked at myself a bit differently than some of those coaches supposedly looked at me. To me, I always felt like my hiring made white universities say: If Union could hire a qualified white coach, why can't we hire a qualified black coach? I still maintain that thinking to this very day." It's a powerful idea, now more than ever. And it's true: The fact that a "White Shadow," as Robbins was called, coached in the CIAA made a lot of people take notice. Eventually, the conference embraced him. "It feels good that it ultimately happened," Robbins says.
This fall, the Cleveland Cavaliers invited Robbins to attend a practice and speak to the team, which happens to include Ben Wallace, an All-America for Virginia Union in 1996. I'd love to hear Dave Robbins make a speech, too. In Springfield. What's the Hall of Fame waiting for?