Will Robinson dies, was first black coach of Division I program

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Will Robinson, the first black basketball coach at a Division I school and a Detroit Pistons scout who discovered Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman, died Monday. He was 96.

Robinson died at a Detroit hospital, Pistons spokesman Matt Dobek said. Robinson had been sick for 15 months and in a nursing home for more than a year, Dobek added.

Robinson broke a racial barrier in the 1970s when he coached Illinois State. He joined the Pistons as a scout in 1976, and the additions of Dumars and Rodman were keys to Detroit's 1989 and 1990 NBA championships. Those teams were coached by Chuck Daly, who took the job after Robinson declined former general manager Jack McCloskey's offer.

"Will Robinson was truly a legend and will be missed dearly," Dumars said. "He was a huge inspiration for me and so many others. He was simply the best."

Robinson scouted for the Pistons for 28 years and scouted part-time for the NFL's Detroit Lions for 22 years.

Midway through the 2003-04 season, en route to their third title, the Pistons renamed their locker room the "Will Robinson Locker Room of Champions."

"He's someone that's going to be missed, not only by the Pistons but by the City of Detroit," Pistons coach Flip Saunders said.

"He was a civil rights pioneer," said Pistons trainer Mike Abdenour, hired by the franchise in the mid-1970s. "He didn't let the color of his skin deter him from his dreams.

"I think it's really ironic that the NAACP had a big event here last night and Will passed away the next day," he said.

The NAACP's annual Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner was Sunday in Detroit.

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.

The 1967 Pershing team featured not only Haywood but four others who went on to play professional sports: Ralph Simpson (ABA, NBA), Glen Doughty and Paul Seal (NFL) and Marvin Lane (baseball).

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.

"My grandparents raised me," Robinson once told The Detroit News. "Sports was a family thing, and I coached that way -- whether a kid needed money, clothing, a place to stay. I put all these things into a family. And [many of] the players who played for me, I got into college. Some are doctors. Some are lawyers."

Born in Wadesboro, N.C., Robinson quarterbacked the Steubenville (Ohio) High football team and finished second in the state 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.

While scouting for the Lions, Robinson scoured black colleges in the South for talent. His finds included Jackson State cornerback Lem Barney, who went on to a Pro Football Hall of Fame career.

He coached the Illinois State basketball team from 1970-75 and had a 78-51 record without a losing season. His best player was Doug Collins, who was drafted by Philadelphia with the No. 1 overall pick in 1973.

"I'm incredibly sad that I lost a guy that I loved as much as anybody in the world," Collins said. "He taught me the essence of life that has served me well from the age of 18 to 56 because he was more of a life coach than a basketball coach."

In 2004, Robinson said he was sorry he didn't accept McCloskey's offer to coach the Pistons.

"I know I could have won championships with those teams. But after coaching for as long as I had, I found it a relief to not be coaching," he said then.

A viewing is scheduled in Detroit on Friday. After the funeral Saturday, a celebration of Robinson's life will be held at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.