Fresh out of college in the early 1980s and cocky enough to believe that he was the future of high school basketball in Virginia, Will Robinson received a reality check during his first game as head coach of Cumberland High, his alma mater.
The team lost by 30 points, and Robinson rested his head in his hands, void of any answers. A couple of weeks later, Robinson’s mother reeled him back in, reminding him of “E.O.G” – that he had Eased God Out of his life.
Robinson, now the Vance High boys’ basketball coach, credits family members for such moments, which help him refocus his priorities. Those times have allowed him to string together a coaching career that reached a couple of significant milestones recently.
On Dec. 7, the coach earned the 500th victory of his 26-year career. The Cougars defeated Independence in what was also Robinson’s 150th win at Vance.
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Robinson is humbled by the attention the milestone has received. He says he wasn’t aware it was approaching until after the season opener, when one of his players told him he was three wins away.
“My wife (Cheryl) said it’s remarkable, and I value what she has to say,” said Robinson. “It’s not about me. It’s about all those kids that helped me get this far.”
For Robinson, coaching basketball is not about the wins and losses. Instead, it’s about the relationships he builds with his players and the successes they have after graduating from high school and college.
“If the kids aren’t coming back, and checking on you and asking about the team, you haven’t done your job (as a coach),” he said.
Robinson noted a recent visit to Vance by T.J. Pointer, a senior guard on Robinson’s first Cougar team in 2005-06. Pointer showed up with a big smile on his face, proud to let his former coach know that he had just bought his first home.
Robinson stays in touch with another player from that first team, Al’Lonzo Coleman, who is trying to develop a professional basketball career in Argentina. He regularly Skypes with Will and Cheryl Robinson.
Out of hundreds of players Robinson has coached in his career, he estimates that 100 have played in college, including 13 or 14 who played at Vance. In 2007, he led the Cougars to the 4A state championship game, just four years after Vance won the title under his predecessor, Kurt Wessler.
A friend in Georgia and a brother in Durham encouraged Robinson to apply for the boys basketball coaching vacancy at Vance. He had heard Charlotte was rich in basketball talent.
Cheryl, who is a counseling specialist with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, worked at Vance for a few years when the Robinsons moved to University City. They enjoy playing tennis together locally, recreationally at Sugaw Creek Park and competitively at Charlotte Racquet Club North.
Previously, Will Robinson had spent most of his coaching career at Woodbridge High in Woodbridge, Va. He spent a short time as a college assistant and has coached national high school all-star teams.
A lot has changed in basketball during his career. There was no three-point shot, for example, in high school or college when he started on the bench.
The biggest change, Robinson says, is how a lot of today’s high school players perceive their own abilities. Thirty years ago, players looked out for the best interest of their team. Now, the attention that summer camps and showcase teams give to players gives them a false sense of potential futures.
“I encourage kids to dream, but I try to be realistic,” says Robinson. “I don’t tell kids that they can be whatever they want to be. At some point in time, someone needs to be there with directions that are more realistic and give them a better means for success.”
Robinson is realistic about his team this year. He says the Cougars are a bit undersized, but they make up for it with by having a big heart.
Vance opened its season with four straight victories. And for Robinson, that’s 500 and counting.