By Dick Luedke
It was 1970. Doug Collins, Illinois State University’s most decorated alumnus, who will be further decorated in November with his induction into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, had just finished a very successful freshman year at Illinois State University. Then came news that saddened the talented 19-year-old. His coach was leaving. Jim Collie had contracted multiple sclerosis. Collie’s coaching career was over.
Controversy and Courage
Redbird Athletic Director Milt Weisbecker was charged with the task of hiring a new coach. After considering several candidates, Weisbecker made a decision that would raise eyebrows throughout central Illinois and the college basketball community nationwide. His historical decision created controversy. But most of all it was courageous. Weisbecker hired a black man as Collie’s successor, the first African-American to become a Division I head basketball coach.
Redbird basketball fans were buzzing about the decision and speculating on whether this improbable circumstance would inspire the talented Redbird newcomer, an all-state standout from the southern Illinois town of Benton, who had never even had a black teammate until he came to Illinois State, to transfer to another school.
“I never had any thoughts of leaving,” says Collins now.
Collins vividly remembers what Weisbecker told him after deciding to bring a black man into the predominantly white community of Bloomington-Normal to coach his school’s brand new Division I basketball program.
“He said, ‘I just want you to know, Doug, that he is one of the most dynamic men I have ever met. You’re going to be blown away by his story.'”
Coach Will Robinson
Fifty-nine-year-old Will Robinson was the grandson of a slave. He was born to teenage parents, both of whom died before the age of 30. Robinson was raised by grandparents in Steubenville, Ohio, where he finished second in the state high school golf tournament despite not being allowed on the course with the white players. After lettering in four sports and graduating from West Virginia State University, racial segregation within that state forced him to get his masters degree elsewhere, at the University of Michigan.
The color of Robinson’s skin then inhibited him from becoming a high school basketball coach, and so, he coached at YMCAs in Pittsburgh and Chicago. His success at those two locations resulted in a high school coaching job in Chicago, which led to 27 years as a head coach at two schools in the Detroit Public League. For 16 of those years he was the only black coach in the city. He won two state championships in Michigan. The second of those came weeks before he was hired to coach the Redbirds and a talented young player from Benton, Illinois, with a skin color totally unlike that of almost all the players he had coached in Detroit.
With his move to Bloomington-Normal, Robinson’s story was about to become even more incredible.
“I Trusted Him with My Future”
“I remember going over to Horton Field House and meeting Coach Robinson,” says Collins. “When I looked into his eyes, I just trusted him. I trusted him with my future.”
No one could have imagined the future that was in store for Paul Douglas Collins. He was to become an all-American athlete and student at Illinois State, a U.S. Olympic basketball hero, the first player chosen in the NBA draft, a standout for a Philadelphia 76ers team that consistently contended for NBA championships, a head coach for four NBA teams and one of the most prominent and proficient television broadcast analysts in NBA history.
Collins himself, when he began his new life at Illinois State University, was as clueless as anyone about what was ahead. He recalls backing out of his driveway in Benton with all of his belongings jammed into an old, beat-up Plymouth Fury with which his dad had rewarded him for getting a college scholarship. As he headed north to Normal, Collins was unaware that his parents, later that day, would begin their separation.
Motivated by Fear
“I pulled up to Wilkins Hall,” he recalls, “and I looked around and I saw all these kids checking into the dorm, and they were all with their parents, and I realized at that point in time that I had to make it. I had to be committed. I wanted to be the best student. I wanted to create a life for myself.
“I was afraid. I didn’t know if I could make it. I didn’t know what I could do academically. I was motivated by fear.”
Collins says he would dare not miss a class. After classes, he headed to Horton Field House. And after hours of refining his roundball skills, it was back to Wilkins Hall to prepare for the next day of classes.
“I Can Do This”
A couple of weeks into his freshman year, Collins took his first two tests, in economics and mathematics.
“They used to post your test score with your Social Security number,” Collins recalls. “My heart was racing 100 miles an hour trying to find my number, and I saw it and it said ‘A’ next to my number.”
Collins hastily grabbed a notebook and placed it under his number to make sure it all lined up, to make sure he wasn’t looking at someone else’s A. The A was his. He checked his grade on the other test. Another A.
The man who has experienced countless successful endeavors says the revelation that he had aced his first two college exams rivals any of them.
“I said to myself, ‘I can do this. I’m going to be okay.'”
Competitive in the Classroom
The young man who was on his way to becoming an academic all-American was going to be more than okay. His competitiveness on fields of play didn’t leave him when he entered a classroom.
Collins remembers scoring 55 points in a game against Ball State and then racing home to study for the next day’s anatomy test.
“Anatomy was hard,” he says. “I remember walking into the classroom. This girl looked at me and said, ‘I know where you were last night.’ I said, ‘Really, where was I?’ She goes, ‘I saw what you did at the game.’ And then she says, ‘Don’t look off my paper today because I know you didn’t study.'”
Collins was more than a little irked with his classmate. “She was shoe-horning me, pigeon-holing me,” Collins says. “And so I looked at her and I said, ‘Don’t look off mine because I’ll beat you on this test.'”
When the graded tests were passed out, Collins flipped his over and then asked the girl, who was seated next to him, how she did. Scoring better than she had on that test produced no less exhilaration for Collins than swishing a buzzer-beating game-winner.
How It All Came Together
As Collins matured in the classrooms of Illinois State University, his maturation at Horton Field House was even more rapid. And his new coach, who was old enough to be Collins’ grandfather, was no small part of that.
“Coach Robinson instilled in me an insatiable appetite to compete, to not back down, and to have that competitive fight and spirit every single day,” says Collins. “It was just amazing how it all came together. Dr. Weisbecker hiring the first black coach in Division I basketball, bringing him into Bloomington-Normal. That was an incredible act of courage and so ahead of the times, and I’m so thankful he did that.
“Obviously, I was sad that Coach Collie got sick and couldn’t coach anymore. He still had an incredible impact on my life. He was such a competitor and such a gentleman. I never forgot the way Coach Collie lived his life. I’m a product of great teachers and coaches and great people who spent a lot of time and energy, believed in me, taught me to do things right.”
Learning to Handle Success
Among the many things Will Robinson taught Collins was how to properly handle success. For someone who achieved such a high degree of success so early in life, this was an important lesson. A segment of the lesson was delivered the day after Collins scored 40 points in a one-point loss to Oral Roberts.
“I came to the gym, I was the first one in there, and Coach Robinson was waiting for me,” Collins recalls. “He said, Champ, your life is changing and I want to show you something.'”
Robinson, who began calling Collins ‘Champ’ shortly after he met him, directed his player into a nearby men’s room and pointed to a newspaper on the floor opened to an article that documented Collins’ outstanding performance of the night before.
“You know what that 40 points you scored last night is?” asked Robinson.
Collins responded, “Coach, I don’t.”
“It’s day-old news. You see that it’s laying there by the toilet. I hope you know that as hard as it was for you to do that last night, it’s going to be harder the next time.”
Working Harder Than Anyone Else
“He never let me lose sight of the fact that if I wanted to get somewhere, I had to work harder than anybody else,” Collins remembers. “I had to be more committed. And I had to listen to him.”
Collins listened closely. The star player would routinely visit his coach’s office just before practice. Later that season he made one of those visits.
“Coach had this mirror in his office,” Collins says. “He looked at me and he said, ‘Do you think you’re handsome?’ I said, ‘No, sir.’ He said, ‘I want you to stand up in front of that mirror and I want you to tell me if you think you’re handsome.'”
Collins dutifully did as he was told and then said, “No sir, I’m not.”
Robinson then picked up a basketball and shoved it under Collins’ arm. The image must have strongly resembled the picture of Collins that was to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated about a year later.
Robinson then said, “You’re the most available meal ticket on campus as long as you have this ball under your arm. If you think these girls are going to want to hang with you because you’re handsome, don’t lose that ball.”
“He always had a way to keep things in perspective,” says Collins. “I can’t tell you all the lessons he taught me.”
Collins learned lessons from others at Illinois State including Weisbecker, Collie, other coaches, numerous professors and an older classmate who turned into a mentor and close friend.
Making a Lifelong Friend
Collins was wearing a Benton High School T-shirt while playing in a pickup basketball game when he met fellow student Don Franke. Eyeing the T-shirt, Franke told Collins his mother was from Benton. Collins immediately expressed a desire to meet her. Lillian Franke became a second mother to Collins and Don Franke became a lifelong friend.
Franke worked part-time at a clothing store and began giving his new buddy fashion advice. Franke suggested that Collins, whose tight budget did not allow for new threads, wear some of his clothes. Collins took him up on the offer.
When Collins came back to Illinois State after the 1972 Olympics, he was in hot demand as a speaker. Franke remembers writing a speech on notecards for his buddy’s first such endeavor, which took place at a grade school in Armstrong, Illinois, 70 miles east of Bloomington-Normal. “Doug was very nervous,” says Franke.
Franke recalls that Collins was tethered to those notecards as he began speaking to the youngsters. But after a while he set the cards aside and began speaking extemporaneously, from his heart rather than from his script. So began a style of communicating that would lead 37 years later to Collins winning the prestigious Curt Gowdy Media Award at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Because of his close friendship with Franke, his connection to many others in Bloomington-Normal, and his deep appreciation for the impact his four years at Illinois State had on who he became, Collins regularly returns to his college home. He has made significant monetary contributions to Illinois State University, but the combination of his high visibility and his expressions of love for his alma mater has been even more rewarding to the school and it’s athletic department.
Illinois State Athletic Director Larry Lyons, who has been affiliated with Redbird Athletics for 30 years, says that while other schools also have highly engaged alums, he can’t imagine any of them express their feelings for their school as frequently, and on such a visible stage, as does Collins.
“He constantly refers to lessons learned at Illinois State while on his NBA or Olympic broadcasts,” says Lyons. “Even his recent appearance on the David Feherty show had an ISU segment.
“There is an old saying which I think captures it well,” continues Lyons. “‘Be proud of who you are and where you’re from.’ Doug leaves no doubt that he is so proud of his time spent on campus and his continuing affiliation with Illinois State. He is a very special person.”
Doug Collins Court
The court on which Illinois State’s men’s and women’s basketball and women’s volleyball teams play has been named Doug Collins Court. Outside the building that houses that court, Redbird Arena, is a bronze statue depicting Collins standing behind a kneeling Will Robinson with his hand on his coach’s shoulder.
The statue was sculpted by Illinois State graduate Lou Cella and financed by Franke, who owns a construction company in Bloomington. Franke remembers then-Illinois State athletic director Sheahon Zenger telling him about plans for the statue. When Franke asked about the cost, Zenger pounced on the opportunity to ask how much Franke would like to contribute. Franke didn’t hesitate. “I’ll do it all,” he said.
Franke said he had been searching for years for something to do for his friend in response to all that Collins had done for him.
When Collins learned of the plans to produce the statue of himself and his coach, he was enormously grateful and genuinely excited.
“I always tell people the story of Doug Collins and Will Robinson is not a basketball story,” he says. “It’s a love story.
“How can a 19-year-old kid from an all-white community of 6,000 people, Benton, Illinois, get to Illinois State in 1970 and meet a 59-year-old black man who had spent 27 years coaching in the Detroit Public League? How could these two guys, through basketball, fall in love and create a life for one another that neither one could ever imagine? That to me is what that statue is.”
Not a Basketball Story, but a Love Story
At the age of 96, Will Robinson lay seriously ill at a hospital in Detroit. Collins came to visit.
“I walked into his room and I could tell he was not going to live much longer,” says Collins.
A third person in the room, long-time Detroit Pistons play-by-play announcer George Blaha, said to Robinson, “Doug’s here to see you! Doug’s here to see you!”
Robinson looked toward Collins who was unconvinced his coach recognized him.
And so Collins said, “It’s Champ, Coach. It’s Champ.”
Robinson came to life. “Oh, Champ!”
After a few seconds of silence, Robinson continued. “We’re playing Southern Illinois tonight, Champ. We gotta win. We gotta win this game tonight.”
Whether it was a purposeful trip down memory lane or the product of a muddled 96-year-old mind, Collins could not know. But he knew how to respond. “Coach, we’re going to beat Southern. I’m not going to let Southern beat us.”
After another pause, Robinson said, “We were a pretty good team, weren’t we, Champ?”
“No, Coach, we were a great team.”
Always a Winner
Collins has picked out the title for his autobiography (which he insists he will never actually write): “Always a Winner, Never a Champion,” meaning that the teams for which Collins played consistently won more than they lost but never won a championship.
Indeed, Collins’ Redbird teams won no titles. Those administrating the championship basketball game at the 1972 Olympics bent the rules into pretzels to insure that Collins and his teammates were not rewarded with gold medals. Collins and his Philadelphia 76ers lost in the 1977 NBA Finals. None of the teams Collins coached in the NBA won a championship.
And so never a champion. But wait a minute! Don’t even think about trying to sell that concept to Will Robinson. Champ not a champion???
When that skinny 19-year-old from Benton, Illinois, was looking into the eyes of his new coach and determining that those were the eyes of someone he could trust, the coach was looking back into the eyes of his new player and was learning no less about Collins than Collins was about him.
“He always called me Champ,” Collins says. He said, ‘Champ, I can spot a phony a mile away. And I can spot someone who is going to make it. If you’ll trust me, I’ll get you to a place that you never dreamed you could go.'”
Will Robinson knew it then, better than anyone. Robinson could clearly see that he was looking into the youthful eyes of a future champ. The moniker he instinctively adopted for his new player foretold the future for Doug Collins.
And so, on behalf of Coach Robinson here’s one more piece of advice for Champ. Change the title of that never-to-be-written book from “Always a Winner, Never a Champion” to “Always a Winner, Forever a Champion.”
And here’s to you, Mr. Robinson.