by Dr. John Telford
In my 2010 autobiography, ‘A Life on the RUN – Seeking and Safeguarding Social Justice’ (www.AlifeontheRUN.com), I devoted a chapter to my days coaching my champion track teams at Pershing High School when the legendary Will Robinson coached his championship basketball teams there in the 1960s. Will was nearly 97 when he passed in 2008, and now at eighty I am the last living head coach to coach with him. In my autobiography, I tell several Robinson stories, and now as the year 2016 dawns, Will finally has an entire book about him–a book that he so richly deserves. It is the book which I promised him many years ago that I would write. To get this book, go to Amazon.com and type in Dr. John Telford, or else contact me at (313) 460-8272 or DrJohnTelfordEdD@aol.com. In addition to containing extensive basketball lore, the book recounts the history of the great champions who came out of Detroit in the twentieth century in football, boxing, and track & field. It also features my extensive commentary on the progress America has made in civil rights, as well the recent lack thereof in Michigan (a disenfranchising emergency manager law reinstituted after the state’s voters rejected it), in Detroit (the unwarranted school takeover which Will would have abhorred) and in Flint (the lead-laden water that poisoned thousands of children).
As the FIRST African-American athletic coach in the Detroit Public Schools and indeed in the whole state of Michigan, Will the FIRST led his basketball teams at the old Miller High School in the 1940s to four consecutive city titles with stars Sammy Gee and Charley “Kingsnake” Primas–with Primas making All-American at Wayne University as well. Even though DPS couldn’t compete in the state meet in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, those Robinson-coached teams were universally regarded as the state’s best. When Miller was phased out as a high school in 1957, Robinson transferred to Cass Tech, where he developed University of Detroit and professional star Dorrie Murrey. At Pershing, Will Robinson’s teams won state titles with future collegiate and pro all-stars Spencer Haywood and Ralph Simpson–and later Bubbles Hawkins. Will’s 1967 Doughboy team–which sent five players to the pro ranks–is regarded today as the greatest team to ever play high school basketball. In 1970, Robinson became the FIRST African-American coach to skipper a Division One NCAA cage team when he signed to head up the Illinois State University Redbirds. He had five winning seasons at ISU in five years before returning to Detroit to scout for the Pistons and subsequently become their Assistant General Manager–a prestigious job he held well into his nineties. He was the FIRST African-American scout in big-time professional sports and the FIRST African-American executive in the National Basketball Association. Prior to scouting full-time for the Pistons, he scouted part-time for the Detroit Lions for several years, bringing them Lem Barney, “Night Train” Lane, Charlie Sanders, NCAA hurdles champ Earl McCullough, Olympic quarter-miler Ollie Matson, and other big names. His Piston recruits included Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, John Salley, Dennis Rodman, and others who helped Detroit win back-to-back NBA titles.
Will Robinson once said, “Vernon Jordan, Andrew Young, and King and Malcolm had their niches—different niches, different locales. All were civil-rights pioneers in their own way, as was I. My niche was athletics.” Will sent 300 of his players to college on scholarship, thirty to professional teams, and countless others to leadership in law, medicine, government, and education. Said Charley Primas: “Rob was the greatest man I ever met.” Said Spencer Haywood: “Will transformed thousands of lives.” Said Joe Dumars: “Will was a legend–one of a kind.” Said Doug Collins, Will’s All-American at ISU: “Will was like a father to me.” Said Will’s late-in-life companion Janet Bobby: “Will was the love of my life.” Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan calls the book “a civil-rights story of national significance.” Both the ‘Basketball Times’–a nation-wide publication–and the ‘Michigan Chronicle’ reviewed it glowingly. The producer of ‘In Black America’ has contacted me to do an interview on the air about the book. The ‘Chronicle’ wrote, ‘Once you start reading this book, you won’t put it down.”
Will Robinson and John Telford were both All-Americans–Telford as a world-ranked sprinter at WSU in the 1950s and Robinson as a national championship quarterback at West Virginia State in the 1930s. Dr. Telford served as the democratically elected Detroit School Board’s appointed pro bono Superintendent and opposed the Governor’s imposed emergency management every step of the way. He currently serves as the elected Board-now-in-exile’s Superintendent-in-exile. Tapes of his shows on WCHB NewsTalk1200 and of his television appearances can be accessed on his website, www.AlifeontheRUN.com. ‘Will the FIRST’ is his fifth published book in the past five years–and two more books are on the way.