By Susan Shinn, Catawba College News Service
Dave Robbins '66 never set out to be a trailblazer.
But that's exactly what happened in his life and in his career. The Gastonia native, whose long professional career focused on basketball, actually left his hometown to play basketball at Oak Ridge Academy. He transferred to Catawba on a basketball scholarship in 1964 where he became a football and track performer who played two seasons of basketball.
His athleticism on the football field at Catawba earned him All-State and All-Conference honors in 1965, when he led the conference with 36 receptions for 675 yards and had touchdown catches of 77 and 85 yards.
After graduating from Catawba with a degree in physical education, he made the Denver Broncos, but a knee injury sent him to Richmond, Va., for rehab. While there, he played on a semi-pro team for several years.
"We made $200 a week, practiced at night and played on the weekends," Robbins says. "It was well-organized, one step below the AFL or NFL." He knew his knee would never let him play pro football, so he took a job at Thomas Jefferson High School, one of the largest high schools in Richmond.
"People in Richmond thought I was a football player who coached basketball," he says, "but I was a basketball player who crossed over to football. I could run fast and catch the ball, and football just came easy to me."
When Robbins took over the basketball program, the team was 12-13. A couple of years later, his team won the conference championship, and then the AAA state championship.
"The team was eager to win and they hadn't won," he says. "That makes it easy on the coach."
He adds, "I don't know if it was luck or destiny, but every time I turned around, something nice was happening."
As the wins piled up at Thomas Jefferson High School — Robbins compiled a 136-46 record there — colleges took notice.
In 1978, he was hired as head basketball coach at Virginia Union University. He became the nation's first white head coach at a historically black university.
The "White Shadow" moniker was hung on him. It was the name of a popular '70s TV show about a white coach at a mostly black high school. His players had another name for him, however: Coach.
A player at VUU, Keith Valentine, had played under Robbins. He suggested that the school check him out.
Robbins says he got some criticism for going there.
"People in our own conference said it set black coaches back 20 years," Robbins says. "But I looked at it as a positive. They were leaders in hiring a minority, and it opened the door for white schools to hire black coaches."
Coaching black players was nothing new for Robbins. His last five years as a high school coach, he only had two white players.
"It was no big deal," he says. "I never thought twice about it. Other people made a big deal of it."
Robbins went on to lead VUU to 22 CIAA divisional championships, 13 CIAA tournament championships and three NCAA Division II national championships. While at VUU, he amassed a record of 713 wins and finished with a winning percentage of .786.
He retired from coaching two years ago, and is now the school's first head of development for athletics. He's established a Round Ball Club and a Gridiron Club.
In 2008, 55 former basketball players were first-time givers to the university.
"We're hoping to double, triple and quadruple those numbers," Robbins says.
Robbins has recently established an athletic scholarship in his name at Catawba. He originally wanted to do it for someone else he says, "but my daughters told me, 'No'. So I'm honoring my daughters' request. I'm a little embarrassed about it, but I'm trying to please them, too."
The scholarship will go to a male or female athlete in good academic standing. Preference will be given to a member of the football, basketball or track teams from Gaston County or Richmond.
"There are some super athletes in this area," Robbins says, "and I feel sure Catawba can use another good one."
Over the years, Robbins has given to Catawba. He supported the effort to rebuild Shuford Stadium and then helped pay for the lights there.
After he left Catawba, he discovered something.
"Most athletes don't realize how much a college or university does for them," he says. "Catawba did so much more for me than I ever did for them."
"Dave is a terrific guy who knows just how important scholarship assistance can be to collegiate athletes," explains Catawba Senior Vice President Tom Childress. "He has been a wonderful role model to hundreds of young men and women throughout his career. It is only appropriate that his influence should continue here at his alma mater through this new scholarship that he has established."
Robbins and his wife, Bunny, live in Richmond and are parents of two daughters, Cheri and Juli.
In September, Robbins was honored in his hometown for the trails he has blazed by being named a member of the Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame. He's also a member of the Halls of Fame at Catawba, VUU and the CIAA.
Susan Shinn is a freelance writer and full-time student at Catawba College.