3/10/2016 Gordie Jones

900 and Beyond

This magazine article is part of Winter 2016 / Issue 84
  • Glenn Robinson Image Credit: Deb Grove

As Glenn Robinson joins college basketball’s most exclusive club, he remains intensely focused on each game, each possession, each teachable moment.

The achievement, like the game itself, is best understood when broken down into small parts—the tinier, the better. Because really, who can wrap their minds around the enormity of 900 basketball victories?

Certainly Glenn Robinson, who has now surpassed that total as the men's coach at Franklin & Marshall College, cannot. And as he neared the number in early January—as he approached a Rushmore occupied only by giants named Mike Krzyzewski, Herb Magee and Bob Knight—the truth is that he didn't really wish to, figuring that there will be time enough for that whenever his career, now in its 45th year, comes to an end.

There was a season to coach, a young team to develop. Better to concentrate on each game, each possession, each teachable moment.

Just as the devil is in the details, this milestone is in the minutiae.

Already the winningest coach in NCAA Division III history, he joined The 900 Club on Saturday, Jan. 9, with a 57-54 victory over Swarthmore in Mayser Gym. He spent that game day much as he had his previous 1,228—tending to the finer points of his craft. At various times he corrected the free-throw form of center Cedric Moune '16 ("Center!"), urged guard Brandon Federici '18 to "get tougher" after a turnover and reminded his team in no uncertain terms that it needed to double-team a particularly skilled Garnet player named Chris Bourne ("Why are we leaving him? You've gotta help!")

And, of course, Robinson had a pointer or two for the referees along the way.

The game was tense and tough, with the lead changing hands 10 times in the final 4:40. F&M guard Hunter Eggers '17, who scored 13 of his team's last 16 points (and 22 in all), buried a contested jumper to put the Diplomats ahead for good with 31.8 seconds left, then added two free throws with 1.7 seconds to play.

Robinson had finally scaled the summit.

"It's not about me," he told a phalanx of cameramen near center court after the game. "Never has been."

Few seemed to agree. The crowd rose and applauded. He and his wife Kathy hugged. His players unfurled a banner reading, "Congratulations Coach Robinson On Your 900th Victory," then began chanting his name.

"We are unbelievably happy that he got this," Eggers said. "He likes to downplay it, but it's an unbelievable accomplishment. … He's a great coach, unbelievable guy and he really deserves it."

One week earlier, after a victory over Misericordia (No. 898), Federici said the milestone was "definitely on our minds more than his"—that Robinson maintained a workmanlike demeanor amid the clamor. "He doesn't even think of it," Federici said. "He just thinks probably go to work, get the job done, go home and everybody else counts the numbers. But obviously we're playing for him now."

Others were indeed counting the numbers. On the scoreboard overlooking Sponaugle-Williamson Field (a scoreboard that hangs on the outside wall of Mayser, just below the window to Robinson's office), each victory was noted next to a banner reading, "The March to a Milestone."

Seated in that very office a few days after the Misericordia game, the 71-year-old Robinson said he had to be "one of the five luckiest people on Earth," given his family (he and Kathy have been married 44 years and have two children, Wynn and Carolyn, as well as three grandchildren), his long tenure and all the great players he has had.

All of that surely overshadows a number, he said, and he was far more concerned at that particular moment with a game two days later at McDaniel, which would become Victory No. 899, and the health of the team.

"We have quite a few players injured," he said, "so I have quite a lot to think about. That's really what's getting my attention. In a way it's kind of a bother to have to interrupt your schedule to talk about something like that."

Some of his former players were only too happy to do so.

  • Coach Robinson acknowledges the crowd in Mayser Gym following the Diplomats’ victory over Swarthmore in January, the 900th of his storied career. Coach Robinson acknowledges the crowd in Mayser Gym following the Diplomats’ victory over Swarthmore in January, the 900th of his storied career. Image Credit: F&M Athletics
  • Coach Robinson presents a ball to Ed Plakans ’93 to mark the player’s 1,000th career point. The coach has also celebrated his players’ achievements in the classroom, with all but three of his varsity student- athletes earning their degrees. Coach Robinson presents a ball to Ed Plakans ’93 to mark the player’s 1,000th career point. The coach has also celebrated his players’ achievements in the classroom, with all but three of his varsity student- athletes earning their degrees. Image Credit: F&M Archives & Special Collections
  • The coach at work in earlier days, addressing his team in the huddle. The coach at work in earlier days, addressing his team in the huddle. Image Credit: F&M Archives & Special Collections

"All the success that the F&M basketball program has had, it's amazing," Jerome Maiatico '00 said. "There's one constant. It's Coach Robinson."

"There was a level of discipline and consistency that he always maintained," Donnie Marsh '79 added, "that whether you liked it or not, you knew at the end of the day it was best for you."

When asked about the victory they found most memorable among the 900, the two of them went with those that propelled teams to the Final Four their respective senior seasons—in Marsh's case a triumph over Jersey City State; in Maiatico's, a victory over Catholic. Chris Finch '92, like Marsh a two-time All-American, mentioned another such victory, over Rochester his junior year—a game won in overtime, after the Diplomats rallied dramatically in regulation.

Other triumphs came to mind, too, such as the 2000 Centennial Conference final in Mayser Gym, which Maiatico knotted by nailing a 3-pointer at the buzzer in regulation, affording F&M the opportunity to prevail in OT. (Maiatico, a deadly shooter with a flair for the dramatic, had also hit the decisive jumper in the closing seconds to beat Washington in the semis.)

Robinson himself mentioned another game against Washington one Saturday afternoon in Chestertown, Md., in the mid-'90s. F&M opened the game lethargically in a near-empty gym. Then the home fans began filing in and showering the Diplomats with invective. They immediately awoke, and on the bench, Robinson turned to his assistant, Dan Fahringer. "I've never been so happy," he told him, "to see the opposing fans show up."

The Diplomats wound up winning that day, too. That they have done that as often as they have on Robinson's watch is due, naturally, to the fact that he has brought in so many outstanding players—he has coached 25 All-Americans in all—and (again) because he sweats the details much like his mentor, Dean Smith, the late coach at North Carolina, did.

"We're always amazed after we play Franklin & Marshall, how many little things they do well that are obviously taught by Coach Robinson," Swarthmore coach Landry Kosmalski said, "because they do them all the time."

Marsh, whose latest stop in his own coaching career is an assistant's job at Texas Southern, remains the only Diplomat ever taken in the NBA draft (third round, Atlanta, 1979). But when he began his college career, he was just a talented kid with a broken jump shot.

Robinson schooled him on the proper form, then gave him a drill to do, called "Spin 10, Spin 20, Spin 30": First Marsh straddled any line on the floor in Mayser and shot the ball in such a way that it landed on that line 10 straight times. Then he shot against a wall, being certain to hit the same spot 20 times, before finally heading to a basket and making 30 short jumpers.

"He was really the first one who said, 'This is the one piece in your game that you're missing. If you ever get this piece, you've got all the rest of it,' " Marsh said. "I took that lesson from there, and kind of ran with it. I guess you could say the rest is history."

It's notable that after a practice in January, reserve guard Nick Stern '18 was seen doing the exact same drill. Just as it's notable that during his late-game explosion against Swarthmore Eggers ran some of the same plays that Maiatico used to good effect when he played.

The Diplomats, who more often employ a free-flowing motion offense, run just three set plays. And every opponent knows them well.

"The problem is that there's a counter play for each play you have," said Maiatico, now assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. "You can scout it all you want. There's 20 different options off it. You're not going to stop it, if you have the right personnel and the right execution."

F&M has also long been known for its grinding man-to-man defense. Robinson brooks no shortcomings at that end of the court: You either guard, or you don't play. Some, like Finch (now an assistant coach for the NBA's Houston Rockets), excelled at that end of the court. But everyone has been required to play it.

Again, there was a point of reference in the Swarthmore game. With F&M down by a point in the final, frantic minutes Eggers stole a pass and turned it into a breakaway layup; Kosmalski later called it "the play of the game."

"All I heard," Eggers said, "was Coach Robinson's voice in my head: 'Get the ball, get the ball.'"

It's usually not that difficult to hear him. Robinson makes his wishes known during games, clearly and forcefully. Yet it would be incorrect to say he does so without apology.

He said, in fact, that he will "pre-apologize" for things he might say—that he tells his players ahead of time nothing said in the heat of the moment is ever meant personally, that he is coaching and correcting, not belittling and berating.

"I do it every year. I get on kids. I want them to do better; I just can't help myself. There's two things I promise myself every single season. The one is, I'm not going to talk to the officials … and the other is that I'm not going to yell at the players. And I usually break both pledges within two minutes. But I mean them. I actually do mean them. I don't intend to do that. I don't want to yell at the officials. I certainly don't want to hurt the players' feelings."

That he's a competitive guy goes without saying. He always was while growing up outside Philadelphia—first in Yeadon, then in Aldan—the younger of two sons born to Clarence and Isabelle Robinson.

"From the earliest time I can remember at 3 years old, I loved anything with a ball," he said. "If it had a ball, I was all in. … I always had an insatiable desire to compete. Most of my life I had no idea that was abnormal. I thought everybody was that way."

His dad, an accountant, had played baseball in his younger years, and as a kid, Glenn would wait for him to come home from work when the weather was right, glove at the ready.

As he grew older, he found outlets for his competitive fire, playing multiple sports in high school, and baseball and basketball at West Chester University. "Some people care about results of contests, others don't," he said. "I always figured if somebody was keeping score, it meant something."

He graduated from West Chester in 1967, earned his master's there a year later, and started out as an assistant under Chuck Taylor at F&M immediately after that. And in 1971-72, he became the head coach.

His first victory came over Western Maryland (now McDaniel), in his third game. He went 7-14 in his first season. Late in a blowout loss to Lebanon Valley his second year, his point guard looked over at him, wondering if he should pull the ball out and milk the clock, thereby making it more difficult for the Dutchmen to score 100 points.

Robinson waved him on. Better to charge ahead, to compete.

It was a small moment, but a telling one. One of many on the march to a milestone.

 
“There was a level of discipline and consistency that he always maintained.”
Donnie Marsh '79

Editor’s note: At press time, the Diplomats were 22-5 and Coach Robinson had 912 career victories. The team defeated Swarthmore for the Centennial Conference title, earning a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the 24th time.

 
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