By Trey Williams
East Tennessee State basketball became much more with Les.
The Buccaneers went to two NCAA Tournaments (1989-90) under Les Robinson and completed a four-peat under his successor and former assistant, Alan Leforce.
Robinson, who was elected to the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame last week, recalled Sunday how he nearly didn’t get the job in 1985. Former ETSU coach Sonny Smith had been told he would be let go at season’s end at Auburn, and he was going to return to Johnson City. But his Chuck Person-led Tigers got hot, won the SEC Tournament and – after entering the NCAA Tournament as a No. 11 seed – defeated Purdue and Kansas.
So ETSU needed someone else to replace Barry Dowd.
Buccaneers booster John Howren, who’d been eager to get Smith back, asked Smith the name of the coach at The Citadel that always had teams play ETSU tough with limited personnel.
“John Howren didn’t even know my name,” Robinson said with a chuckle. “So Sonny made a call, John got on it. I didn’t learn it till later. But that’s how I got the job. … Howren took good care of me.”
Leforce had become good friends with Robinson while coaching at College of Charleston, then an NAIA school, when Robinson coached at The Citadel. Leforce’s son Jeff played for Robinson’s Bulldogs (1979-83).
“Les was an assistant coach at The Citadel when I was an assistant coach at Furman,” Leforce said. “And then when I went to Charleston to interview for the job at the College, I spent one night with him and his family. And we became very, very close friends.”
Leforce got a call from Robinson after they’d visited at the NCAA Tournament in Lexington in 1985.
“He’d been trying to get me back in college,” Leforce said. “I signed a contract to go to The Citadel when the NCAA Tournament was getting ready to start in Lexington, Kentucky. He said, ‘Let’s get together up there.’ We did and we talked.
“He said, ‘When I go home I’m going back through Johnson City and talk to Buddy Sasser about the job.’ He said, ‘I know I won’t have much of a chance to get the job, but he wants to chat with me.’ He said, ‘I’ve got my three girls with me. I’ll go in and just let them walk around on campus and I’ll talk a few minutes and go on home.’”
Not long after Leforce got back to his home in Kentucky that day, his phone rang.
“It was Les, and he said, ‘Well, are you ready to go up the road a few miles,’” Leforce said. “And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘I’ve been offered the East Tennessee job. What do you think?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s a hell of a lot better job than being at The Citadel.’”
Robinson also hired assistant coach Dave Hanners, who helped spearhead the recruiting that brought Keith “Mister” Jennings, Greg Dennis, Calvin Talford, Major Geer, Alvin West and Marty Story to Johnson City.
“Dave Hanners was one of the best assistants you could ever have,” Robinson said. “Larry Brown said he was the best assistant he ever had.”
ETSU broke through during Robinson’s fourth season. The Bucs avenged a regular-season sweep to defeat Chattanooga, 76-73, in the Southern Conference semifinals and routed Skip Henderson-led Marshall in the championship.
“My brother, sister, and wife all went to Marshall,” Robinson said. “It was 35 miles from our home. And I became a basketball coach because of the Marshall coach way back there, Cam Henderson. So that made it even more special.”
The Buccaneers followed that by jumping out to a double-digit lead on No. 1-seeded Oklahoma in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Vanderbilt. Despite Oklahoma getting back in the game, it still seemed ETSU would pull it out until Jennings fouled out late in the game.
“When he fouled out we just didn’t have the rhythm,” Robinson said. “We still had good players out there and all that, but he controlled the thing. The Oklahoma game was a tough one. If Mister doesn’t foul out, we’ll win. And it (his fifth foul) was nothing. It was nothing.”
Robinson said the 5-foot-7 Jennings turned out to be the most valuable player of the era.
“Mister was the key to it all,” Robinson said. “Greg was important. They were all important, but Mister made it happen.”
ETSU got back to the NCAA Tournament in 1990, but Georgia Tech, coached by Robinson’s buddy Bobby Cremins, was a matchup nightmare with future NBA players Dennis Scott and Kenny Anderson.
The loss turned out to be Robinson’s last game. He’d already learned he’d return to North Carolina State – his alma mater – to replace Jim Valvano.
The Bucs had beaten N.C. State, 92-82, in Raleigh during December that season. And Valvano told Robinson something before the game while they watched players warm up.
“It’s in front of my bench,” Robinson said, “and his team’s down at the other end. Anyhow, out of the clear blue he said to me, ‘Les, this might be a damn good place for you to coach, but my ass is out of here at the end of the year.’ I went silent. I didn’t know what to say.”
Robinson said a manager heard it, and it was demanded he keep it quiet. Robinson only told his wife and Cremins.
Robinson had to bring the Wolfpack to Johnson City during his first season. The game was only scheduled because Robinson had demanded a home-and-home to play Valvano.
“Yeah, it was very tough going back,” Robinson said. “And the only person that got a laugh out of it was Jim Valvano, because I scheduled it when I was at East Tennessee. He didn’t want to do it, actually. But he changed his mind. I don’t know whether he’d found out, maybe, that he was going.
“I used to talk to him all the time. He called me before that one and said, ‘Oh, you’ve got a game up in Tennessee, I see.’ He got a big laugh out of that.”
And sure enough, ETSU got the best of Rodney Monroe, Chris Corchiani and Tom Gugliotta for the second year in a row.
Robinson’s talent quickly dried up due to scholarship limitations and stricter academic standards. He was done by ’96, but fared well against Dean Smith, relatively speaking, and ended up becoming the athletic director – a position he also held at ETSU and The Citadel.
Robinson coached six-man football two years in Florida (Cedar Key). So he went and watched all of Steve Spurrier’s home football games his junior and senior seasons with the Gators.
Decades later, Johnson City Parks & Rec director Lonnie Lowe got the two together for a fundraiser. Spurrier played golf. Robinson played tennis. They got together afterward and had beer or two.
Spurrier’s father had preached in Robinson’s home town (St. Alban’s, W.Va.). When Robinson reminded his mom of that in the ‘80s, she reminded Robinson that he’d told her – and that she’d informed him that Spurrier’s father was the reason they switched from Presbyterian to Episcopalian. She disagreed with women not wearing shorts or slacks.
“So I told ‘em (at the Johnson City Country Club), ‘I’m Episcopalian because of Steve Spurrier’s dad,’” Robinson said. “Steve said, ‘That’s right.’”
Robinson will join former ETSU coach Madison Brooks and two of his players, Tommy Woods and Harley “Skeeter” Swift, in the Tennessee Hall of Fame.
“It’s an honor to join ‘em,” Robinson said. “My wife and I – she passed away five years ago – but she always told people Johnson City was our favorite place we lived.”