The Wolfpacker

January 2018

The Wolfpacker: An Independent Magazine Covering NC State Sports

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Page 48 of 107

JANUARY 2018 ■ 49 WHEREARETHEYNOW? BY TIM PEELER L es Robinson shed a few tears one recent evening while attending a Christmas parade near Charleston. He was with his family — three of his children, their spouses and seven of his eight grandchildren all live within a good bounce pass of each other in the South Caro- lina Lowcountry — for the traditional holiday celebration. With one key exception. Robinson's wife of 54 years, Barbara, died peacefully on Aug. 21, creating a different world for the former Wolfpack men's basket- ball player (1961-65), head coach (1990-96) and athletics director (1996-2000). Being sur- rounded by family helps, but nothing really replaces her presence. To his friends, the coach's last name was "and Barbara" not Robinson, because the two were always together. His daughter and son-in-law, Kelly and Bissell Graves, have lived with Robinson at his home on the South Carolina coast for the last two years, and the rest of the family is close enough to help the coach when he might be missing the soulmate he first met in sixth grade and first courted during the eighth grade. "She was a very special lady," Robinson said. "The outpouring of support we received from everyone was incredible. I'm still get- ting letters, cards, texts and phone calls. The love people had for her was remarkable." Robinson's love began as gentle teasing in homeroom, followed by a tour of the school he gave for Barbara's grandmother. (He was recruiting the parents even in the 1950s.) "She was a great coach's wife," Robinson said. "That's not an easy thing. We had to uproot the family several times. I was always traveling with the team or recruiting. It takes a special person to put up with that, but she was great at it." Fellow coaches' wives, opposing coaches, administrators and even referees were among the 800 people that attended her three-and- a-half-hour visitation at The Citadel's Sum- merall Chapel. The group included friends from the coach's earliest and most recent days at NC State. Robinson took phone calls from former competitors Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Harrick and dozens of oth- ers in the days after her death. "One day, coaches who won eight national championships called to offer their condo- lences," Robinson noted, putting the outreach into his own unique perspective. "It meant a lot to me." But it's Robinson's other family — the one that has met for breakfast every other Thursday for years at a Mount Pleasant, S.C., restaurant — that has kept him laughing, cajoling and talking basketball since August. And it's quite a crew, collected during his career as a head coach and athletics admin- istrator at The Citadel, East Tennessee State and NC State. It includes former Georgia Tech and Col- lege of Charleston basketball coach Bobby Cremins, Robinson's longtime friend and punching bag; former football coaches Tom O'Brien (Boston College, NC State), Ralph Friedgen (Maryland), Bobby Johnson (Fur- man, Vanderbilt), and Fisher DeBerry (Air Force); and former University of Kansas president and American League president Gene Budig, just to name a well-known few. They all live in the Charleston area, gath- ered by an insurance agent Robinson first be- friended as an assistant coach at The Citadel. Other neighbors, such as former NC State women's basketball player and men's and women's television analyst Debbie Antonelli, former Cy Young Award winner Denny McLain and long-time college basketball official Ted Valentine have dropped by on occasion. "It's a phenomenal time," said Antonelli, who was originally invited by O'Brien. "We all live in the area, but the scope of athletics knowledge is amazing. I just sit back and listen." Which is wholly entertaining, of course. "They like to mess with each other, so you have to be pretty tough," Antonelli explained. "I'm one of the few women they have invited to join them. They told me they let me come so they could be in compliance with Title IX." Writers and rubber-necking patrons stop by just about every time the group's dozen or so members gather, to eavesdrop on the fun or perhaps ask for an autograph. Just a week after winning the 2017 NCAA championship, Williams — who bought his home on Isle of Palms on Robinson's recom- mendation while still at Kansas — joined them for breakfast. "It means a lot to me, being with them all," Robinson said. Many of them were at the front of the line for Barbara's visitation to console Robinson. Now 75, Robinson still trades in school- boy humor, laughing at himself when he can, needling others when he needs to — which is almost constantly. He still loves the look on Cremins' face ev- ery time someone says the two most dreaded words in Cremins' non-expansive vocabu- lary: West Virginia. "Jesus, Les, is everyone from there?" Cr- emins says about Robinson's home state, his eyes rolling backwards in their sockets. Robinson still loves mentioning all the connections he made before leaving the Mountain State, where he grew up playing basketball with Jerry West, and all the people from various professions he's gotten to know in the years since. He still does a few United States Basketball Association clinics, gives some well-attended speeches around the state and monitors game officials for the three conferences that have teams in the Charleston area. It's enough to keep him active and out of the house. "It's good therapy for him," said regular breakfast attendee and longtime friend Andy Solomon, an associate athletics director for development at The Citadel. "There's been a big outpouring of love and appreciation." For Robinson, there's no replacement for what he's lost, but the friendships he has from nearly six decades in coaching and athlet- ics administration have made it a little more bearable. ■ In 1990-91, Robinson became the first coach in ACC history to win 20-regular-season games and post at least one win in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments during his first year. PHOTO COURTESY NC STATE MEDIA RELATIONS Les Robinson Men's basketball player (1961-65), men's basketball head coach (1990-96), athletics director (1996-2000) Age: 75 Living: Mount Pleasant, S.C. Occupation: Retired Did You Know? Went 4-2 at home against UNC as the head coach, and the Tar Heels were ranked among the nation's top 10 each time, includ - ing No. 1 in 1995 when Robinson's Pack posted an 80-70 victory. When he retired in 2008, Robinson (above with his late wife Barbara) was the only person to serve as a head basketball coach and athlet- ics director at three Division I schools — The Citadel, East Tennessee State and NC State. PHOTO COURTESY LES ROBINSON Tim Peeler is a regular contributor to The Wolfpacker. and can be reached at

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