GREENSBORO - Two gambles got North Carolina A&T its latest women's basketball coach. On Tuesday, A&T formally introduced Tarrell Robinson as the new women's basketball coach during a press conference held at Corbett Sports Center.
Director of Athletics Earl Hilton told the media gathered at Corbett Sports Center that he never would have imagined introducing Robinson as the new women's coach 12 years ago when he, Hilton, was A&T's compliance officer, and Robinson was a 6-foot-6 forward on the A&T men's basketball team.
Truth be told, the same scenario didn't seem all that more plausible seven years ago. In 2005, legendary women's basketball coach Patricia Cage-Bibbs was in the first few months of her tenure as the women's coach at A&T. She needed an assistant after Freddie Murray decided to take an assistant coaching position at McNeese State.
On a recommendation, Bibbs reached out to the 27-year old Robinson, who was an assistant boys basketball coach at High Point Andrews. After a 20-minute conversation, Bibbs invited the young man to A&T to discuss the position further, and later hired him.
The extent of his college basketball experience was a one-year graduate assistant position under the coach he played for at A&T, Curtis Hunter, and a one-year assistant coaching position under Bibbs' predecessor Saudia Roundtree.
Despite Robinson's lack of success on the collegiate level at the time, Bibbs decided to let him join the effort in trying to jumpstart an Aggies program that won 37 games the previous six years.
"If you look at my history, I've never gone after assistants with a lot of experience," said Bibbs during an interview in February, leading up to her 500th career win. "I've always believed in giving young coaches an opportunity to learn this business. It's what I've always done."
Ms. 500 got this one right too. After experiencing just the third losing season of her career during a 9-19 2005-06 season, Bibbs turned Robinson loose on the recruiting world. He has been a smash hit ever since. Including the past three years at Virginia Commonwealth University, Robinson has been a part of five straight postseason teams.
His recruiting efforts at A&T started with signing of a slim combo guard by the name of Ta'Wuana Cook. With Cook, A&T now had a winner running its offense. She was coming off of two straight state championship titles at Fayetteville Seventy-First. Several mid-majors wanted Cook, so landing her would have been enough to make any program stop and gloat. But Bibbs and Robinson wanted a powerhouse.
Therefore, Robinson went after a Pennsylvania native who eventually signed with N.C. State. But while watching film on her, he noticed a savvy forward who could pass, shoot, rebound and defend. "Whoa, who is that," Robinson thought to himself. Her name was Lamona Smalley.
She wasn't tall and lanky like most college recruiters like their basketball players, but looks were deceiving when it came to Smalley. She was an undersized post, who gave A&T whatever it needed on any particular night. If the Aggies needed points, she could provide it. If they needed rebounds, she could get them 10 or 11 of those.
There were also numerous nights where she led the Aggies in assists or blocked shots. Off the court, the light-hearted Smalley kept everyone loose with antics that made her one of the most popular student-athletes on campus.
Robinson and Bibbs also went to work in trying to convince UC-Santa Barbara transfer Brittanie Taylor-James to choose A&T as a place where she could flourish. During the 2008-09 season, Taylor-James tortured defenses with baseline and mid-range jumpers as she was the runaway winner of the MEAC Player of the Year award.
Well pleased, the recruiting gods decided to hand A&T a gift. Looking for a fresh start after a tough freshman season at Penn State, Amber Bland decided to follow a friend to A&T. Jack pot! The Aggies now had arguably the best player in school history signed. After all, Bland was only named Ms. Basketball in Ohio the same year another fairly decent player out of Ohio named LeBron James earned Mr. Basketball honors.
The next year, the Aggies added top 40 recruit Jaleesa Sams, and two consecutive MEAC regular-season titles and an NCAA tournament berth followed.
Then, Robison took the second gamble in this story.
Robinson's hard work put him in position to be the heir apparent to Bibbs once she decided to leave A&T. Robinson, just over 30 at the time, decided he didn't want to be complacent. He figured he still had room to grow, and therefore needed a different experience. Off to VCU he went, where he spent three seasons under head coach Beth Cunningham.
Once he left, there were no guarantees he could live out his dream of being named the head coach at his alma mater. He didn't fret. While at VCU, he continued to establish himself as one of the best recruiters in the nation. In 2011, College Insider ranked him 15th among the top 25 assistants in the country. Robinson would be named recruiting coordinator and later associate head coach at VCU, the same title he held at A&T during the 2008-09 season.
After the 2011-12 season, it all started to pay off for the 34-year old. Bibbs decided to leave A&T to return to her alma mater Grambling State. Cunningham took a position at Notre Dame, leaving the door open for a teary-eyed Robison to stand before the Aggie faithful on Tuesday, in full appreciation for where his journey had taken him.
Thank God, people are still willing to take chances.
"One of the things I talked to these young ladies about on Friday was taking advantage of your opportunities," said Robison as he addressed his new team with tears flowing down his face.
After a long pause to get composed, Robinson added: "When the window of opportunity opened, I didn't hesitate to jump through it every time I was given a chance to prove how good I wanted to be. I owe everything to this university, and I'm just real happy to be back."