Richard Robinson didn't have the most wins among high school football coaches, but his extraordinary commitment to his players helped him become one of the most successful leaders to ever work in Minneapolis Public Schools.
One of his football players, who was arrested for stealing a car at the age of 17, is now a referee in the National Football League. Another former player, who spent a lot of time in the principal's office before Robinson's arrival, is now a school superintendent.
"There is no way I would have been in the college football hall of fame without Richard Robinson," said Michael Favor, a former standout at North Dakota State University who is now superintendent of Intermediate School District 917 in Rosemount. "He was a dad for many of us."
Robinson was belatedly inducted into the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2021, 23 years after he retired as North High School's athletic director. He was the second Black football coach to receive the honor.
Robinson died April 26 of congestive heart failure. He was 87.
Born in Minneapolis, Robinson was one of six children. He attended Central High School and was the only member of his family to go to college, graduating from Augsburg in 1959.
His teaching career began in 1960 at the Hennepin County Home School, and he became the head football coach at Central in 1972.
Pete Najarian, who played football at Central along with his three brothers, said Robinson was an "incredible influence," both in the classroom and on the playing field.
"It didn't matter whether you were white or Black, rich or poor," said Najarian, a well-known TV personality and investment adviser. "He wanted to help everyone get to the next level."
In addition to football, Robinson coached basketball and track, for boys and girls. Stacia Neals said she hadn't played basketball before 10th grade, when Robinson noticed her talent. To sharpen her skills, he got her into several basketball camps, personally driving her up north to some of them.
"I became the first female at North to get a Division 1 basketball scholarship," said Neals, who got a four-year package at St. Peter's University in New Jersey.
Fred Bryan said Robinson's help was crucial in landing a scholarship at the University of Northern Iowa. During his senior year at Central, Bryan was arrested for stealing a car with some other boys. Instead of shunning him, Robinson gave him a second chance, connecting him with recruiters.
"He made sure I was ready to move forward, without any judgement or shaming," said Bryan, who returned to Minneapolis after college and joined Robinson's coaching staff at North High School in the late 1980s.
"He didn't want to cut kids loose ever, and rarely had to do that," said Robinson's wife, Martha Harris, who met her husband when they co-taught a class at Central on racism and stereotypes. "He was positive. He was not a ranter."
After a few years of coaching ninth-grade football, Bryan said Robinson talked him into a switch to officiating. He worked his way up the ladder, from high school sports to college ball, ultimately landing a job as an NFL referee in 2009.
"To be honest, he said I wasn't a very good football coach," Bryan said. "That's what good mentors do. They realize your strengths and weaknesses and give you honest feedback."
In addition to his wife, Robinson is survived by his four children, one of whom spent 22 years as a scout for the Minnesota Vikings. Services will be held at noon Friday at Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis.