During The Citadel's basketball game with Davidson on Thursday night, Les Robinson's cell phone buzzed with a text message. It was from his 14-year-old granddaughter, who wrote, "You are jealous. I'm going to almost heaven, West Virginia."
Starting in June, The Citadel's 65-year-old athletic director will have a lot more time to join his wife, Barbara, and their eight grandchildren on such adventures. Before a McAlister Field House crowd packed with friends, family and luminaries, Robinson on Friday announced the end to an almost 50-year career in college athletics, dating back to his start as a basketball player at North Carolina State in 1960.
"I'm just at the point where I really want to do something else with my time," said Robinson, whose nearly eight years as The Citadel's athletic director capped a career that included stints as the Bulldogs' basketball coach, coach and athletic director at East Tennessee State and at North Carolina State, and six years on the prestigious NCAA Division I men's basketball committee. He's the only person in NCAA history to serve as basketball coach and AD at three different Division I schools.
Robinson will continue as athletic director through June 30 and then will work with the military school as a consultant, though the details of that role have not been worked out, school president Lt. Gen. John Rosa said.
"We've got to sit down and figure that out," Rosa said. "But Les has a lot of contacts, personally and professionally, and he's an excellent fundraiser, and we don't want to lose that."
Robinson said that consulting work would involve both The Citadel Foundation and the Brigadier Foundation, fundraising arms of the school, in maintaining relationships with donors and alumni. Robinson also will be involved in the search for his successor, Rosa said.
The president said a search committee of people "from across The Citadel family" will be formed, and that financial acumen and fundraising skill will be a must for the next AD.
"At The Citadel, we are running a $9 million business in athletics," Rosa Robinson announces end to 50-year career said. "That person has to be fiscally responsible, and most of these guys in the profession now are. He also has to be a fundraiser, someone who can pull all our coaches together and pull us into the 21st century."
Rosa cited the $30 million renovation of Johnson Hagood Stadium as one of the highlights of Robinson's tenure. Plans and ideas for rebuilding the old stadium, where the Bulldogs started playing in 1948, had floated around The Citadel for years. But it was Robinson's bold decision to tear down the rusting homeside stands, without having the money on hand yet to rebuild, that jump-started the process. Today, the homeside stands of the 20,000-seat stadium have been rebuilt, with a state-of-the art scoreboard installed and a new pressbox, luxury suites and club seating slated to open this fall. The Citadel also has a 10-year marketing deal with scoreboard maker Daktronics Inc.
"I told them, we don't have the money, but we've got to tear that down," said Robinson, who personally donated $100,000 to the stadium project, with others matching his donation to bring the total to almost $1 million. "I knew Citadel alumni would step up to the plate, and they did."
Robinson helped the school heal rifts with author Pat Conroy, a former Bulldogs basketball player who wrote "The Lords of Discipline" based on his Citadel experience, and with ex-football player Marc Buoniconti, who sued the school after he was paralyzed in a 1985 football game.
Robinson also hired basketball coach Ed Conroy and football coach Kevin Higgins, who ended a period of turmoil in the football program and led the Bulldogs to a 7-4 record last season, their most wins since 1992. Robinson also was noted for his scheduling of big-money games for the football team, bringing in more than $5 million for the athletic department budget.
But despite the infusion of guarantee money, Robinson faced budget crunches during his tenure. The Citadel had to controversially cut men's soccer and men's golf from its roster of varsity sports, and heading into this fiscal year the athletic department faced a deficit of $1.4 million. Last summer, Rosa assigned one of his special assistants, Lt. Col. Paul Puckett, to the athletic department as associate AD for financial matters.
Starting with the hiring of a new AD, those challenges will belong to somebody else. In his goodbye speech Friday, the noted storyteller Robinson spent more time talking about other people than himself. He told stories about ACC official Fred Barakat, Wofford athletic director Richard Johnson, former Air Force football coach Fisher DeBerry and College of Charleston coach Bobby Cremins, all of whom were in attendance.
Robinson told one story about former Citadel basketball standout Patrick Elmore. Elmore had a "bad attitude" and didn't make it in his first stint as a cadet. Robinson told him to "Go join the Army for three years, and I'll give you a scholarship."
That's just what Elmore did, and he went on to graduate and have a successful career with UPS and in the National Guard. He recently brought his wife to Robinson's office to meet the old coach.
"A story like that," Robinson said, "is what this profession is all about."
Reach Jeff Hartsell at email@example.com.
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