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CIAA Tournament retrospective, Part III

As the first white head coach in CIAA history, Dave Robbins was likely called a lot of names.The best name for him is ‘winner’ as he kept the CIAA in the national spotlight over his 30-year career. The final part of HBCU Gameday’s CIAA Tournament retrospective covers Robbins, those he competed against and those who followed him.

As the 2022 CIAA Tournament tips off in Baltimore Tuesday, we finish our three-part retrospective of the tournament’s glorious history. In the last half-century, the tournament has seen a slew of great players, dominant coaches and more national champions.

The CIAA Tournament was not the same after the conference lost seven teams that moved on to form the Div. I Mid Eastern Athletic Conference in 1971. 

It may have gotten better!

While I went off to Howard University in 1972 and followed the Bison into the MEAC ranks, the CIAA tournament hit another gear. 

The Spartans steal the show

Beginning in 1971, the crowds continued coming to the tournament in Greensboro as Norfolk State became the dominant team of the decade. It began with my homeboy, Morrell James of Langston High School in Danville, Virginia, winning the 1971 MVP award after the Spartans beat Shaw for the title. Shaw rode the outstanding play of point guard Ray Haskins to their first-ever tournament final game.

Charles Christian

Head coach Bob Smith guided the Spartans to tourney championship wins in 1971 and 1972 before Charles Christian took over in 1973. Christian, an ultra-successful high school hoops coach in Tidewater Virginia, guided the Spartans for the next six years to four more (1974, 1975, 1976, 1978) tournament titles, the last two as the tournament moved back to Hampton. It gave the Spartans six tournament championships in the decade of the 70s. Christian stepped down after the 1978 title.

James, Michael Sneed (1972), the great Eugene Cunningham (1976 & 1977) and Robert Isabelle (1978) gave the Spartans seven MVPs and eight titles between 1968 and 1978. Norfolk and Isabelle knocked off Hampton with future NBA star Rick Mahorn in the 1978 finals.

As Christian left, Dave Robbins stepped up and in at Virginia Union. And things were never the same. 

The White Shadow

Robbins was the first white head coach in CIAA history and he faced a barrage of criticism when he took the job. But he put all that aside and went about the business of bringing winning to the league like never before. 

Dave Robbins

Over the next 30 years, Robbins kept Virginia Union and the CIAA on the national radar. He won back-to-back CIAA tournament titles early, in his second and third years leading the Panthers (1979 and 1980),. The message to all detractors was that he meant business.

Robbins went on to capture three more tournament titles in the ‘80s (1985, 1987 and 1989). He four-peated in the 1990s, taking all the tournament crowns from 1992-1995., and capped it off with another three-peat from 2004 to 2006 before he retired in 2008. 

The rest of the story

But those CIAA Tournament titles are only half the story. When he didn’t win the CIAA, his teams still went on to the Div. II playoffs. His teams made 21 appearances in the NCAA Div. II national tournament. He produced four DIv. II national players of the year in Charles Oakley (1985), A. J. English (1990), Derrick Johnson (1994) and Darius Hargrove (2006). He produced eight consensus first team Div. II all-Americans.

Derrick Johnson, one of four D2 players of the year under VUU coach Dave Robbins

He processed five future NBA players in Oakley, English, Ben Wallace, Terry Davis and Jamie Waller. 

His 713-194 career record included three NCAA Div. II national championships in three decades – 1980, 1992 and 2005. He is the only head coach to ever accomplish that.

No one had a run like Dave Robbins.

In 1982 and 1983, Hampton won their first titles in CIAA history in back-to-back championship runs under former Maryland State playing legend Hank Ford. The 1982 title featured 6-8 center Greg “Dunkin'” Hines, who took the MVP award as the Pirates downed Saint Augustine’s. In ‘83, it was guard Tony Washington that was the MVP and led Hampton to a win over Norfolk State in the finals. 

CIAA Tournament’s greatest, hottest battles

There were perhaps no greater or more heated battles in CIAA history than those between Christian’s Norfolk State’s teams and Robbins’ VUU Panthers, particularly when Christian returned to the helm of the Spartans from 1981-1990. 

In the mid-1980s, the court battle was led by Robbins’ 6-8 powerful forward Oakley vs. Christian’s lithe guard Ralph Tally. The Oakley-Tally battles are something of legend. Their teams met in the tournament championship games every year from 1985 thru 1987. 

Norfolk State’s Ralph Tally
Charles Oakley

Norfolk State won in 1984 over Saint Augustine’s 68-64 but lost to VUU in the D2 playoffs, 58-56. VUU beat NSU 67-65 in the ’85 CIAA finals. NSU took down VUU 77-75 in the ’86 title game. They then downed the Panthers 70-60 in the D2 playoffs. VUU won again over NSU in the ‘87 championship game, 79-73. Tally was tournament MVP in ’84. Oakley and Tally shared the award in ’85. Tally won it again in ’86.   

Tally was the Div. II national player of the year in 1987 after averaging 28.5 points per game as a senior. Oakley took the award in 1985. Only the aforementioned VUU players under Robbins and Shaw’s Ronald “Flip” Murray in 2002 have been D2 Players of the Year from the CIAA since. 

From 1983 thru 1990, either a VUU player (Oakley ’83 and ’85, Terry Davis ’88 and ’89) or a Norfolk State player (David Pope ’83 and ’84, Tally ’85 thru ’88) were CIAA players of the year.  

The Eagles rise

Only a couple of years later in 1989, after Oakley and Tally finished their epic battles, North Carolina Central did what Winston-Salem State,“Big House” Gaines and Earl Monroe did some 20 years earlier.

The Eagles, under head coach Mike Bernard, lost in the CIAA tournament championship game to Robbins and tournament MVP Terry Davis. But they went on to claim the 1989 Div. II national title over Southeast Missouri State, 73-46. The defensive-minded Eagles’ 27-point margin set a new NCAA championship record.

Mike Bernard (in glasses) celebrates with his players after D2 championship game win.

The 1990s began with Christian winning another title for Norfolk State before stepping down, this time for good. The new-look Spartans rode the play of MVP Darren Sanderlin to the title over Hampton. 

Hampton came back the next year (1991), behind MVP Sheldon Owens, to take the title over Robbins and the Panthers. But Robbins came back with a vengeance for his early 90s four-peat. It was during those four championship years that the tournament came back South to Winston-Salem in 1994 and stayed in North Carolina before moving to Baltimore this season. Current VUU coach Jay Butler was a member of those championship teams from 1993 to 1995. 

Virginia Union’s most powerful team?

The 1992 team had one of Robbins’ most versatile players, 6-5 forward and Tournament MVP Reggie Jones and a phalanx of players just like him. That may have been Robbins’ strongest team that went on to thrash Bridgeport 100-75 for the D2 national championship. Jones, national player of the year Derrick Johnson and Warren Peebles, the CIAA tourney MVP in 1994, were members of that championship team.

VUU’s Ben Wallace

 1993 saw the retirement of WSSU’s Gaines after 47 years as the face and heart of the CIAA. The 1995 MVP was rugged VUU 6-7 center Ben Wallace, who went on to stardom in the NBA.

Bernard took over at Norfolk State in 1991 and took home the championship trophy in 1996. St. Augustine’s under Norvell Lee, after knocking on the door several times, finally pushed it in in the 1997 season to win its first title.

WSSU returned to the winner’s circle in 1999 and 2000 as Rick Duckett led the Rams to back-to-back titles. Johnson C. Smith, under Steven Joyner Sr. and tough tournament MVP Antoine Sims captured the first-ever championship for the Golden Bulls in 2001. 

Going out with a bang!

Shaw’s Murray led the Bears to their first-ever tournament title in 2002 under Joel Hopkins. Cleo Hill Jr., the son of the CIAA legend, was an assistant on that Shaw team. He came back as the head coach to lead the Bears to another title in 2011 and is currently the head coach at his dad’s alma mater, Winston-Salem State.

Robbins’ last run was the three titles from 2004 to 2006 including the national championship run in 2005. That title squad featured two-time CIAA Player of the Year, Darius Hargrove, who was also the tournament’s back-to-back Most Outstanding player in 2004 and 2005. 

Since Robbins retirement in 2008, JC Smith under Joyner won back-to-back crowns in 2008 and 2009. James Stinson of Livingstone won back-to-back crowns in 2015 and 2016. Lonnie Blow, the current coach at Virginia State, won Saint Augustine’s second title in 2010 before winning titles at VSU in 2016 and 2019.

Butler won his first title at VUU in 2018.

CIAA Tournament retrospective, Part III
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