SOUL OF RVA: A look inside VUU’s dominant basketball program and coach behind team’s success

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — For three decades, the men’s basketball team at Virginia Union University was known across Richmond as “The Best Show in Town.” Crowds packed their games. Businesses hung up their posters. And, many teams in the area shied away from battling them on the court.

If you ask players to describe all that Virginia Union University basketball was, you may just get one phrase: “all that.”

“It was the best show in town,” recalled Terry Davis, who played for the Panthers from 1985-1989. “VCU nor Virginia … they didn’t want to play us, but everyone came to see us. And that’s real.”

From 1978 until the 2000s, VUU, a small Division II HBCU in Richmond, became known for its dominant and electric style of play, often attracting top talent from across the country.

“I saw all of the hype on BET,” said Jay Butler, a 1996 Panthers graduate. “They offered me a scholarship and it was the best four years of my life.”

Terry Davis said he had already committed to the University of Georgia, a Division I program, when Union’s on-court success caught his attention.

“I just really wanted to be part of it,” he said. “The way they were playing and running the fast break. The system that they were running had a lot of defensive pressure. I wanted to be part of that coming out of high school.”

best show
8News interview with former Virginia Union University players for Soul of RVA. (Photo: 8News Autumn Childress)

But, the team’s success didn’t solely fall on the players. It was the man leading from the sideline that players say accelerated the program to new heights — Coach Dave Robbins.

Robbins, a North Carolina native, was a coach at Thomas Jefferson High School in Richmond before accepting the job at VUU in 1978. It was a move that would be historic for the white man who was now the head of a team of mostly black men.

“It was no different to me, but to outsiders it was different because I was white,” Robbins said.

In fact, when Union hired Robbins, he became the first white coach in the CIAA conference, which is comprised of predominately black schools. It was something not everyone readily accepted.

“Someone very high up in our conference said when VUU gave a minority, me, a chance to coach, it set black coaches back 20 years,” Robbins said. “I looked at it as opening the door. If Virginia Union would hire a minority then that would open the door for a lot of black coaches to go to white schools.”

While his presence may have been resented by some, it was embraced and accepted by his players. Robbins said they never addressed him as “the white coach,” simply as “coach.”

“I was surprised that an HBCU had hired a non-black coach, so that was a shocker. But it was easy to deal with because of Robbins’ style of coaching, which was focused on dedication and discipline,” said Derrick Johnson, a 1994 graduate.

Over the course of three decades, Robbins led the VUU program to three national championships, a 700+ winning record, and sent several players to the NBA including Charles Oakley, Ben Wallace, Jamie Waller and Terry Davis. It was his honest and “to the point” attitude that earned him the respect and admiration of his players.

“He just pushed me. I’d have games where I had 25 points and 15 rebounds, and I’d think I had a good game. But he’d come to me saying ‘son, you could have had 50.’ He wouldn’t let you settle. He pushed and pushed and he pushed me right to the NBA,” Davis said.

Robbins also prided himself on creating a winning culture, both on and off the court.

“Everybody wanted to beat Union, and everyone wanted to beat Coach Robbins,” said Luqman Jaaber, a 2005 graduate.

WATCH: 8News ‘The Best Show in Town’

Keith Valentine, who had been coached by Robbins since an early age, agreed.

“All of us ended up winners because of that man,” Valentine said.

Because of that winning culture, the VUU Panthers were featured every week on a program called “The Best Show in Town,” which aired on 8News. The team also became known for their iconic posters in which players would dress in costumes for different themes every year.

“We had posters in barbershops, grocery stores, restaurants. There were 10,000 posters on the streets,” Jaaber said.

Coach Robbins retired in 2008 leaving his imprint on his players, VUU basketball, and Richmond as a whole.

VUU mens basketball poster
Poster for Virginia Union University’s men’s basketball team. Each year VUU would come out with a poster of the basketball team and their game schedule. Each year the theme changed and posters were in just about every Black business in the city.

“The things that he taught me… hard work discipline, dedication and commitment … those are the same things I carry into my job and outside of basketball,” Johnson said.

“I love that guy. He means the world to me. I had the best four years of my life,” said Davis. “He raised me and gave me everything I could possibly have. Thank you, Coach.”

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