Tarrell Robinson became the women’s basketball coach at his alma mater in 2012. Since then, NC A&T has made four postseason appearances, have had four 20-plus win seasons and have won two MEAC Tournament and regular-season titles. Robinson’s teams specialize in defense and sharing the basketball, and always rank in the top of the conference in scoring defense and assists. The Aggies have also been stellar in the classroom, with many obtaining multiple degrees and the 2015 squad earning a perfect APR score of 1,000.
Robinson was a rebounding standout before graduating from A&T in 2001, after which he was a graduate assistant for the men’s program. He coached two years of high school boy’s basketball before being hired as an assistant coach for the women’s program under Aggie head coach Patricia Cage-Bibbs. After four years he left to take the same position at VCU, working under coach Beth Cunningham. Robinson and his wife are the parents of three children.
What did it mean to you to ascend to your first head coaching job at your alma mater?
It was a blessing. There’s an emotional attachment obviously, and there’s a whole lot of pride in wanting to be successful. Replacing the woman who gave me an opportunity added some pressure as well, but I was ready for the challenge.
It’s a good perspective. I can relate to environmental or culture issues and challenges and can plan ahead. The last two years we’ve stated our season at the same time as our homecoming. The young people need to understand that it’s not about you – it’s about the alumni. We (participated in) homecoming, but we had curfew. All those little things I’m award of and I understand.
You were a graduate assistant for Aggie men’s basketball and a boy’s basketball assistant coach after graduating. What drew you to women’s basketball?
My second year of grad school Saudia Roundtree was the head coach here, and she fired an assistant coach after homecoming. She and I ended up building a decent relationship when she was trying to find a new assistant. Eventually she offered me that opportunity. At the time I had a kid on the way and I was only making $12,000, so taking the job was a no-brainer. When (Cage-Bibbs came) I met (her assistant coach) Camille Adams the first day, and she told me Bibbs was looking for a new assistant. After a 20-minute interview with Bibbs, she hired me on the spot. I’ve been on the women’s side for 16 years, and it’s been a blessing.
You worked for two great coaches in Patricia Cage-Bibbs and Beth Cunningham. What did you take from each of them as you went forward?
Coach Bibbs taught me more so the business side. She really empowered me in terms of planning, as I was responsible for practice prep and scouting, and I was the lead recruiter. When I got to VCU under Beth, she gave me more of the organization of it all. She’s an attention-to-detail person and a map-it-out person, which she got from coach (Muffet) McGraw. When I went to VCU I was the third assistant and I left as associate head. I wanted the opportunity to grow. In my heart, I felt like only way to come back here is if I had more experience. Bibbs gave the confidence, and Beth gave me the tools.
What is your coaching philosophy?
Being disciplined and working hard will cover so many things. I tell our players that in life we shoot for perfection and sometimes we fall short, but what you do in between those times is what’s important. Maybe you didn’t meet that goal today, but if you keep trying, you will. I’ve always had to prove myself before it was given; that’s the way of the world. We tell our young women that these four years are the last time people will invest in you before you have to return it.
If I walked into an A&T practice today, what would I see?
You would see intensity, a lot of communication, and you would see a demand for excellence in everything we do. I tell them we either get it done working on what we’re working on, or we get it done getting in shape.
You emphasize defense, sharing the ball and success in the classroom. Where did those principles come from?
Our promise and our goal when we recruit student athletes is to make sure they get their degree. Everybody says it, but we have to prepare them for life after basketball.
Ostensibly you can have bad offensive night, but you can’t have bad defense because it’s all about discipline and effort. Control what you can control, and (defense) is something we can control all the time. The best teams share the ball, take the best shot and make the best play, regardless of who does it. In the half court, there’s always a right play to make.
What is meaningful to you about coaching at an HBCU?
Being able to impact the lives of African-Americans who might have been overlooked by other schools. We’re in a situation now where we are recruiting young women who are being recruited by other schools. This culture isn’t for everyone – that’s fair to say. But those who don’t get caught up by how it looks to some, and being comfortable in their own school, this environment is for them. I’m adamant, because this university has been so much for me. It’s a mindset.
I remember during a recruiting process years ago, trying to convince somebody. But I grew to know that if you don’t think an HBCU is for you, then it’s not.
What do you want your players to take from their time in your program?
I just want them to feel like they had a great experience and earned everything they got, including that degree. If they can go through our program, then they can meet challenges in life and they will embrace everything they will have coming to them.
How have you changed as a coach over the years?
I’ve got more understanding, and my temperament has changed. Eight years ago I was a young head coach not trying to hear anything but “this is how it’s done.” Now I understand that life happens and things that effect some people doesn’t effect others the same way. Even though I still have expectations and demands, I have to look at their situations; there are different reactions from different environments. Knowing our young women, sometimes they need a little wiggle room and we will get a better response. You have to balance having expectations and standards with treating everyone as individuals.
What do you love most about your job?
Just having been able to impact peoples’ lives. When I made the decision to come here I had two Power 5 opportunities as an assistant coach. Everyone in my circle encouraged me to go to the Power 5, but I wanted to do it my way, set the tone in my own way. I knew the ins and out of how to sell the program, and I knew I’d get a tremendous amount of support. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not we’d be successful, but how. My AD is great: he doesn’t tell me no, he says, “we’ll figure it out.”
What is your own workout like?
I run/walk two miles, then do a full body workout: three sets of both upper body and lower body, and 600 ab (repetitions).
Do you have a six-pack yet?
I’ve got two liters and I’m working on six pack. The last three years I’ve dedicated to transforming my body to getting back into the shape I want to be in. I feel like I cant demand it unless I do it, too. So the entire coaching staff, you’ll see us in the weight room. too.
You seem happy.
In my time here I’ve grown so much as a person, as a father, a mentor, a husband – it’s been great. The last time I enjoyed homecoming as much as I did this month is the year before I took this job.