Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk: Dave Robisch

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Dave Robisch, a two-time All-America (1970-71) basketball player for the Kansas Jayhawks, understood the tradition of KU basketball when he committed to play for head coach Ted Owens. He knew what he signed up for, but he achieved more than he ever imagined. His legacy extends beyond the hardwood, across the city of Lawrence, and into the heart of a lifelong friend.

Robisch, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, grew up watching a young basketball player named Oscar Robertson who had taken the University of Cincinnati by storm. Robertson, also known as “The Big O” won the national scoring title, was named an All-American and earned College Player of the Year honors in all three of his varsity seasons with the Bearcats. Robisch looked up to Robertson and wanted to emulate his game.

In seventh grade, Robisch took a real interest in playing basketball and proceeded to make his junior high team. Although he admits to having a natural feel for the game, basketball did not always come easy for the future hall-of-famer.

“I grew up on the playgrounds of Cincinnati,” Robisch said. “I honed my game on the playgrounds and that is where I became a skilled player.”

His game had developed at a fairly rapid rate and by the time he was a sophomore, Robisch was playing with the varsity squad at Woodward High School, which enrolled around 3,000 students at the time. His breakout season had him poised and ready for a big junior year. However, the blooming star received some shocking news to conclude his second high school season.

“My dad, who was a chemical engineer at the time, decided to go into the ministry,” Robisch said. “We had to move to Springfield, Ill., where the Concordia Theological Seminary was located so he could go back to school and get his divinity degree.”

Robisch, standing a solid 6-foot-9, would instantly become a star on his new team, the Springfield High School Senators. As a junior, he led his team to the super sectional (last game before state tournament). In 1966, Robisch’s senior year, he guided the Senators to a third-place finish in the state tournament, despite having less size and fire-power than the previous season.

The big man was receiving all sorts of attention on the national scene. He was being recruited across the United States for basketball.

Kansas had sent then-assistant basketball coach, Sam Miranda, to try and pitch the move to Lawrence. Miranda had a knack for recruiting the Illinois area as he had played for the University of Illinois. He met with Robisch on several occasions before Owens became involved in the process.

The tandem of Miranda and Owens convinced Robisch to take an official visit to Lawrence. From that point on, the school sold itself.

“They (Miranda and Owens) came for an in-home visit to talk to my family, and they just wanted to see how everything was going,” Robisch said. “It wasn’t the signing period yet, but I told Coach Owens that I wanted to talk to my dad in a separate room. I told my dad, ‘I want to go to Kansas. I don’t want to draw this out, but I think Kansas is the place for me.’ We went back into the living room and I told Coach Owens I had decided to come to KU. He couldn’t believe it because he didn’t come expecting to get an answer because it wasn’t the signing period. We went ahead and committed, and it has just been an unbelievable experience ever since.”

Robisch began college at KU in 1967. He carried with him a load of potential and a great number of lessons he had learned along the way.

“In order to be successful, you have to work hard, get along with teammates, and have passion and love for the game,” Robisch said. “My family gave me tremendous support and they gave me the opportunity to play. That work ethic and discipline came from my mom and dad.”

At Kansas, Owens often put Robisch’s love and passion for the game to the test. Any coach can recognize potential, and it was clear Robisch was gushing with it.

“Coach Owens and I had a love-hate relationship in college,” Robisch said. “Sometimes I didn’t understand why he did things the way he did, and there were definitely some tough times. In retrospect, everything he did for me as a coach, he always had my best interest at heart.”

Robisch’s wise compliance with his coach’s orders would ultimately pay huge dividends. After not playing with the varsity as a freshman (no freshman was allowed to play varsity at the time), Robisch had a solid showing as a sophomore. He elevated his game as a junior, finishing with averages of 26.5 points and 12.1 rebounds per game and was named First Team All-American. The future seemed bright for the basketball team in Lawrence, but the town itself was dealing with an array of other issues.

History was written on a daily basis throughout the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The civil rights movement was at the peak of its influence. The liberal town of Lawrence proved to be a primary location for such political movements.

“At that particular time, there was unrest and revolution on college campuses,” Robisch said. “The University closed the campus spring semester my junior year due to unrest; we didn’t even have to take finals. Those were some crazy times. Protesters even tried to burn the union down. There was gunfire around the town, and they basically shut the University down to get Lawrence back under control.”

Robisch returned to KU for his senior season amid remaining uncertainty and civil unrest around the campus. He continued to go about his business like normal, and his business was basketball. Coming off an impressive All-American campaign as a junior, Robisch looked primed to lead the Jayhawks deep into the NCAA Tournament.

The Jayhawks dominated the Big Eight Conference, and just about every other opponent faced along the way, as they compiled a stellar 27-1 record going into the NCAA Championship game. KU faced a UCLA team led by legendary coach John Wooden and KU gave the Bruins, “all they could handle.” However, Kansas fell short, and went on to lose the consolation game as well (which was played during that time period) to Western Kentucky.

The Jayhawks’ remarkable basketball season accomplished almost all of their goals, but they achieved something else, not necessarily intended, along the way. They gave the town of Lawrence an opportunity to root for a common cause, which was Kansas basketball.

“I have to believe that was Coach Owens’ best team in his coaching career,” Robisch said. “That team was special, not only for basketball, but a really important part of bringing the campus and University back together as one. We brought calm and peacefulness back to Lawrence.”

Robisch did all he could to keep his focus on the game that united the city. He was named both Big Eight Conference Player of the Year and an All-American for the second-consecutive season. He wound up being drafted by the Denver Rockets of the American Basketball Association (ABA) in 1971.

The big left-hander had a solid professional career as he spent 13 seasons with eight different teams between the ABA and NBA. Robisch played for distinguished coaches such as Larry Brown, Bobby Leonard and Jerry West, but it is Owens of Kansas that provided a steady rock of friendship in Robisch’s life.

“I have known Coach since 1967, he has been there for me ever since,” Robisch said. “He knows my wife, he has seen my kids and my grandchildren grow up. As Coach and I have grown over time, it has transpired from a coach – player relationship to a lifelong friendship. He is one of the most influential people in my life.”

Robisch is retired from basketball, but he has yet to call it quits from working all together. He currently works for the Department of Human Services in Illinois. Specifically, Robisch oversees the “Teen REACH” program, a holistic after-school program for kids ages 6-17 in high-risk areas that provides a safe place to learn and grow as individuals. The $8.2 million program funds 58 various programs at 124 different sites across the state of Illinois.

Robisch attributes the lessons he learned from his coaches at Kansas as the one of the primary reasons he has his current job.

“The coaches built a culture at Kansas of having great work ethic and tradition,” Robisch said. “They believed in building men of character, not just basketball players. I learned many life lessons at Kansas, and I don’t know if most people truly realize how special of a place Kansas is.”

Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk