'He was just a great man'
Whoever you talk to concerning the 1922 McMinnville High School graduate and coach — whether they knew him for just a brief moment in time or years and years — say the same thing.
“He was just a great man,” said Jim Beard, a 1951 graduate of McMinnville who played three sports for Robbins.
Robbins, a three-sport athlete at McMinnville from 1918 to 1922, experienced some of the hardest times of the 20th Century. There were two world wars, the Korean War, a great depression, the advent of nuclear warfare and the beginning of the Cold War, just to name a few of the bigger world occurrences. Born just after the turn of the century in 1902, Robbins grew up in a different McMinnville that we know today. The sporting fields where he played aren’t the ones where today’s Mac students compete, but ask anyone who knew him, and they’ll tell you it was his upbringing in a rural town combined with the times that shaped him to become a mentor, family man and respected coach up until his death in 1950.
For his impact as a student-athlete and his continued success as a coach, the McMinnville High School Sports Hall of Fame honors Robbins as one of this year’s inductees.
A slice of small town life
Not many records remain that describe Robbins’ playing days at McMinnville. Old yearbooks show he was a freshman during the 1918-19 school year and graduated in 1922. He was a star on the football, basketball and baseball teams and also active in the school community. He was the M Club president his senior year and an Hi-Y member.
In the 1921-22 school year account, there is no description of Robbins as a football player, but there is plenty about his basketball prowess. Robbins played forward. According to the yearbook, “He made a good running mate” for (Hubert) Agee, who was described as “a star forward built from the ground up, but not very far up.” Robbins was likened “to a bulldog, but he has more speed than a bulldog ever dared claim.”
McMinnville qualified for the AAA boys basketball tournament in 1921, which was at the Salem Armory that year. Mac defeated Bend 35-21 in the first round but fell 39-29 to Baker in the quarterfinals. McMinnville did beat Marshfield 32-14 before losing 31-18 to Salem. The OSAA archives, though, say that McMinnville was disqualified because of an ineligible player during the tournament, and the Grizzlies finished Robbins’ junior year 9-7.
Robbins and McMinnville went 8-7 his senior year and played some blistering games like their 9-7 win in their third game vs. Woodburn. Robbins, it seemed, impressed many with his quickness.
“(Robbins) was fast and scrappy,” the account from the yearbook reads. “A good shot, never beaten until the last whistle blew. He has no nickname that we know of, but he should be called ‘Speed’ for he has it.”
There is one particularly good account that lends perspective to what it was like to grow up right after the end of World War I and the onset of Prohibition. On a sunny fall day in 1921, a group of girls and boys from one of McMinnville’s clubs went on a picnic to Mannings Grove (whether they played hooky or if it was school-sponsored remains unclear). Robbins’ speedy nature, it seems, didn’t include his car, which apparently broke down on the return trip. After the group returned, they painted the grandstands at the old high school red and white and added a large “22” for their graduation year in the middle.
Oregon State days
Robbins’ first stop after graduating from McMinnville was Corvallis and Oregon State. He lettered for the Oregon State football team from 1925-27 and still owns a record on the Beavers’ all-time list. In 1927 vs. USC, Robbins returned a blocked punt 76 yards for a touchdown, but OSU lost 13-12 in Los Angeles.
Robbins played end for OSU to good acclaim. In 1926, he played in the East-West Shrine Game in San Francisco, Calif., and the Beavers were 17-6 in his three seasons in Corvallis. Robbins’ 1925 team started a home-win streak at Bell Field that lasted 26 games until 1932.
Continuing his multi-sport tradition, Robbins lettered for the OSU baseball team in 1926. The Beavers were 6-7 that year. According to a family recollection, Robbins’ biggest thrill that year was hitting two home runs against the University of Oregon in Eugene, but the Ducks won both games vs. the Beavers that year.
‘A good teacher. A good man.’
Once Robbins shelved his cleats, he bought a whistle and clipboard. In 1933 he finished his bachelor’s of art degree in physical education at Linfield and spent time helping coach football, basketball and baseball. His first teaching and coaching job was nearby in Amity, where he stayed for nine years from 1933-42.
He coached Amity to two state tournament appearances in basketball in 1937 and 1938, taking Amity all the way to the AAA state championship game in ’38 where it lost 27-18 vs. Baker. In 1938, Robbins and Amity also won the AAA baseball state championship.
From Amity, Robbins and his young family moved to Vernonia, where he coached from 1942-45 during World War II. Robbins, his wife Rhoda and their four kids — Grant, Dale, Carol and Linda — lived at 1046 State Ave. There, the Robbins family would host local kids for neighborhood play sessions, and Orile continued to coach football, basketball and baseball at Vernonia High as well as teach.
Robbins kept building his reputation as a mentor to his athletes as well as someone who demanded the upmost from everyone who was around him.
“A good disciplinarian,” Ralph Sturdevant, 86, said. “A good teacher. A good man.”
Sturdevant graduated from Vernonia High in 1945 and played three sports for Robbins. He tells stories of Robbins instituting a 9 p.m. curfew for his athletes that he enforced by wandering downtown Vernonia and checking in the local ice cream parlor for truants.
“He was real fair,” Sturdevant said. “He wasn’t vindictive. He wasn’t looking for trouble, but if you violated his rules, he would bring trouble.
“I’m real pleased to have had him as a coach. He taught us so many things besides our sports.”
Coming of age during World War II was a trying time, Sturdevant said, and Robbins helped him navigate the murky waters of the draft, which has forever earned Robbins an honorary place in Sturdevant’s heart. He turned 18 in February of 1945 and was going to be drafted and head off to Europe. Sturdevant said Robbins made a trip to Salem and the governor’s office to get a letter that would allow Sturdevant to finish his final year of high school.
“That was really great,” Sturdevant said. “My parents wanted me to finish school, and he made it happen.”
Evelyn Holce, who graduated from Vernonia in 1943 just after Robbins got there, said she remembers him as one of the nicest people and teachers she ever knew.
“He cared about people,” she said.
Robbins befriended many students, and Holce said whenever she talked with Robbins, they talked about life and her future-husband Wilfred, who played for him. Robbins even trusted her with a special job.
“When Mr. Robbins got a hold of me and asked if I could keep a secret, I said I think so,” Holce remembers. He wanted me to copy all of his football plays. So I cut stencils and put them onto the mimeograph. No one else could know, he said. Then I couldn’t put anything in the garbage. It had to be burned. He didn’t want anyone to see his plays.”
McMinnville and death
At the start of the 1945-46 school year, Robbins returned to his hometown and settled in to his job as a physical education teacher and football, basketball and baseball coach. He enjoyed great success, leading the football team to a 7-0-1 record in 1945 and Mac’s first league championship. In basketball Mac was 26-5 and made the state tournament for the first time since 1941. Baseball also won the league championship in 1947.
Jim Beard, who still lives in McMinnville, played for Robbins from 1947-50 and said Robbins was like a father to his athletes.
“He was just a big part of my life,” Beard said, “and also for most of the players in those days.
“He could do more coaching with a look than a lot of coaches could do with words.”
Robbins continued to coach successful Mac teams. In 1946, the Grizzlies were league champions again in football and just narrowly missed at repeating in 1947. Mac won the league in 1948 and was close again in in 1949 when it went 8-2 and lost the league championship by one game.
Robbins didn’t have the same success with basketball, though Mac did surprisingly make the state playoffs in 1948-49 after upsetting a few teams in its district. The Grizzlies beat Pendleton in the first round but were bounced by Roosevelt in the state quarterfinals and lost 62-52 to Junction City in the fourth-place semifinals at McArthur Court in Eugene.
No matter what Robbins did on the field or court, though, nothing would surpass the reputation he gained with his students and athletes. Robbins earned the undying devotion of Beard after walking up to Beard’s house during the summer of 1950 just months before Robbins passed away. He told Beard that he probably wasn’t going to play as the second-string quarterback and said if he wanted to play, he should bulk up and play end.
“He gave me all summer to work on it,” Beard recalls. “That fall, I had the most fun I ever had playing football because of the hitting on every play. I ended up playing at Linfield. He kind of turned me from a boy to a man by just sitting on my steps.”
Regrettably, Robbins would never coach Beard and his fellow teammates during the 1950 football season. On the morning of McMinnville’s first game — Sept. 15, 1950 — Robbins was stricken by a stomach ailment, according to the archives of the McMinnville Telephone-Register. He was hospitalized for five weeks and died Oct. 23, 1950. He was 47.
“The whole team was devastated,” Beard said. “It was really a great loss.”
The football team struggled through the season under the tutelage of Ted Wilson, who also took Robbins’ spot as the varsity basketball coach. “Robbie,” as his friends called him, was sorely missed, and a memorial football game was announced to raise money for Robbins’ widowed wife Rhoda and their four children. On November 18, 1950, McMinnville hosted Benson Tech on a cold, wet night. More than 1,300 people showed up at Baker Field for the game and reports had the dollar amount raised at more than $1,500. The game ball was helicoptered in by pilot Dean Johnson and passenger Ezra Koch.
That first school year after Robbins died, an award was named after Robbins, and Beard was the first recipient. In 2003, Robbins’ grandson, Shane Stuart, was also given the Orile Robbins Memorial Trophy.
Robbins’ legacy lives on. Rhoda died in 1995 after teaching for many years in McMinnville. She was 86. Their four children are all still alive. Grant, the oldest, is 78 and lives in The Dalles. He is a retired Major in the Army. Dale, 76, taught for many years in Yamhill County, including Yamhill-Carlton and also coached. Carol Weiher, 74, still lives in Mac. Linda Tuggle, 72, is in Keizer.
Perhaps the most fitting words on the coach come from former Telephone-Register sports writer Bob Moyle, who shortly after Robbins’ death in 1950, had this to say:
“Not a big man of stature, but big in heart and a coach who always had a pat on the back for a player who sometimes failed, Robbie will be remembered as a man who loved sports and the kids that played them. He will also be remembered as a man who would shove his hands in his pockets in embarrassment when someone tried to praise or congratulate him on his efforts. He was a quiet and inconspicuous sort of person who never bragged of his victories and never cried about his losses. That was Orile “Robbie” Robbins, head coach at McMinnville High School.”