Dell Robinson Blazes Trail as Second African-American Commissioner
Every day throughout February, FanHouse will shed light on the other figures in the history of sports whose breakthroughs were as significant as those mentioned above, but who aren't as instantly recognizable as pioneers. During Black History Month 2010, FanHouse aims to give them their due.
-- Became the second African-American to lead a non-black collegiate conference when he took over as commissioner of the Division II Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in June 2009.
Dell Robinson would prefer not to look at himself as a pioneer, but when he enters a room of his colleagues and peers, there's no denying the 44-year-old is continuing to break new ground. Robinson follows in the footsteps of Rudy Keeling, who became the first African-American commissioner of a non-black conference in 2007 when he assumed leadership of the Eastern College Athletic Conference, the only multi-divisional conference in the country (has schools and programs in Division I, II and III).
"You want it to get to a point where [race is] not an issue, but we are still striving as a nation," Robinson said. "To tell you the truth it does hit you when you are in a room sometimes and it's 300-something people in a banquet hall and you are the only person of color there.
"But in all of my travels through education and my career, I was prepared for this in some shape of form or fashion. If I can do it, being somebody who is of the common touch, then other individuals can do it. I'm not Ivy League educated, I am not from any boarding schools or anything of the like. I just had a pure work ethic and determination to do it. But it's a challenge going out every day."
These days, Robinson's time is consumed with thoughts of expansion and branding as he attempts to take the nation's premiere Division II conference to the next level. The GLIAC is a 14-member conference with schools in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana, led by members such as Ashland, Michigan Tech, Ferris State, Grand Valley State, Indianapolis, Lewis, Northern Michigan and Wayne State.
The GLIAC will expand to 16 schools later this year when Lake Erie and Ohio Dominican become members.
"The biggest challenge we face is looking at new potential members," said Robinson. "No. 2 is activity and branding.
"We want to take a good look at expansion. We've done a lot of expanding in Ohio, but we also want to expand in Michigan, as well. If we want to have a true Northern and Southern division, it's going to help if we can even it out so people don't miss as much class time."
This has been an opportunity Robinson, a native of Cleveland and a graduate of Ohio University, has spent his career preparing for. He was an associate commissioner of the Mid-American Conference for 10 years in his hometown before making the jump last spring to the Saginaw, Mich.-based GLIAC.
It was an easy decision when he saw the national level the conference competed on in football, men's and women's basketball, women's soccer and softball, among other sports.
"You name it, we kind of show up," said Robinson, who also served as assistant commissioner of compliance for the Western Athletic Conference from 1996-99 prior to moving to the MAC. "If you are going to be involved on the Division II level, this is the best spot to be involved in."
In a perfect world, Robinson hopes to inspire other African-Americans and ethnic minorities to strive to be commissioners and athletic administrators not just at the Division I level but also at the lower division levels.
"It's a platform that I do have right now, so how do I use it?" he said. "You talk to young administrators and they are looking at it. I have one or two friends who have been steered toward Division II and it's maybe because I sold them on it a little bit because they were cracking the glass ceiling and couldn't get where they needed to get, and now they are forging their way on this level. There are many avenues to get where you need to."