Jack Robertson’s Legacy of Loyalty and Basketball Greatness

Jack Robertson’s Legacy of Loyalty and Basketball Greatness

Visit Coastal Alabama Community College in Bay Minette, and you'll see plenty of evidence of Jack Roberson's accomplishments.

In 2016, the legendary Sun Chiefs basketball coach retired after 43 years on the sideline, leaving a trophy case full of significant hardware. He won 855 games and three state championships in a career that also saw him head the Physical Education department, teach golf and serve as athletic director for the college.

He's in most of the significant halls of fame for his profession and the campus basketball arena even bears his name, but when the topic of his success comes up, Robertson humbly directs the conversation to the hundreds of players he's coached over the years.

"I always felt like I was just a very fortunate person to be in a situation here where we could recruit well," Robertson said. "I never scored a point, I never stopped anyone from scoring a point.

"You don't win the Kentucky Derby with a donkey, you've got to have good players."

Over the last four decades, he's coached plenty, and while he says every team he's ever led onto the court was among his favorites, many of Robertson's stories tend to gravitate toward his first team.

It was 1973, he was 26 and had just accepted his first college head coaching position. There were three sophomores on the team he jokes might have known the game better than he did — Robertson was a formidable baseball player in college — but everyone stuck by him. Their loyalty to the Sun Chiefs, and their new coach, was a trait he respected and has never forgotten.

Several of those players were from Kentucky, where basketball is king like football is in Alabama, and Robertson says they still visit him every few years and fill his mailbox with cards every Christmas and Father's Day.

"The Kentucky boys have made a big influence on my coaching career," Robertson said. "They could have very well just laid down. But they took me in and they bought in."

Loyalty and character are the hallmarks of Robertson's career, first at Faulkner State and then in the inaugural season of Coastal Alabama Community College basketball. There were several opportunities over the years for him to further his career at a four-year program, but he never accepted the offers, which speaks to his not only being a loyal coach and employee, but a loyal man, too.

He's a native of Bay Minette, and grew up on his family's farm where his father grew soybeans and corn in the same soil Jack's grandfather successfully produced potatoes.

But, perhaps sensing the commitment of his three sons, Jack's father was adamant they never follow in his footsteps.

"My dad kept saying, do not farm," Robertson said. "He saw it was coming to an end."

So Jack turned to his love of sports and, fueled by his highly competitive nature, started coaching Babe Ruth league baseball after graduating from the University of South Alabama.

"I love sports, I love kids and I just always wanted to be around it somehow," Robertson said. "If they have a scoreboard, I like the sport."

And it was in that love that he planted the seeds of his own family legacy. And while Robertson, his lovely wife Patsy and much of their family still lives on the family farmland, it's on the court where that legacy grows.

His son Robby followed in his footsteps in more ways than one, first as a player on his father's squad, and then rising through the ranks with successful stints coaching at the high school level in Mobile and Baldwin counties.

And after an extensive search in the summer of 2016 following Robertson's retirement, Coastal Alabama President Dr. Gary Branch named Robby as the Sun Chiefs' new head men's basketball coach.

And yet, neither Branch nor the elder Robertson wanted a family torchbearer out of the new coach, they wanted someone who would lead the team as his own man. And that's what they got.

"He's a better coach than I was," Robertson said.

But his son will never downplay his father's influence on his career, regardless of how he continues to develop his own coaching style.

"I remember the joy he had when he came home," Robby said. "He was always happy and enjoyed going to work.

He remembers family vacations revolving around the Sun Chiefs' away schedule, and how "we thought it was the best thing ever." He gives a lot of the credit to his mom, who ran the player hospitality room for years and took care of things at home so Jack could grow the program.

Robby's childhood is full of memories of his dad's players coming out to the house to swim, becoming like brothers to him.

"He and the players had a relationship outside of the floor that I thought was really cool," Robby said. "Then we'd watch them grow and go on to be successful and have families."

That connection is what inspired Robby to fulfill what he says was a dream and a goal he set as a kid one year at Christmas. Another dream comes true every time he's successful on the basketball court, and his dad comes down from the stands to give him a high five.

It's a proud moment for Jack, who chooses seats way up high so he can sit with his grandkids and watch the games. They call him "B-Ball," a title his oldest grandson — Jackson, named after his grandfather — came up with years ago.

Spending time with the grandchildren fills a lot of Robertson's time, whether its watching hoops, going to their place at the beach or just out on the family farm. So much so that he says he's not slowed down a bit in retirement. He doesn't even play golf as much as he thought he would, although the fires of that passion will always burn.

His home away from home is Holly Hills Municipal Golf Course, where he's chased birdies and eagles since it opened in 1965. It's also where, for the last 23 years, he's hosted a father/son tournament on the Saturday before Father's Day, just to foster the connection between the two.

Robertson's been to the historic links in Scotland and even played the legendary U.S. Open courses at Pebble Beach in California with his younger brother a month after retiring. A few years before that, Robertson and a friend from Fairhope were on a team that won the state championship in a Fellowship of Christian Athletes tournament.

Of course, the way he tells it, he was just a guy benefitting from the other players in the group.

Despite his modesty, Robertson's accomplishments speak for themselves. Not only did he win three state championships — his last in 2015 — his teams were the runners up in three others, won 14 Southern Division Championships and played in the NJCAA National Championship Tournament three times.

Longtime University of Mobile Head Basketball Coach Joe Nyland has known Robertson for 25 years, and said his friend has done much to foster the imprint of basketball in south Alabama.

"His program was always very stable and very, very good," Nyland said. "Watching Jack coach, I always felt sorry for the other team.

"When he got going on the sidelines, the game seemed to swing his way."

But what Nyland said he admired the most was Robertson's connection to his native town, and what he did for all the players who came through the Sun Chiefs program.

"Jack always did a great job of caring for his players," Nyland said. "At the junior college level, you're trying to get those kids on to the next level and he did a great job of that.

"And it was always a community event, every time you went to a game."

And it still is. Robertson, followed by his son, made sure the people of Bay Minette knew theirs was a program worth cheering for, having invested their entire lives in the community, and its growing hometown college. It was a goal he first shared with founding Faulkner State president Lathem Sibert, who Jack reveres as the man who first took a chance on him, and then the following president Gary Branch.

Branch was a great partner throughout his career, Robertson said, especially as they fought to bring the state tournament to north Baldwin County in the 1980s. And it has been a great event for the area every time it's come back — especially in 1991 and 2015 when the Sun Chiefs won the championship on their home court.

It's just more evidence of Robertson's dedication to the place where his roots grow deepest.

"I'm from Bay Minette, my folks are from Bay Minette, and I'm so competitive that the last thing I wanted was to not be successful," he said.

"God blessed me right here, and I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time."

By Michael Dumas