‘One of the biggest families in the world’: Stories from the life and career of Kyle Robinson

Kyle Robinson (right), pictured on Dec. 2, 2022, coaching then-sophomore libero Faavae Kimsel Moe during Quinnipiac volleyballs NCAA Tournament match against Wisconsin.
Kyle Robinson (right), pictured on Dec. 2, 2022, coaching then-sophomore libero Faavae Kimsel Moe during Quinnipiac volleyball’s NCAA Tournament match against Wisconsin.
Cameron Levasseur

Kyle Robinson grew up in West Oak Lane, a neighborhood located on the north side of Philadelphia.

His local high school was Martin Luther King, a place known to foster and perpetuate the crime-ridden nature of the area. During Robinson’s high school years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there were nearly 1,800 homicides in the city of Philadelphia, over 60% of them caused by firearms.

Robinson could have gone to that school and very easily gone down that path. He didn’t. Because he had a family who made sure that never happened. They had a different vision for him.

“My parents knew I wasn’t going to survive at Martin Luther King High,” Robinson said. “Had I gone to King, there’s no way I’d be here right now. I probably wouldn’t be alive right now.”

His parents instead chose to send their son on a 45-minute ride — across three city buses — over to Roxborough High School, the setting that put Robinson’s life in motion.

Statistically, Roxborough was not significantly better. However, it gave Robinson a better chance.

Not only did it give him a better chance at graduating high school, but it gave him a better chance at avoiding the gangs and crime associated with inner-city Philadelphia. A better chance at finding a passion.

While there, Robinson joined the swim team to stay busy. But after three years, he decided not to continue with it, leaving him without an outlet for the first time in his high school career.

In came social studies teacher Pete Gannone, who saw potential in a young Robinson.

“He saw I could go one of two directions,” Robinson said. “He didn’t want to lose me to the streets and the drug dealing and that crime life, because I was a hood kid.”

Gannone made the conscious decision to teach Robinson about a new sport: volleyball. He didn’t know that sport would shape his future — he just wanted to give Robinson something to hang his hat on as he grew up.

“They were the catalyst of not just my career, but my entire life after that,” Robinson said.

Robinson joined forces with the other students that Gannone took under his wing and formed the school’s first boys volleyball team, which showed him that sports could be as big as he chose to make them.

“In retrospect, I think we were pretty good,” Robinson said. “I remember it being competitive. And I remember just feeling like, ‘Oh, this is legit, right?’ without ever having known anything about the sport or the future or where it would take me.”

That was the first domino. It was a domino that in sequence led to him playing college volleyball at LIU Southampton, becoming a professional player abroad, joining the U.S. National Team and then finding a passion for coaching.

With that passion, he earned a job at the Air Force Academy, won five NEC championships at LIU Brooklyn and after joining the program in 2019, led Quinnipiac to its first-ever conference title in 2022, forever etching his name into Bobcats history.

On this journey, Robinson touched the lives of everyone he encountered, creating what he calls “one of the biggest families in the world.”

And in any family, there are stories that deserve to be told:

‘Everything in my life has been helped along by people who gave a crap about me’

When Robinson first attended LIU Southampton, head coach Scott Gleason could see how different of a situation it was for the 21-year-old.

“He was out of his element,” Gleason said. “He’s from Philly. We were in the Hamptons. You know, the beach houses that are millions of dollars … He took a little while to get comfortable. But he was always really good at trying to at least be a good teammate. I know he was hard on himself. He got frustrated, I think more with himself trying to reach a certain level.”

Then again, he wasn’t much different from the rest of his teammates.

“They’re a bunch of knuckleheads,” Gleason said. “You get them out of high school. They think they’re the shit. You’re like, ‘OK, first off, there are rules and expectations and you gotta grow up.’ Then you throw them in the fire with matches, then they learn and grow.”

Robinson did grow, eventually becoming one of two players from his college squad to play professionally.

The moment that growth became apparent to Gleason was during a 650-mile car ride the pair shared from Southampton to Columbus, Ohio, in May 1997. Robinson was set to participate in a U.S. national team tryout.

“(Robinson and I spent 10)-some odd hours in the car together,” Gleason said. “I think he always had quiet confidence about what he could do. But it’s just a whole different element because he was now with a bunch of guys that were really like him. So I think that that weekend was just kind of cool.”

He always had a quiet confidence about what he could do.

— Scott Gleason, former head coach, LIU Southampton

The positive perception of the moment is mutual.

“(Gleason) saw an opportunity for me, so he was going to support me,” Robinson said. “At that point in my life, I was very comfortable with him. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, a 10 hour drive with my coach.’ And as much as he was a coach, he was also a really big mentor in my life.”

While it likely did not mean much to the pair at the moment, it was a story that both look back on with fondness, especially Robinson.

“So I remember that drive being just chill,” Robinson said. “I was able to talk to someone almost as an equal and not like, ‘this is my coach.’ That’s kind of what kickstarted my pro career.”

Robinson may have been that new kid in Southampton still figuring it out, but he had a willingness to figure it out. That fight was what made Gleason and others believe in him.

“Everything in my life, and I really mean everything, has been helped along by people who gave a crap about me,” Robinson said. “A lot of people who are family to me, but we don’t share the same blood. People who looked after me, mentored me and helped me question myself when I was maybe doing things that were wrong, or maybe not the right thing for me at the time.”

The belief in Robinson that changed his life became his motivation to help others.

‘I’m crazy, but I ain’t stupid’

Robinson’s career is a story that cannot be told without mentioning three letters: LIU. Whether it is his time as a player at LIU Southampton or as a coach at LIU Brooklyn, twice has Robinson given years of his life to those three letters, and twice have those letters let him down.

Stony Brook University bought the LIU Southampton Campus in 2005. LIU Brooklyn merged with LIU Post in 2018 to create a unified Long Island University. As a result, the two schools that helped Robinson form into the person he is, no longer exist.

When the merger happened, Brooklyn’s mascot, the Blackbird, and its history was cut off, starting over as the LIU Sharks. This left the Blackbird alumni without an identity to look back on.

“It was a kick in the balls. Straight up,” Robinson said. “Making moves in disregard of the people is pretty crappy in my opinion. That’s what I saw happening at LIU.”

With the Southampton campus sold, Robinson and Gleason were left with no alma mater to call their own or return to in the way they remember it.

“When I got the phone call, I wasn’t shocked,” Gleason said. “I was just pissed. I spent 11 years trying to develop something. I guess you don’t really expect it to happen, right? Small businesses shut down. You don’t expect schools to shut down.”

Even before Robinson’s coaching tenure at LIU Brooklyn ended, the “disregard of the people” became apparent to him, contributing to his departure from the program on his own terms.

“I felt like I had done all I (could) with that program,” Robinson said. “I just didn’t see where it was going. I also started seeing the writing on the wall.”

Having felt that the university nullified all he had done to that point, Robinson left in 2015 to be an assistant coach at Oklahoma.

Kyle Robinson (right) pictured above during his tenure as an assistant coach at Oklahoma, where he coached from 2015-18. (Oklahoma Athletics Communications)

“Honestly, if they would have just done right by me immediately, then I would probably have stayed,” Robinson said. “Then when I had already made the decision and told them I was going to go to OU, they somehow miraculously found money for me.”

Robinson’s response to the new offer was short and sweet.

“I’m crazy, but I ain’t stupid.”

After all that happened with Robinson at LIU, he believes that if he stayed, he would still be there. However, even after being offered the job to coach there again, Robinson stood his ground and understood his own value.

“I just laugh,” Robinson said. “A, you shouldn’t have let me go. B, you can’t afford me now.”

‘Be who you are … you don’t have to force yourself to be somebody that you’re not.’

Robinson spent several years of his professional volleyball career playing abroad in Belgium, Puerto Rico and Greece. Those years gave him a deeper appreciation for the ways other countries play the sport he’s given his life to. 

“To be there so long and understand the international volleyball mentality structure was is a big part of that growth over there,” Robinson said. “Just me being me, and where I grew up, helped me also survive over there and helped make me who I am.”

In turn, Robinson makes sure to take special care of the athletes who come from across the world to be a member of his family. 

Robinson has coached players from as close as Long Island, New York, to places as far as Turkey, Brazil, Serbia, Italy, Greece, etc. 

For players coming from that far away, one of the biggest concerns is adjusting to U.S. culture and more specifically, speaking English instead of their native languages. 

Vera Djuric, now Franzese, who Robinson once called “the best setter I’ve ever coached” played for him at LIU Brooklyn from 2011 until 2014. Coming from Lazarevac, Serbia, Franzese found adapting to the language barrier quite difficult.

“I didn’t speak any English, none at all,” she said.  

She later recalled a moment during her freshman year when Robinson came to her at a stressful moment in a match, and gave her words that stuck to this day.

“He let me just be me,” Franzese said. “He literally told me you don’t have to speak English. If you’re angry and you have to speak in Serbian, just yell in Serbian. Be who you are. People are going to recognize if you’re angry. You don’t have to force yourself to be somebody that you’re not.”

That support from Robinson likely played a role in Franzese’s wildly successful career as a Blackbird. She won four-straight NEC Setter of the Year awards from 2011 through 2014, the same timeframe that saw Robinson win four-straight NEC Coach of the Year awards. 

There were plenty of other international players on that LIU Brooklyn roster, from plenty of places beyond just Serbia. Robinson found a way to meld all of those personalities and cultures together into a Blackbird squad that won three-straight NEC championships from 2012 to 2014. 

“We did so much where you felt like you were forced to feel like you were a part of the group,” Franzese said. “(Robinson held) a lot of off-court things. A lot of let’s talk about feelings, let’s talk about who we are, as people, let’s understand each other. That’s what I think drew all of us together and helped form a family.”

In 2022, Robinson found himself in a similar position while at Quinnipiac, needing to assimilate a freshman class of six players, five of whom came from other countries.

Two of those players were Damla and Yagmur Gunes, twin sisters hailing from Bursa, Turkey. 

Damla Gunes (No. 18), pictured on Oct. 5, 2022, celebrating a point against the Marist Red Foxes. (Alex Bayer)

Language was a huge concern for them making the move to Connecticut, leaving them hesitant to even speak during their first days with the team.

“We didn’t want to say the wrong things,” Damla said. “Or if anyone would even know what we meant.”

However, like Franzese, Robinson knew just how to handle this situation.

“He always tried to explain everything and push us,” Yagmur said. “He truly believed in us more than we did. So it feels really encouraging to have that coach at your back, supporting you no matter what.”

Once again, Robinson took the groceries and turned them into a meal, leading the Gunes’ and the rest of that squad to a championship that very season. Damla was named to the 2022 MAAC All-Rookie team, and Yagmur kicked off her subsequent season by winning MAAC Player of the Week in the second week of action. 

And as much as Robinson became a part of the Gunes’ lives, the sisters alongside every other player he’s coached, became a part of his.

“They’re everything to me, but really all of them are,” Robinson said. “Anyone that comes to the gym for me and works hard and gives to each other and gives to the program. I love them like they’re my blood.”

‘This is not going to be given to me for free.’

When Quinnipiac reached its first-ever NCAA Tournament in December 2022, the match was to be played the week before finals. That academic disadvantage was not lost on him.

Aryanah Diaz (center), pictured on Dec. 2, 2022, shows sportsmanship to Wisconsin volleyball players after Quinnipiac’s 3-0 loss in the NCAA Tournament. (Cameron Levasseur)

“We are athletes, but we’re also student-athletes, which means our academics come first,” Robinson said. “That’s what we’ve talked about from day one. Always stay on top of your academics. Always stay connected with your professors and let them understand the rigors of what you do.” 

So when one of his athletes stumble, Robinson is always there to pick them up. However, he is not shy in showing them the consequences when their best isn’t given.

“I’m not saying they have to be perfect and they have to get straight A’s,” Robinson said. “But they have to give maximum effort, and then we’ll see where it shakes out.” 

Aryanah Diaz, a senior on that Quinnipiac team, had a moment like this during her COVID-19-modified sophomore season in spring 2021. 

“I was struggling academically and it was like prime COVID-19, nobody was going to class,” Diaz said. “It was hard to stay engaged in school. I was not doing well in one of my classes. He made me go to practice that day, not to play volleyball, but to walk around and be his shadow.”

Diaz had the opportunity to view herself and her sport in a way she never had before.

“I had to look at everybody while they were playing and practicing,” Diaz said. “I just had to follow him and do whatever he said. He was like, ‘This is how it’s gonna be if you don’t get your shit together.’ He brought me to the breaking point where I was like, ‘I need to get straight.’”

The strategy worked in Robinson’s favor, as Diaz finished her undergraduate studies in May 2023 and returned for graduate school this fall. 

“That was the moment that I realized this is not going to be given to me for free,” Diaz said. “I’m not just here to play volleyball or whatever. There’s a lot of responsibilities that come with being here as a student-athlete … I didn’t want to do that ever again. I just did a 360 after that moment. It benefited everybody, especially me.”

‘If you want the grass to be greener, then water it’

For a Robinson-coached team, what matters most is having the right group of people.

After becoming the Quinnipiac head coach in 2019, it took Robinson four years to win a MAAC championship. Those four seasons included plenty of gradual improvement, including a few runs in the MAAC Tournament. While the team never went all the way, it was because he needed the right people.

So the fact that the 2022 team went the distance made things special, even considering he had five prior conference championships in his career.

“It was just a more like a nostalgic type of feeling when winning this year,” Robinson said. “I had been there before, but it was just this nostalgic, like, ‘Oh, this is what I remember.’”

Leading the program, and in turn, the university, to a destination it had never been also helped Robinson recognize it wasn’t just him that got them there.

“I’m so proud of our university, not just our team, but all the support that helped us get to that point,” Robinson said. “So proud for (Director of Athletics) Greg (Amodio) who was there, and then to see his dream of turning volleyball into something tangibly cool come to fruition.”

A Division I mid-major coach with as much championship experience as Robinson is primed to have opportunities to coach at higher levels.

When asked about if other schools reach out to him with job opportunities, Robinson responded, “all the time.”

So why does he stay?

“I love it,” he said. “I love the people. I love my leadership here. I love my staff. I love my team. I love the location. You name it. You know, this is a great place for my family to grow up and to be raised. We’re thriving.”

I love the people. I love my leadership here. I love my staff. I love my team.

— Kyle Robinson, Quinnipiac volleyball head coach

In a day and age where college players and coaches switch schools often, Robinson’s unique perspective could be seen as old-fashioned.

“We all are looking for bigger and better and looking at greener pastures,” Robinson said. “That’s not always the best thing. If you want the grass to be greener, then water it, take care of it, fertilize it, tend to it.”

As a result, Robinson is content with the family and the culture he has developed at Quinnipiac and plans to stay for the foreseeable future, allowing his influence to spread and positively impact the rest of the university.

Even as he nears 50 years of age, only recently did he find the time to ditch his modest demeanor for just a moment and take note of all he’s accomplished.

“(The first time) that I thought I was pretty good (at volleyball)?” Robinson said. “I don’t know. Last week? I’ve done some pretty cool things in this sport, but you have to be humble about it. You have to understand that it comes and goes.”

The self-described “hood kid” from Philadelphia has come a long way.

“Now, I guess, I’m a hood man.”

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