Robb Taylor: Team USA's Tiger
Auburn head coach Robb Taylor has been around wheelchair basketball since he was a young kid. His uncle suffered from Polio and played wheelchair basketball his entire life. Taylor would go to his uncles’ practices and games, spin around in a wheelchair and pretend like he was playing too.
Although Taylor isn’t in a wheelchair, his lifelong love of the game inspired him to stay involved with the sport in some capacity as he grew older.
Taylor followed his uncle’s footsteps by attending the University of Illinois, where his uncle played collegiate wheelchair basketball decades earlier. His uncle’s path has led Taylor to more than 20 years and counting as a coach of wheelchair basketball at the collegiate and national team level.
The Men’s U.S. National Wheelchair Basketball team rewarded Taylor’s passion and impact on the sport recently by naming him its head coach. Taylor served as an assistant coach on the national team for the last nine years and helped the group capture back-to-back gold medals in the 2016 and 2020 Paralympic games.
“It’s definitely a great honor,” Taylor said. “I was very excited to receive that phone call.”
The phone call came when Taylor was in a meeting with a recruit for Auburn. He knew what the call could be, so he stepped outside and answered. The internal excitement rang loud, but Taylor had to remain focused as he walked back in the room with the recruit. He couldn't tell the Auburn community until the official announcement came a few days later.
TAYLOR'S TREK TO THE TOP
Taylor had been pursuing the top job for a long time. As the process developed, he stayed in close contact with Trevon Jenifer, a wheelchair basketball national team legend and two-time Paralympic gold medalist. Jenifer and Taylor were texting back and forth as Taylor was going through rounds of interviews. At one point, Taylor texted Jenifer, “If I’m named coach… .” Jenifer quickly texted back “You mean when?” A few days later that was the reality.
“This is a position that he’s been growing for and preparing himself for and this is a position I truly believe that he deserves,” Jenifer said.
Taylor’s journey to this prestigious position goes back to his days at the University of Illinois. The Illinois wheelchair team knew who Taylor was because his uncle was an alumnus. That certainly helped when Taylor made it his mission to get involved in the sport in any way he could when he stepped foot on campus. It didn’t take long for Taylor to introduce himself to the coaching staff at Illinois and earn a position, albeit low down on the organizational chart.
Taylor started off as a water and towel boy and offered his assistance wherever he could.
Eventually, through hard work and constant commitment, he earned new responsibilities and eventually a role as an assistant coach for both the men’s and women’s teams.
Taylor moved around the country with his wife when they graduated college, but wherever he went, he found a role in the NWBA (National Wheelchair Basketball Association). First, it was in Arizona as an assistant coach for the Phoenix Mercury, a women’s wheelchair basketball team. Then it was Chicago where Taylor worked with the Windy City Warriors, a junior wheelchair basketball team.
As Taylor jumped from different organizations and cities, he ended up connecting with the legendary wheelchair basketball coach Ron Lykins, who became his friend and mentor.
When Taylor met him, Lykins was the head coach of the women’s national team and Taylor wanted a position on that staff. He took a similar approach to what he learned at Illinois: Do whatever possible to help because eventually the hard work will be rewarded. Taylor went to different training camps, kept stats, and supported the team however he could.
Eventually, in 2005, Taylor was named an assistant coach to the women’s national team under Lykins. When Lykins made the move from the women’s national team head coach to the men’s national team head coach in 2013, Taylor followed his friend.
“One of the benefits of being an assistant on the national team as long as I was, was I had the opportunity to learn from hands down the best wheelchair basketball coach of all time in Ron Lykins,” Taylor said. “I was able to observe firsthand and up close what works really well.”
As an assistant for the men’s team, Taylor was recruited by Auburn to take the reins of its new men’s wheelchair team in 2016, where he has been ever since.
“I think my passion grew when I was at Illinois,” Taylor said. “I was just very fortunate that when the Auburn position came open and they were interested in me, the timing of it just worked out where I was able to make the move.”
Having a presence in the sport for as long as Taylor has, he has seen the game grow and evolve in a way few people have. Since Taylor got involved in the college division, the number of teams participating has doubled. He also has seen his own program develop in impressive ways.
When Taylor took over the program, there were just a couple student-athletes on the team, and the rest of the squad was made up of community members. Six years later, Auburn has 10 student-athletes on the team and Taylor recruits all over the country.
“We’re really starting to get a lot of recognition across campus, whether that’s within administration, whether that’s within the athletic department, but we’re making a lot of great connections across campus,” Taylor said. “I think for me, that’s what shows that our program has made it here at Auburn.”
That experience of building a program from the ground up will pay dividends for Taylor as he looks to make his mark on a new team in the same sport. Although the national team is already established as a giant on the international circuit, Taylor will bring his own style and philosophy that will help take the team to new heights.
“I think being able to learn what I had success with here at Auburn, the growing pains that I’ve had at Auburn from a collegiate standpoint will help out,” Taylor said.
Taylor isn’t the type of coach that will get in players' faces and yell at them. He is more even-keeled and has a calm demeanor when he’s on the sideline. However, he will let you know what he’s thinking, both good and bad, and his players respect that.
“Everything he says at this moment has meaning,” Jenifer said.
TAYLOR'S TREASURED TIMES
Taylor’s involvement in the sport at both the national and collegiate level isn’t just about winning, although he’s certainly done a lot of that. Taylor is also deeply committed to developing young men and creating a familial bond that can last a lifetime.
Taylor cherishes the moments when Auburn wins or when international competition ends with gold medals around his neck. But Taylor’s most special memories are away from the court. He takes his greatest pride when he sees his players get their degrees or attends their weddings and watches them start families.
“Those are relationships that don’t stop when they graduate or move on,” Taylor said. “Those are relationships that are going to last a lifetime.”
Taylor also takes pleasure in simpler moments when he’s on the road and just spending time around the team. Whether it’s teasing each other about the professional sports teams the guys root for or convincing a restaurant it’s someone’s birthday when it really isn’t, those are the moments that Taylor doesn’t take for granted.
“It’s all the off-court stuff that really changes it from being a team to being a family and I think that’s when you grow the most,” Taylor said.
When that team molds into a family off the court, it only helps them on the court. “Once you get out on the court and things get tough, you’ve got teammates that are going to have your back, you’ve got staff that is going to have your back and everybody has your best interest.”
As a national team assistant for seven years, Taylor knows the formula to create a winning culture and a winning team at the highest level.
Taylor won’t have the typical four years most teams have to prepare for the next Paralympics because the 2020 games were held in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That means the next three years preparing for the 2024 games in Paris will be condensed and intense.
There will be two-zone qualifying tournaments in the next year, the world championships and the Pan American Games. Not only that, but the Paralympic games will only have eight teams at the Paris games in 2024, instead of 12, which is what it was in previous years.
“Everything is so condensed that it’s going to be a sprint and it’s going to be a marathon at the same time to try to get through everything,” Taylor said. “That’s the challenge I look forward to taking on as head coach of this team.”
While Taylor was around the success the national team has had in recent years, he doesn’t want to change too much as the guy in charge. He continues to have his eye on the ultimate prize, but he does want to focus on certain areas that haven’t been properly addressed.
“You look at the last handful of years, and we haven’t done an adequate job when it comes to development, and as development of athletes, development of coaches and staff,” Taylor said.
Taylor isn’t satisfied with the success the U23 teams have had and given the large pool and talented athletes who qualify in that age range, he expects more. Winning gold is one goal but creating a better system underneath the national team is also an objective at the top of Taylor’s list.
“I see my job here the next three years as leading this team and helping with the development of some of those younger athletes,” Taylor said. “It’s working with the U23 coaching staff to make sure that those athletes that they’re going to be working with are prepared and ready to make that transition from the U23 team to the senior team.”
Jenifer has the ultimate confidence that Taylor will continue to lead the national team in the right direction and is looking forward to seeing the mark he makes on the program.
“Having the trust of the head coach… whether that be in film or in the middle of a game, that speaks volumes to the kind of leader he is,” Jenifer said.
Jenifer isn’t sure if he’s going to play in the upcoming Paralympic games in 2024. He has family obligations and has been around the game for a long time. But with Taylor leading the bunch, he knows he must consider it.
“Robbie [Taylor] is one of a handful of coaches that I would legitimately play for because I respect him that much,” Jenifer said.
Whether Jenifer is part of the team or not, there’s a job to do and Taylor is ready to do it.
“Knowing that at the end of the games, when we win gold, that every single person in that room regardless of whether they’re an athlete or staff member or support staff member, we all put in hours and hours of work, years of work, to achieve that goal,” Taylor said, “And it was something that we’re all able to accomplish together and that’s one hell of a feeling.”
It’s a feeling that Taylor hopes, and expects, to feel a lot more of as he takes on a challenge he’s been preparing for since he went to his uncle’s games as a little kid.
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