Craig Robinson fired at Oregon State because he couldn't improve enough
More than six weeks after Oregon State played its final game, athletic director Bob De Carolis decided to fire his basketball coach. So the timing of Craig Robinson's departure is surprising in two ways: Because it happened now, and because it didn't happen at least a year ago. This was a program going nowhere, winning just 36 percent of its Pac-12 games and making zero NCAA tournaments in six seasons under Robinson. It went 8-10 in the league this year and then endured such significant personnel attrition this offseason -- its top five scorers either graduated, transferred or went pro – that its best returning producer was to be Langston Morris-Walker, who averaged four points a game last season. A coach who couldn't build a winner couldn't be trusted to rebuild either.
Those are the circumstances under which Oregon State decided to axe Robinson, a move first reported by Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel. But it doesn't fully explain why this happened. A more exact appraisal: Craig Robinson finally got fired because he is a smart guy who didn't learn how to improve sufficiently as a coach.
He arrived in 2008 after just two seasons at Brown, more known for his family pedigree as the brother-in-law of the nation's new president than his coaching acumen. As noted in a Sports Illustrated feature that year, he had more experience as a Wall Street bond trader (eight years) than he did as a collegiate head coach (two years). He was coming from the East Coast to the West Coast. He planned to implement the confounding Princeton offense and a 1-3-1 defense, both of which remained staples in his tenure. There was plenty of change in order at Oregon State, which had just endured an 0-18 season in what was then the Pac-10 under then-coach Jay John. But even Robinson conceded that the school hired a coach who would be learning on the job as he attempted to fix a broken basketball program.
“If it wasn't so bad,” Robinson told SI at the time, “I wouldn't have had a shot at job in the Pac-10.”
Because of his name and charisma, Robinson brought in players that were good enough to help Oregon State win. His first two recruiting classes featured two top 100 players (Roberto Nelson in 2009, Devon Collier in 2010) and another four-star player in guard Jared Cunningham. Oregon State didn't woo a single four-star player in three-previous classes before Robinson's arrival. The program would have rejoiced even over mid-teir Pac-12 finishes, given the Beavers' zero NCAA tournament wins since 1982.
His talent in 2013-14 certainly was respectable. Nelson wound up as the nation's No. 16 scorer as a senior, averaging 20.7 points per game. Hallice Cooke was a promising recruit who assumed the starting point guard duties as a freshman in 2013-14 before transferring this offseason. Eric Moreland is a 6-foot-10 force who averaged 8.9 points and 10.3 rebounds and now heads to the NBA draft after his junior campaign. Past coaches complained about how difficult it was to draw talent to Corvallis. Robinson overcame that to a degree. He just couldn't overcome his own shortcomings on the bench.
Robinson never wavered from a base 1-3-1 defense he brought with him. And here are Oregon State's finishes nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency in the Robinson era, per kenpom.com: 132nd, 77th, 136th, 184th, 167th and finally 215th this past year. That jump from bad to middling in Year 2 never took hold, and Robinson never found the help to further improve. Robinson wasn't a terrific defensive mind, but that's fixable if he finds an assistant with expertise in that area and is flexible enough to implement some fresh thinking. Instead, nothing changed, a seeming stubbornness that doomed him in the end. The Princeton offense remained, too, and there was a leap midway through Robinson's stay-- from 187th nationally in adjusted efficiency in his third season to 56th, 61st and 55th in the next three seasons, respectively. That was a direct reflection of talent like Nelson; still, the offense never ascended beyond decent, either, as the scheme remained the same.
Robinson infused talent to his roster but, especially defensively, couldn't utilize that talent in order to alter the results. That's purely a coaching failure.
There appeared to be a small bump with Robinson's in-game acumen this season; the Beavers were 6-4 in Pac-12 games in which they led at halftime, after blowing seven of 10 intermission leads during the 2012-13 conference season. That had been an indictment of Robinson's inability to match opposing coaches' adjustments. He improved in 2013-14 ... but there were still times like the Jan. 11 game against Cal, in which Oregon State led by 10 at halftime and then was outscored by 15 after it. Or the Jan. 25 game at Washington, in which Oregon State led by five at the break and then was outscored by 11 thereafter. Or the Pac-12 tournament game against Oregon, in which the Beavers trailed by one at the break and wound up losing by 14.
Therein lies the failure of Craig Robinson's regime, which ended with a 94-105 overall record: If he got better as a coach, he never got better enough.
And Oregon State needs a great coach for its imminent rebuild. The departures of Moreland and point guard Challe Barton to the professional ranks might have been expected for most of the season, but they were significant losses regardless. The transfer of Cooke, the only player remotely resembling a building block left on the roster after averaging 8.2 points in 32 games as a freshman, could not be abided. Even with a recent pledge secured from Maryland transfer Nick Faust, Oregon State was starting over, and it couldn't start over with a coach who couldn't build well enough in the first place. Craig Robinson is sharp in many ways. He's good with donors, as his campaigning helped fund a $15 million practice facility that opened last summer. He's good with the press. Really, he's ideally suited to be an athletic director. Some school with a future opening for an administrator would do well to look his way. But hiring him as a basketball coach didn't work out, because a smart guy just never learned.