The Unlikely Candidate
On a drizzly afternoon in early May, Craig Robinson addressed about 100 Oregon State boosters in a large banquet room in Portland. He stepped to a podium next to an American flag and opened with a playful joke about the height of the school's athletic director, 5' 7" Bob De Carolis, the man who hired him in April to coach OSU's basketball team.
The audience of mostly middle-aged men chuckled, but the fans were still skeptical of Robinson. His unusual résumé -- more experience as a bond trader on Wall Street (eight years) than as a college head coach (two) -- coupled with the school's recent history of misfiring on basketball hires (he is the Beavers' fifth coach since 1990) would jade even the most ardent supporter. But he disarmed the crowd with small indulgences ("I will never wear [Oregon] green," he vowed) and with the kind of hope speak that they've heard before but which seemed more genuine when stated in the Princeton-educated Robinson's assured cadence.
During the new coach's 40-minute talk it was hard not to draw parallels between him and his famous brother-in-law, Barack Obama. Like the probable Democratic nominee for president, Robinson is promising change, and his most alluring quality may be how he differs from the men who held the top spot before him. Like Obama, he seeks to motivate and educate when speaking to groups such as the one in Portland. When one fan criticized the "cupcake" nonconference schedules lined up by Robinson's predecessors, the new coach told him abruptly, "Sometimes you need a cupcake schedule." He then went on to explain why, a long answer full of fine print about "young players gaining experience" and "building their confidence in advance of conference play" that left the man and others in the room nodding in agreement. Robinson received a standing ovation at the conclusion of his talk, and more than a dozen people queued up to shake his hand afterward, their spirits lifted simply by the power of his words.
"He's such an unbelievable communicator," says Sue Poorman, a booster who peppered Robinson with questions about the modified Princeton offense he plans to run at Oregon State. "If he can coach as well as he can talk, we hired the right guy."
Of all the coaching changes in major college basketball since the end of the regular season, none was more of a head-scratcher than Robinson's selection by the Beavers, and few situations will be as interesting to follow in the months ahead. Like the job his brother-in-law seeks, Robinson's task is a daunting one. Oregon State is widely perceived to be the toughest basketball position of any in the six major conferences, which speaks to the location (cold, rainy, out-of-the-way Corvallis), the competition (rival Oregon's athletic program has the backing of billionaire Nike cofounder and alum Phil Knight), the facilities (59-year-old Gill Coliseum looks as if it hasn't been touched up since it was built) and the records of the last four coaches: Jim Anderson (79-90), Eddie Payne (52-88), Ritchie McKay (22-37) and, most recently, Jay John (72-97).
What's more, before Robinson accepted the post, San Diego coach Billy Grier, Randy Bennett of St. Mary's and Ron Hunter of IUPUI turned it down. Within the basketball coaching community, the task of turning around Oregon State's program -- which did not win a Pac-10 conference game last season, and has had only one winning season out of the last 17 -- is akin to fixing Social Security.
Into this disaster stepped the 46-year-old Robinson, a two-time Ivy League player of the year at Princeton who spent six years as an assistant at Northwestern and the last two seasons as the head coach at Brown. He was such an unusual choice for the job that when Robinson's agent first contacted De Carolis in April, the AD suggested that he call Rice -- a school better suited to Robinson's academic profile. But after De Carolis was repeatedly spurned by other coaches, he decided that an out-of-the-box choice was what Oregon State needed.
"The situation here made me a good candidate," Robinson says. "If it wasn't so bad, I wouldn't have had a shot at a job in the Pac-10."
Potential recruits aren't old enough to remember, but Oregon State was once a national power in basketball and is still the 13th-winningest program in the country. With Ralph Miller coaching them for 19 years, beginning in 1971, the Beavers won 359 games; in his final 10 seasons, they were Pac-10 champions four times and went to seven NCAA tournaments, advancing to the Elite Eight in 1982. Future NBA players Steve Johnson, Lester Conner, A.C. Green and Gary Payton headlined Miller's teams, which were known for their pressing, full-court defense. In 1988, the year before he retired, Miller was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
The school then promoted Anderson, a longtime Miller assistant, and his first team made it to the NCAA tournament. But after the Beavers failed to finish above .500 in any of the next five years, he was replaced by Payne, a well-respected tactician who had previously coached at East Carolina. If there was a tipping point for the program, it came during Payne's five-year term. An arms race was under way in college basketball, and schools hurried to improve facilities to better lure recruits. Oregon State didn't budge. Even the carpet in Payne's office was left over from the Miller era. If the gym, offices and workout areas were good enough for Miller, the logic among school administrators went, they were good enough for the coaches who came after him.
Then there are the disadvantages inherent to Corvallis. Besides the dreary weather, it is a relatively small (about 50,000 residents) and homogeneous (86% white) city. Just getting a kid to campus for a recruiting visit often requires a two-hour drive from the Portland airport. The area has its charms -- the Pinot Noir produced nearby is highly regarded, and the Avery-Helm Historic District is quaint -- but is that what a teenager looks for in a college? "I remember driving a black kid into town, and he looked at me and said, 'Where do I get my hair cut?' " says Leroy Washington, one of Payne's assistants from 1995 through '99 and is now a car salesman in Pullman, Wash. "I knew right then, he wasn't coming." Tack on the decaying facilities, and Oregon State is a tough sell.
Yet for a brief period Payne generated hope of a revival. In 1995 he signed four highly touted freshmen: guards Corey Benjamin and Carson Cunningham and forwards J.B. Bickerstaff and Ron Grady. The plan was to build around them and improve each year. But after one season Cunningham transferred to Purdue to be closer to his family. Bickerstaff then bolted to Minnesota, Grady left for Colorado State, and Benjamin jumped to the NBA after only two seasons. Payne hung on until 2000, but he never recovered from the breakup of that class. Now the coach at South Carolina Upstate, Payne was reluctant to talk about Oregon State because, as with the other former coaches interviewed for this story, he didn't want to appear as if he were making excuses for why he didn't win in Corvallis. "I will say that I don't think changing coaches always solves the problem," he says. "It's the cheapest way, but the coach is not always the problem."
Next, Oregon State hired McKay away from Colorado State, but he left after two seasons for the job at New Mexico. "[Oregon State] could be the toughest job in the country," acknowledged McKay, now the coach at Division II Liberty in Lynchburg, Va. "In the two years I was there, the Pac-10 had [five and then] six teams make the NCAA tournament. The league is just so good."
After Payne and McKay, two coaches plucked from smaller programs, Oregon State hired Arizona assistant Jay John in 2002. As an enticement, then athletic director Mitch Barnhart promised John that the basketball facilities would be upgraded -- John was even shown photos of the planned renovations to Gill Coliseum -- but Barnhart left a few months later for Kentucky, and the upgrades never happened. Meanwhile, the school spent $80 million renovating the football stadium. "It was football's and baseball's time. Now it's basketball's time," De Carolis says.
Still, John plowed on, and the 2004-05 team won 17 games and was selected to play in the National Invitational Tournament -- the Beavers' first postseason trip since Anderson's first season. John got a five-year contract extension and, as De Carolis says, "Everyone thought, O.K., this is going to work." But during the next season senior guard Lamar Hurd injured his groin and missed the final 15 games, of which Oregon State won only four. John tried a quick fix the next year, bringing in transfers such as Kansas castoff C.J. Giles, but the plan backfired. "After Lamar got hurt, there was no one to glue the team back together," De Carolis says. "It started spiraling, and then a couple of knuckleheads [like Giles] were thrown into the middle of it."
John was fired in January and is now an assistant at California. "We got to the top of the hump and we had a good view, but we couldn't get over the hump," he says. Not wanting to blame the antiquated facilities, he prefaces a response to a question about the school's commitment to hoops with "I knew what I was getting into." Then he adds, "If you stand on campus and look at the football stadium, which is gorgeous, and then you turn 180 degrees and look at Gill, you get an idea of basketball's importance there."
When asked what it would take for a coach to win at Oregon State these days, McKay says, "I wouldn't say you need a perfect storm to win there, but you need a near-perfect storm." For De Carolis and Robinson the model for that storm exists 332 miles away, in Pullman, Wash. When Robinson and De Carolis explain why they believe Robinson will succeed where other qualified coaches have failed, they point to Washington State, where Tony Bennett guided the Cougars to the NCAA tournament in his first two seasons, including the Sweet 16 in 2008.
"Like [Washington State], we're going to have our own style [the Princeton offense], we're going to recruit and develop less-heralded players and we're going to play great defense," Robinson says. "If I get in living rooms, and if we get to kids where the parents are making the decisions, I am counting on parents' thinking that I am the kind of person they want their kids to play for."
Robinson has a compelling story to sell. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood on Chicago's South Side and starred for Mt. Carmel High. His father, Fraser, who battled multiple sclerosis but continued working for the city's water filtration department until he died in 1991, persuaded him to attend Princeton without a scholarship rather than take a free ride from more prominent basketball programs that courted him, such as Purdue and Washington. His younger sister, Michelle, followed him to Princeton two years later. A 6' 6" forward, Robinson led the Tigers to two Ivy titles and two NCAA tournaments, was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers in the fourth round of the 1983 NBA draft and spent two seasons playing in England before returning to Chicago to get a master's degree in finance at the University of Chicago. He worked on Wall Street for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter from 1992 through '99, ascending to vice president of sales and trading, and then became managing director at Loop Capital Markets, a boutique firm in his hometown.
Even when he was earning nearly $1 million a year and driving a Porsche 944 Turbo, Robinson never found fulfillment working in finance. He scouted high school games to help Princeton coaches find prospects, and he even spent a season as head coach at the University of Chicago High School. In 2000, when Pete Carril disciple Bill Carmody called with an offer to be his assistant at Northwestern, Robinson jumped at the chance despite a pay cut of approximately 90%. He proved to be an adept recruiter and tactician in his six years at Northwestern, and then he led Brown to a school-record 19 wins in his second season there.
Oregon State's search committee spoke with Robinson for a total of 6 1/2 hours before offering the job, and members spent most of that time selling
The search committee liked that Robinson said he could win in spite of the facilities, and they were taken with his life story. "We were also aware of his family ties [to Obama], but that really didn't factor into it," De Carolis says. "You wouldn't pick a coach based on that." But the connection probably won't hurt Robinson when he cozies up to recruits and their parents. "Every job [involves] sales," Robinson says. "The biggest part of coaching is recruiting, and that is being able to sell yourself, your school and your program."
At a campaign rally in Albany, Ore., a few weeks ago, Robinson sold the idea of Obama as the next president, introducing him to the large crowd that included several Oregon State players. Robinson plans to campaign for Obama into November. "The campaign is really important, and [the Oregon State job] is really important," he says. "I think I'm capable of doing both. My brother-in-law and my sister never ask me to do anything that jeopardizes my job." Recently, Robinson and his second wife, Kelly, began discussing the possibility that Robinson's 16-year-old son, Avery, and 12-year-old daughter, Leslie, will come under Secret Service protection as Obama campaigns for president. "It's not something you like to think about, but there is a concern there," he says.
Robinson enjoys talking politics, but it is when he discusses his plans for the Beavers and his belief that he can turn around the program that he sounds most like his brother-in-law. He acknowledges that Obama's oratorical skills have rubbed off on him, particularly the candidate's tendency to frame challenges as opportunities.
"When they offered me the job, I thought, You could get here and flop, and it's the last college coaching job you'll get," Robinson says. "But I had to fall back on something my father always said: 'You were good at this and this and this, what makes you think you won't be good at that?' If you think of it that way, you can't come up with a reason why you can't succeed. If you are used to thinking positively, all you can think about is how to make it work. All I can think about is what I can do to make this program better."
Forgive Oregon State fans for having the audacity to hope.