Search

The Unlikely Candidate

June 09, 2008
June 09, 2008

Table of Contents
June 9, 2008

SI.com
SI Players: LIFE ON AND OFF THE FIELD
NBA FINALS
BASEBALL
STANLEY CUP FINALS
COLLEGE BASKETBALL
TRACK AND FIELD
Lorena Ochoa
Inside
Departments

The Unlikely Candidate

Like his famous brother-in-law, new Oregon State coach Craig Robinson is promising change, and his most winning quality may be how he differs from the men who preceded him

ON A drizzlyafternoon in early May, Craig Robinson addressed about 100 Oregon Stateboosters in a large banquet room in Portland. He stepped to a podium next to anAmerican flag and opened with a playful joke about the height of the school'sathletic director, 5'7" Bob De Carolis, the man who hired him in April tocoach OSU's basketball team. ¬∂ The audience of mostly middle-aged men chuckled,but the fans were still skeptical of Robinson. His unusual résumé—moreexperience as a bond trader on Wall Street (eight years) than as a college headcoach (two)—coupled with the school's recent history of misfiring on basketballhires (he is the Beavers' fifth coach since 1990) would jade even the mostardent supporter. But he disarmed the crowd with small indulgences ("I willnever wear [Oregon] green," he vowed) and with the kind of hope speak thatthey've heard before but which seemed more genuine when stated in thePrinceton-educated Robinson's assured cadence.

This is an article from the June 9, 2008 issue

During the newcoach's 40-minute talk it was hard not to draw parallels between him and hisfamous brother-in-law, Barack Obama. Like the probable Democratic nominee forpresident, Robinson is promising change, and his most alluring quality may behow he differs from the men who held the top spot before him. Like Obama, heseeks to motivate and educate when speaking to groups such as the one inPortland. When one fan criticized the "cupcake" nonconference scheduleslined up by Robinson's predecessors, the new coach told him abruptly,"Sometimes you need a cupcake schedule." He then went on to explainwhy, a long answer full of fine print about "young players gainingexperience" and "building their confidence in advance of conferenceplay" that left the man and others in the room nodding in agreement.Robinson received a standing ovation at the conclusion of his talk, and morethan a dozen people queued up to shake his hand afterward, their spirits liftedsimply by the power of his words.

"He's such anunbelievable communicator," says Sue Poorman, a booster who pepperedRobinson with questions about the modified Princeton offense he plans to run atOregon State. "If he can coach as well as he can talk, we hired the rightguy."

Of all thecoaching changes in major college basketball since the end of the regularseason, none was more of a head-scratcher than Robinson's selection by theBeavers, and few situations will be as interesting to follow in the monthsahead. Like the job his brother-in-law seeks, Robinson's task is a dauntingone. Oregon State is widely perceived to be the toughest basketball position ofany in the six major conferences, which speaks to the location (cold, rainy,out-of-the-way Corvallis), the competition (rival Oregon's athletic program hasthe 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 wasbuilt) and the records of the last four coaches: Jim Anderson (79--90), EddiePayne (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 Bennettof St. Mary's and Ron Hunter of IUPUI turned it down. Within the basketballcoaching community, the task of turning around Oregon State's program—which didnot win a Pac-10 conference game last season, and has had only one winningseason out of the last 17—is akin to fixing Social Security.

Into this disasterstepped the 46-year-old Robinson, a two-time Ivy League player of the year atPrinceton who spent six years as an assistant at Northwestern and the last twoseasons as the head coach at Brown. He was such an unusual choice for the jobthat when Robinson's agent first contacted De Carolis in April, the ADsuggested that he call Rice—a school better suited to Robinson's academicprofile. But after De Carolis was repeatedly spurned by other coaches, hedecided that an out-of-the-box choice was what Oregon State needed.

"The situationhere made me a good candidate," Robinson says. "If it wasn't so bad, Iwouldn't have had a shot at a job in the Pac-10."

POTENTIAL RECRUITSaren't old enough to remember, but Oregon State was once a national power inbasketball and is still the 13th-winningest program in the country. With RalphMiller coaching them for 19 years, beginning in 1971, the Beavers won 359games; in his final 10 seasons, they were Pac-10 champions four times and wentto seven NCAA tournaments, advancing to the Elite Eight in 1982. Future NBAplayers Steve Johnson, Lester Conner, A.C. Green and Gary Payton headlinedMiller's teams, which were known for their pressing, full-court defense. In1988, the year before he retired, Miller was elected to the Basketball Hall ofFame.

The school thenpromoted Anderson, a longtime Miller assistant, and his first team made it tothe NCAA tournament. But after the Beavers failed to finish above .500 in anyof the next five years, he was replaced by Payne, a well-respected tacticianwho had previously coached at East Carolina. If there was a tipping point forthe program, it came during Payne's five-year term. An arms race was under wayin college basketball, and schools hurried to improve facilities to better lurerecruits. Oregon State didn't budge. Even the carpet in Payne's office was leftover from the Miller era. If the gym, offices and workout areas were goodenough for Miller, the logic among school administrators went, they were goodenough for the coaches who came after him.

Then there are thedisadvantages inherent to Corvallis. Besides the dreary weather, it is arelatively small (about 50,000 residents) and homogeneous (86% white) city.Just getting a kid to campus for a recruiting visit often requires a two-hourdrive from the Portland airport. The area has its charms—the Pinot Noirproduced nearby is highly regarded, and the Avery-Helm Historic District isquaint—but is that what a teenager looks for in a college? "I rememberdriving a black kid into town, and he looked at me and said, 'Where do I get myhair cut?'" says Leroy Washington, one of Payne's assistants from 1995through '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 atough sell.

Yet for a briefperiod Payne generated hope of a revival. In 1995 he signed four highly toutedfreshmen: guards Corey Benjamin and Carson Cunningham and forwards J.B.Bickerstaff and Ron Grady. The plan was to build around them and improve eachyear. But after one season Cunningham transferred to Purdue to be closer to hisfamily. Bickerstaff then bolted to Minnesota, Grady left for Colorado State,and Benjamin jumped to the NBA after only two seasons. Payne hung on until2000, but he never recovered from the breakup of that class. Now the coach atSouth 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 toappear as if he were making excuses for why he didn't win in Corvallis. "Iwill say that I don't think changing coaches always solves the problem," hesays. "It's the cheapest way, but the coach is not always theproblem."

Next, Oregon Statehired McKay away from Colorado State, but he left after two seasons for the jobat New Mexico. "[Oregon State] could be the toughest job in thecountry," acknowledged McKay, now the coach at Division II Liberty inLynchburg, Va. "In the two years I was there, the Pac-10 had [five andthen] six teams make the NCAA tournament. The league is just so good."

After Payne andMcKay, two coaches plucked from smaller programs, Oregon State hired Arizonaassistant Jay John in 2002. As an enticement, then athletic director MitchBarnhart promised John that the basketball facilities would be upgraded—Johnwas even shown photos of the planned renovations to Gill Coliseum—but Barnhartleft 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," DeCarolis says.

Still, John plowedon, and the 2004--05 team won 17 games and was selected to play in the NationalInvitational Tournament—the Beavers' first postseason trip since Anderson'sfirst 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 nextseason 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 planbackfired. "After Lamar got hurt, there was no one to glue the team backtogether," De Carolis says. "It started spiraling, and then a couple ofknuckleheads [like Giles] were thrown into the middle of it."

John was fired inJanuary and is now an assistant at California. "We got to the top of thehump 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 aquestion about the school's commitment to hoops with "I knew what I wasgetting into." Then he adds, "If you stand on campus and look at thefootball stadium, which is gorgeous, and then you turn 180 degrees and look atGill, you get an idea of basketball's importance there."

WHEN ASKED what itwould take for a coach to win at Oregon State these days, McKay says, "Iwouldn't say you need a perfect storm to win there, but you need a near-perfectstorm." For De Carolis and Robinson the model for that storm exists 332miles away, in Pullman, Wash. When Robinson and De Carolis explain why theybelieve Robinson will succeed where other qualified coaches have failed, theypoint to Washington State, where Tony Bennett guided the Cougars to the NCAAtournament 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 toplay great defense," Robinson says. "If I get in living rooms, and ifwe get to kids where the parents are making the decisions, I am counting onparents' thinking that I am the kind of person they want their kids to playfor."

Robinson has acompelling story to sell. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood onChicago's South Side and starred for Mt. Carmel High. His father, Fraser, whobattled multiple sclerosis but continued working for the city's waterfiltration department until he died in 1991, persuaded him to attend Princetonwithout a scholarship rather than take a free ride from more prominentbasketball programs that courted him, such as Purdue and Washington. Hisyounger 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 NBAdraft and spent two seasons playing in England before returning to Chicago toget a master's degree in finance at the University of Chicago. He worked onWall Street for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter from 1992 through '99, ascending tovice president of sales and trading, and then became managing director at LoopCapital Markets, a boutique firm in his hometown.

Even when he wasearning nearly $1 million a year and driving a Porsche 944 Turbo, Robinsonnever found fulfillment working in finance. He scouted high school games tohelp Princeton coaches find prospects, and he even spent a season as head coachat the University of Chicago High School. In 2000, when Pete Carril discipleBill Carmody called with an offer to be his assistant at Northwestern, Robinsonjumped at the chance despite a pay cut of approximately 90%. He proved to be anadept recruiter and tactician in his six years at Northwestern, and then he ledBrown to a school-record 19 wins in his second season there.

Oregon State'ssearch committee spoke with Robinson for a total of 6 1/2 hours before offeringthe job, and members spent most of that time selling him on the position. Theypromised Robinson that Gill Coliseum would get a face-lift before next season(new windows and a fresh coat of paint for the basketball offices), thatrenovations would soon be under way on the basketball offices and a newtraining facility would be built. A new practice gym is also in the plans,though that is years away.

The searchcommittee liked that Robinson said he could win in spite of the facilities, andthey 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 probablywon't hurt Robinson when he cozies up to recruits and their parents. "Everyjob [involves] sales," Robinson says. "The biggest part of coaching isrecruiting, and that is being able to sell yourself, your school and yourprogram."

At a campaignrally in Albany, Ore., a few weeks ago, Robinson sold the idea of Obama as thenext president, introducing him to the large crowd that included several OregonState players. Robinson plans to campaign for Obama into November. "Thecampaign is really important, and [the Oregon State job] is reallyimportant," he says. "I think I'm capable of doing both. Mybrother-in-law and my sister never ask me to do anything that jeopardizes myjob." Recently, Robinson and his second wife, Kelly, began discussing thepossibility that Robinson's 16-year-old son, Avery, and 12-year-old daughter,Leslie, will come under Secret Service protection as Obama campaigns forpresident. "It's not something you like to think about, but there is aconcern there," he says.

Robinson enjoystalking politics, but it is when he discusses his plans for the Beavers and hisbelief that he can turn around the program that he sounds most like hisbrother-in-law. He acknowledges that Obama's oratorical skills have rubbed offon him, particularly the candidate's tendency to frame challenges asopportunities.

"When theyoffered me the job, I thought, You could get here and flop, and it's the lastcollege coaching job you'll get," Robinson says. "But I had to fallback on something my father always said: 'You were good at this and this andthis, what makes you think you won't be good at that?' If you think of it thatway, you can't come up with a reason why you can't succeed. If you are used tothinking positively, all you can think about is how to make it work. All I canthink about is what I can do to make this program better."

Forgive OregonState fans for having the audacity to hope.

Recruits aren't old enough to remember, but OregonState was once a National Power and is the 13th-winningest program in thecountry.

NOW ON SI.COM

SPORTS IN REAL TIME. ALL THE TIME. ALL FREE.

NO-WIN SITUATIONS

George Dohrmann breaks down the most difficultbasketball jobs in each of the six major conferences.

SI.COM/CBB

PHOTOPhotograph by Rich FrishmanLONG HAULS Like the office Obama (inset) seeks, Robinson's is challenging; OSU's job is considered the toughest in the nation.PHOTOBRUCE ELY/THE OREGONIAN[See caption above]PHOTOKEVORK DJANSEZIAN/AP FAMILIARSCHEME The Beavers' top returning scorer, swingman Seth Tarver, learned thePrinceton offense in high school.