Is Being A Good Mentor (And Michelle Obama’s Brother) Enough To Save Craig Robinson’s Job?The president’s brother-in-law is a good man and a great leader for his players. But as Oregon State’s basketball coach, Craig Robinson loses more than he wins. What makes a successful college coach, character or victories?
posted on March 23, 2014 at 11:04am EDT Buzzfeed
CORVALLIS, Ore. — The mass text message went out on the morning of Aug. 25, 2008, a reminder from Oregon State University men’s basketball coach Craig Robinson that everyone should tune into any one of the major news channels that evening.
This had nothing to do with basketball. Instead, Robinson was slated to introduce his younger sister Michelle Obama on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention. His speech would come two days before Barack Obama would officially accept the party’s presidential nomination.
One of the people who received the text message was Roberto Nelson, then a 17-year-old basketball star from Santa Barbara, Calif. Robinson had entered Nelson’s life only a few months earlier during a recruiting visit. Nelson came away especially impressed with Robinson, in part because the coach never brought up the subject of basketball.
“That was totally different from all the other coaches,” Nelson told BuzzFeed. “We just hit it off immediately. You could tell that he really cared about me as a person.”
Nelson was dazzled when he saw Robinson introduce the future first lady. Robinson strode to the stage in a black suit and bright orange tie, the colors of Oregon State. “Today,” Robinson told the crowd, “I’m proud to be the coach of the Oregon State men’s basketball team. Go Beavers!”
“It was so powerful,” Nelson said recently, still awed at the memory. Nelson committed to Robinson and the Beavers a few weeks later, choosing the traditional basketball doormat over national powers such as UCLA, Florida, and Ohio State.
“I had to explain it to people,” recalled Nelson, now a 23-year-old fifth-year senior for the Beavers. “I was thinking more about my future than they were. I understood the vision that Coach Rob had.”
That vision includes living meaningful lives on and off the court, the sort of well-rounded experience that so many colleges claim to offer to their athletes. The 6-foot-7-inch Robinson is the embodiment of that ideal: He was a two-time Ivy League Player of the Year, a graduate of Princeton University and the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. He was a successful businessman before he pursued a career as a college basketball coach.
Robinson lived up to expectations at Oregon State in all ways — except basketball. So Craig Robinson epitomizes an uncomfortable question: Is it enough for a coach to mentor boys into accomplished men in full, or does he also have to win?
Now at the end of his sixth year in Corvallis, Robinson has a record of 94-105 overall, 39-69 in the PAC-12 Conference. Oregon State has finished better than eighth place in the league only once.
The nadir came Wednesday in a third-tier post-season tournament called the College Basketball Invitational. The Beavers got eliminated in the first round, losing 96-92 at home to to Radford — a team that in regular season had lost by double digits to Hampton and Virginia Military Institute and that had exactly one starter taller than 6 feet 4 inches. In the arena, the number of empty seats was jarring. “I was told there were more people at Gill Coliseum for the 4A girls consolation finals Saturday morning than tonight,” tweeted Steve Gress, the sports editor from the Corvallis Gazette-Times.
The next morning, The Oregonian — the state’s largest daily newspaper — ran this headline: “Should Oregon State Beavers fire Craig Robinson?” Nearly two-thirds of the more than 4,000 voters chose this option: “Yes. He’s had enough time to show what he can do … and it’s underwhelming.”
In his best-selling memoir A Game of Character: A Family Journey from Chicago’s Southside to the Ivy League and Beyond, Robinson explains his theory — learned from his late father — that “you could tell everything you needed to know about someone by how they played the game.” He famously used a pickup game in 1990 to assess the character of his sister’s new beau at the time, a young Chicago lawyer named Barack Obama. “He was real, down-to-earth, a good guy,” Robinson wrote. “He had passed the test with a definitive thumbs-up on his playing and character.”
“Playing and character.” By his own account, both measures matter. But on the first, Robinson’s Oregon State hasn’t been good enough to succeed against its peers in the PAC-12.
This is a story about Craig Robinson and whether that uncomfortable but unavoidable fact should matter.
The skeptic is never for real. There he stands, cocktail in hand, left arm draped languorously on one end of the mantelpiece, telling you that he can't be sure of anything, not even of his own existence. I'll give you my secret method of demolishing universal skepticism in four words. Whisper to him: "Your fly is open." If he thinks knowledge is so all-fired impossible, why does he always look? — James Sire (from, The Universe Next Door)