Commentary

Obama's fame helps brother-in-law Robinson gain exposure for OSU

Originally Published: October 27, 2008
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Craig Robinson did a walk-through backstage to make sure he had the path down at Denver's Pepsi Center to introduce his sister, Michelle Obama, to the nation.

Before he was ready to go out, he had to make sure his tie was straight. So, of course, he sought out Michelle.

When he came out of the locker room, the tie was obvious: a bright orange against a dark black suit.

"Those Oregon State colors?" an ESPN.com reporter asked backstage.

"What do you think?" said Robinson, laughing as he walked out to introduce his sister on Aug. 25 to open the Democratic National Convention two days before his brother-in-law, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, would officially receive the Democratic nomination for president.

Back in Corvallis, Ore., and in Santa Barbara, Calif. and plenty of other places with Oregon State connections, players and recruits were awaiting Robinson's speech. He had sent out a mass e-mail message that he was going to be on national television, on every major network and cable outlet, on prime time.

"I got the text," Roberto Nelson said referring to Robinson's e-mail. Nelson, a combo guard from Santa Barbara High and one of the top recruits in California, committed to the Beavers shortly after the convention. "I watched it. It was powerful."

Robinson didn't know how he was going to give a shout out to Oregon State. He reacted on impulse once he heard some people chanting his last name. He looked up toward the Oregon delegates and then just reacted.

"Today, I'm proud to be the coach of the Oregon State men's basketball team. Go Beavers," Robinson said to the crowd, to the nation, to his current and future players.

[+] EnlargeCraig Robinson
Courtesy of the Robinson familyCraig Robinson hugs Michelle Obama on Aug. 25 at the Democratic National Convention, where he introduced his sister.
"It was like it really put us on the map again; he wore an Oregon State tie, also, and brought us attention," said Oregon State junior guard Seth Tarver, one of 10 returning players who participated in the Beavers' historic 0-18 Pac-10 season in 2007-08 under Jay John and interim coach Kevin Mouton, who replaced the fired John a third of the way through the Pac-10 season.

"A year ago, we would walk on campus and everyone knows you haven't won a game; the only things people say about you is bad, really," Tarver said of the 2007-08 Beavers, who went 6-25 overall.

Sitting at home on his couch in Corvallis on Aug. 25, the man who took a chance on hiring Robinson from the Ivy League -- the man who really had nothing to lose after Randy Bennett of Saint Mary's and Bill Grier of San Diego turned down what is currently the Pac-10's worst job -- waited for his gamble to pay off nationally.

"All of a sudden, kind of out of the blue, comes this 'Oregon State, Go Beavs,'" said athletic director Bob De Carolis, who resembles actor Bob Hoskins in his looks and spirited manner. "And I jumped off the couch and gave a fist pump and went 'Yes! This is awesome!'"

De Carolis added, "At the end of the day, he still has to coach some games. We hired him as a coach, not a politician."

When Robinson went backstage after the speech, he said he had never been so nervous before, mainly because he had to read from a teleprompter. But he wasn't about to give up his coaching gig for the cutthroat world of politics.

"I like coaching basketball," said Robinson, a two-time Ivy League player of the year at Princeton in the 1980s who, after a brief professional career in England, worked as a lucrative bond trader in Chicago before giving that up to be an assistant coach at Northwestern in 2000.

"I'd much rather be in the gym having practice and talking hoops."

Throughout the week in Denver, Robinson was put on the rock-star-status plane because of his speech. Wherever he went, he was approached. He had a body guard, a press liaison assigned to him for the week and adulation that he never received coaching at a school in the Ivy League, where professors get more pub than coaches.

The attention Robinson has received since he was hired in April is hard to even measure. Hiring Bennett, Grier or even Portland State's Ken Bone, a seemingly natural candidate who had taken the Vikings from the Big Sky Conference to their first NCAA tournament appearance, would have made sense from a basketball perspective. But the fact is that Oregon State wouldn't have differentiated itself in the offseason -- not this offseason, not with this election dominating the headlines every day for the past six months.

De Carolis wasn't thinking about looking to Brown after looking for other candidates in the West, even talking to former Stanford and Golden State Warriors coach Mike Montgomery before he took the Cal job. But he heard from Rick Giles, who represents Robinson and runs a number of nonconference tournaments such as the CVC and CBE Classics. Giles, who went to Princeton with Robinson, is now Robinson's agent and pushed him when he was an assistant at Northwestern to get the Brown job two years ago.

De Carolis said he would give Robinson another look. After talking to him for hours at the Final Four in San Antonio, De Carolis wanted to fly Robinson out to Oregon.

After interviewing Robinson on campus, De Carolis spoke with Oregon State president Edward Ray.

"Bob says, 'There's one more thing.' I say, 'What's that?'" Ray recalled. "He says, 'Well, he's Barack Obama's brother-in-law.' And I said, 'You know what, if he doesn't win some basketball games, nobody is going to give a damn who his brother-in-law is."

De Carolis hired Robinson. Coincidentally, it took place a month before the Oregon primary, something Sen. Obama noted in jest when the two made a joint campaign stop in Albany, Ore., and Eugene, Ore., in May.

"I want to thank my brother-in-law, who had the foresight to move to Oregon right before, right before the primary," Obama said at the rally in Albany.

Robinson had listed Obama as a reference, but De Carolis said he didn't think he could have reached him by phone.

"I would've told them you can't do better," Obama said during a interview with ESPN.com in Dunn, N.C., last week. "It's all upside. He just has good character, and I think he communicates with his players the need for character."

Prior to Robinson's speech in Denver, his mother, Marian Robinson, said she always told her son to step outside his comfort zone.

"This [speech] is a piece of cake. I just hope the basketball season goes well," Marian Robinson said. "He's a hard worker. I feel bad for the team. They should have an idea when they hired him, but he's going to make them work hard. I felt sorry for the Brown kids."

Michelle Obama, sitting down with ESPN.com in Allentown, Pa., in late September, said she understood that her brother couldn't turn down Oregon State.

"They didn't win a game [in the Pac-10], and some people would look at that and go, 'Wow, I'll be inheriting a real challenge,'" said Michelle Obama. "Craig sees it as a real opportunity. His view was: I really can start from scratch; I can build a program because the only place to go is up."

Robinson was under strict guidelines set forth by Ray that as a state employee he can campaign only on his time, not the state's.

"... I think ultimately what's going to make Craig a great coach has very little to do with this [election] and it has everything to do with who he is as a man. He is somebody you would want your kids to know, the kind of role model you would want your kids to be touched by at some point in their life, and I think that becomes clear the minute you talk to him.

--Michelle Obama

Robinson is proving he's not a political gimmick.

During individual workouts before the start of practice in mid-October, the rules for the Beavers' players changed dramatically: No hats, no earrings, and early-morning workouts and subsequent practices would begin at 5:30 a.m. Robinson said he learned to get an early start to the day when he worked as a bond trader.

"Our work ethic has changed a whole lot," Oregon State sophomore Omari Johnson said. "The outlook of the offense and the team is different. We've been working harder in the weight room, running more and doing a lot more on the court."

Robinson's success last season at Brown (winning 19 games and earning a postseason berth in the Collegiate Basketball Invitational) was rare for the Bears. He runs a hybrid of the Princeton offense, in which his guards will get plenty of shots. Brown's top two guards last season, Damon Huffman and Mark McAndrew, took 338 3-pointers, shooting 43.8 percent. The rest of the team took 218 3s.

Junior guard Josh Tarver said last season's experience was "something you don't want to go through, it's like the worst experience you know."

Seeing Robinson in the national spotlight has helped reinforce his persona to his players. Josh Tarver said every time he turns on the television and sees Obama, he makes a connection to Robinson. Knowing that attention to the Beavers could be forthcoming -- it has already arrived to some extent -- has these players taking themselves even more seriously.

Robinson has made it clear that he won't tolerate any wrongdoing. He said the nation won't be focusing on Oregon State basketball, but he doesn't want to grab any negative headlines with troubled players or NCAA violations, especially if Obama were to win the presidency. Robinson took a chance on guard Dwain Williams, who transferred from Providence but couldn't get eligible. With the commitment of Nelson, Williams is now gone.

The intention now is to focus on this squad and on the recruiting that is already paying dividends.

"I've got to believe Craig will have the opportunity to talk to young men and families he wouldn't have had very easy access to," Ray said of Robinson's connection to the Obamas. "But he's got to seal the deal. He's got to convince them once you get past the gloss, that there's substance there and there's somebody who's going to help my son be successful in life."

So far, the Beavers have a solid recruiting class for a team that didn't win a conference game last season.

In addition to Nelson, Robinson's goals of going into Los Angeles and getting someone from his hometown of Chicago are being met. The Beavers have a commitment from West Valley (Calif.) High's Joe Burton, who at 6-foot-8 is considered a legit big man once he gets his weight under control (290), and Whitney Young (Chicago) guard Ahmad Starks. Michelle Obama attended Whitney Young.

"I think the notoriety of this campaign makes him [Robinson] more accessible; people look at him and say, 'Wow, that guy sounds interesting,'" Michelle Obama said. "But I think ultimately what's going to make Craig a great coach has very little to do with this [election] and it has everything to do with who he is as a man. He is somebody you would want your kids to know, the kind of role model you would want your kids to be touched by at some point in their life, and I think that becomes clear the minute you talk to him."

Barack Obama put it in basketball terms.

"If I'm a parent and I'm thinking about where I'm going to send my kid to college, obviously if you've got extraordinary talent you might want to look at North Carolina, UCLA or Duke," Barack Obama said. "If you're not recruited by the top-10 programs, where do you want to send your kid? You want to send your kid to a place where you know the coach is going to treat him with honesty, respect, hard work, persistence, who values academic achievement.

"Those are the qualities I think Craig is going to bring to this program. It will not only be good for the kids he recruits but the program as a whole. I think teams with good character end up playing better."

De Carolis said he hired Robinson because he brought something different -- a disciplined, Ivy League style -- and because he was from both the East and Midwest. De Carolis said the Beavers compare themselves to Washington State, which has emerged in a league dominated for so long by UCLA and Arizona.

"What we have to do is change the culture from a losing culture to a winning culture," Robinson said. "Hopefully, we're laying the ground work for that and that will lead to winning games."

[+] EnlargeCraig Robinson
Courtesy of the Robinson familyBarack Obama, right, signed this photo of him playing with Robinson, second from left: "To Craig -- A brother-in-law who always leads the team!"
Certainly, the look of Oregon State is improving -- literally. Gill Coliseum is getting a makeover. It needed an extreme one but it's going through patchwork plastic surgery first. John had the benefit of a new locker-room area with a video room. Now Robinson is getting brand new offices, an office that was originally slated for De Carolis. De Carolis is now in a trailer after giving up his original office to the baseball coach after a second national championship. (It may be no wonder why De Carolis is candidate for the Indiana athletic director job since he's such a coach's AD. Tom Crean would love this kind of AD who is willing to give up his nicer digs for a coach.)

The outside of Gill is next and then the concourse, which is currently displaying soiled, gray carpeted walls. The Gill floor and seating are cozy and just fine for the Pac-10. A new video scoreboard is on the horizon. The 10,400 seats are probably just right for a program and city of this size.

People in the community are hungry for a winner. Oregon State has plenty of basketball history under Ralph Miller, who took the Beavers to the NCAAs eight times between 1975 and 1989, including an Elite Eight appearance in 1982 (which was later vacated by the NCAA). But Oregon State's last NCAA appearance was under Jim Anderson in 1990.

"Certainly there are more people who know about Craig Robinson -- who know about Oregon State -- because of Barack and Michelle Obama, and I understand that," Robinson said. "I hope that's the case for the next eight years, if not longer. I do have the ability to make good use of that, and that's what we're trying to do."

Robinson is a realist. He said elite recruits aren't going to choose Oregon State for a chance they could meet the president of the United States if Obama were to win. Robinson is planning a trip to play games in Washington, D.C. (John had coincidentally scheduled OSU at Howard to open this season on Nov. 14).

"If we can put the White House on the schedule, the capital, then I'd do it because I'd want to make it an educational road trip, too," Robinson said. "If they get the chance to meet Barack, then I'd love to facilitate that, too."

De Carolis said a trip to the White House would be a great opportunity for the institution. "We're going to take advantage of whatever this means," De Carolis said. "There's a little East Coast bias out there, but I think this will help us in the long run, absolutely."

Under NCAA rules, Obama isn't allowed to make recruiting calls on the Beavers' behalf. He probably would be too busy as president, and likely would be too busy even if he returned to the Senate. But the hope is that Robinson doesn't need to lean on his brother-in-law for any aid to win from this point forward.

Nelson said he liked Robinson before he knew he was Barack Obama's brother-in-law and that he made his decision based on the type of person Robinson was, not his relatives. In the end, Robinson said, it is he who has to deliver on the recruiting trail and on the court.

"I know there were guys who passed this job up for whatever reasons," Robinson said. "I just hope that they were all the wrong reasons. I think this is an opportunity to do something special here."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com