He wants change too

Times Staff Writer

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- There was still work to be done as Craig Robinson stood at the podium that night.

A few more things he needed to say about his little sister, Michelle Obama. Things he needed to tell a cheering crowd at the Democratic National Convention and millions of viewers watching on television.

Robinson had been asked to introduce Michelle and talk about his brother-in-law, Barack Obama. He spoke smoothly, turning occasionally to address the far corners of the hall and getting a laugh when he recalled his sister as a girl memorizing every episode of "The Brady Bunch."

But there was something else he wanted to mention, something that had nothing to do with the presidential campaign.

As the newly hired basketball coach at Oregon State, a program fallen on hard times, Robinson wanted to help his team. That night, he had dressed in school colors, carefully choosing a black suit and orange paisley tie.

"The biggest part of the coaching business is getting players," he said later. "And part of getting players is having them know who you are."

Back in Corvallis, the Oregon State athletic director watched on television, anxious. Bob De Carolis knew his coach had something planned.

"I'm thinking, 'How's he going to do this?' " De Carolis recalled.

That's when Robinson veered away from politics. That's when he pulled off one of the shrewdest recruiting tricks in the history of the college game.

A big cut

With less than three weeks until election day, most people know the Robinson family story.

Kids growing up on Chicago's South Side. A father with multiple sclerosis who nonetheless worked every day for the city water department.

As a talented young athlete, Craig Robinson turned down offers from basketball schools in favor of Princeton, where the 6-foot-6 forward was two-time Ivy League player of the year and led his team to two NCAA tournament appearances.

Next came a master's degree in finance, a series of Wall Street jobs that paid in the high six figures. But as Robinson reached his late 30s, he could not shake his love for the game.

Free time was spent scouting the Chicago area for Princeton and helping out at a small college. It was all part of a long-range plan: "If I could retire from investment banking, the goal was to teach seventh grade and coach high school basketball."

Michelle Obama had a different idea.

"Craig is such a coach," she said, answering questions through a spokeswoman. "He exudes it. He's always teaching."

She had left corporate law for civic and community work, had supported her husband in politics, and now encouraged her brother to pursue his dream sooner rather than later.

So Robinson coached one season of high school ball while still working, then inquired about an assistant's job at Northwestern, where one of his old Princeton coaches, Bill Carmody, had taken over.

"Are you nuts?" Carmody recalls asking him. "This is going to be a big pay cut."

Big as in 90%. Robinson didn't care.

"I was at a point in my life when I really wanted to do something I loved," he said. "And you get over the money part of it quickly because there's no comparison."

The new boyfriend

Basketball had always been something more than a diversion in the Robinson family. Craig and his father, Fraser, who died in 1991, believed the game revealed character.

Go back to a time about 1990, an oft-told story about Michelle bringing Obama home to meet her parents. She asked her big brother to check him out on the court.

"That was long before people started vetting him as president," Robinson said. "And I'll argue with anybody, mine was a much harder test to pass."

As they played at a local gym, Robinson discovered the new boyfriend was a smooth athlete who -- fittingly -- tended to fake right and go left. Obama displayed none of the trash-talking or selfishness that often comes with pick-up ball. His quiet confidence, his team-first attitude -- Robinson liked all of that. But there was something even better.

"I was like, all right, this guy's going to pass the basketball to me every time because I'm Michelle's brother," he recalled. "He didn't. He just played. It was great."

Obama got the stamp of approval and, as the years went by, deftly ascended the political ladder. By 2000, Robinson had jumped on a similar fast-track in coaching.

At Northwestern, Carmody encouraged his assistants to be involved in all facets of the job and watched Robinson grow into a capable leader.

"Craig wasn't the greatest athlete in the world . . . but he figured out how to play and get the most from his abilities," Carmody said. "That kind of thing helps when you're coaching because you're not always going to have the best players."

After six seasons, Robinson was hired as the head man at Brown, where he spent two years reviving a woebegone program and was Ivy League coach of the year. Then the position opened at Oregon State.

By all accounts, it was a horrible job.

The team lost all 18 of its Pacific 10 Conference games last season. It has a rundown basketball arena. Long gone were the days when Hall of Fame coach Ralph Miller led the Beavers to eight NCAA tournament appearances.

"When I asked everybody about this job, they said don't do it," Robinson recalled. "They said it's a career-killer."

And there was another problem: Oregon State didn't want him.

Staying the course

The presidential race taught Robinson something about coaching. Or maybe reinforced something he already believed.

"I love Barack's, for lack of a better term, his game management," Robinson said. "As soon as something happens that I think Barack should attack somebody, he says, 'No, we're sticking to the game plan.'

"That's what good teams do. The other team makes a 15-point run on them and they stick with the game plan."

Robinson is a "surrogate" for the campaign. When neither of the Obamas is available, he attends functions to tell their story. Articulate and quick to smile -- you can see a family resemblance around the eyes -- he gladly helps, even if it means extra work on top of his new job.

Getting hired at Oregon State wasn't easy. De Carolis figured Robinson for the private-school type and did not bother to interview him at first. His thinking changed as others turned down the job.

When he finally spoke with Robinson, "It didn't take more than one meeting," the athletic director said. "He had a great story to tell about growing up on the South Side. He told us, 'I'm the poster child for what parents want their kids to be.' "

So the school got an energetic recruiter and a hybrid-Princeton offense, pass-oriented, something a little different in the Pac-10. The players got a new basketball culture.

As they gathered for a team photo on a recent morning, their new coach -- dressed in that black suit and orange tie -- checked his watch to be sure no one arrived late.

"He's fair, but he's really strict," junior forward Seth Tarver said. "We always have to be exactly on time and when we mess up in practices, we get punished for it."

Robinson sees his team as a long-term project, taking baby steps, which circles back to his appearance at the Democratic convention. He told De Carolis that he wanted to work Oregon State into the speech.

"We had talked about it before he went," De Carolis said. "He was really concerned about having the perfect tie."

On the big night, about four minutes into a six-minute speech, Robinson mentioned he was the coach at Oregon State. Then, stepping back from the podium, turning to the Oregon delegates, he raised his right hand in the air and shouted: "Go Beavers!"

It might seem like a small thing, but for a losing basketball program in the Oregon countryside, more than an hour from the nearest major airport, it was huge.

Players saw it. So did recruits and their families. In Chicago, Carmody figured it was a smart move, saying, "He gets his foot in the door that way." And in Corvallis, the boss was thrilled.

"I just jumped out of my chair," De Carolis said. "How many times does something like this happen?"

Whether those 15 seconds of fame translate into a recruit signing, much less victories down the road, remains to be seen. But, with so much work to be done at Oregon State, Robinson knows that every little bit helps.



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