Commentary

Robinson grounded in values

First lady's brother standout student

Originally Published: July 24, 2009
By Scott Powers | Special to ESPNChicago.com

Assistant men's basketball coach Nate Pomeday sometimes forgets whom exactly he's working for at Oregon State.

It's not that his memory lapses that Craig Robinson is his boss and the coach of the Beavers. But between running around the country recruiting with Robinson, discussing basketball strategy with him and seeing him act no different from your ordinary coach on a daily basis, Pomeday isn't being constantly hit over the head with who Robinson and his family are in the grand scheme of things. It's not as if Robinson brags about who he has in his cell phone.

"At times, I forget how intertwined he is with what is an amazing, amazing story in the history of America," Pomeday said. "It's unbelievable. His family is writing the history books. I forget that, and then I turn on CNN. 'Holy cow, his sister is on TV.'"

[+] EnlargeCraig Robinson and Barack Obama
Harry Hamburg/Pool/Getty ImagesCraig Robinson hugs brother-in-law Barack Obama in Statuary Hall after Obama became the first black president in U.S. history.
Robinson, 47, is the older brother of first lady Michelle Obama and the brother-in-law of President Barack Obama.

Although life around Robinson and his entire family has changed significantly in the past year, Robinson himself hasn't. Those who knew him before he ever spoke at the Democratic National Convention or had a front-row seat to the presidential inauguration attest that the Chicago native is still that hardworking, caring and honest person he always has been.

"I'm 55 years old, and even now when I have a hard decision to make, you know who I call? Craig Robinson," said Johnnie Gage, who coached Robinson as a kid. "He still answers his phone for me."


Robinson's famous relatives certainly didn't matter to Ahmad Starks and his family when they started planning a college future. They realized Barack Obama wasn't going to be the one calling timeouts for Oregon State.

"It had nothing to do with Barack," said Starks' father, Don. "Craig Robinson was more intriguing to us."

Robinson did have an in with the family, though. He knew Don from the 1990s, when both worked in the business world. He also knew the younger Starks because Robinson's son had played sports with Ahmad.

Despite their previous relationship, Robinson still had to sell Starks on Oregon State like any other recruit. After taking in each school's pitch, the Starks family sat down with a pen and paper, attributed points to specific categories and added it all up. In the end, the Beavers came out on top.

Oregon State provided a high level of basketball in the Pac-10, excellent academics and a coach the Starkses could trust.

"At the end of the day, do you trust them?" Don said. "Do you believe someone is going to take care of your son to grow as a man? We trust Craig. We knew his background and character. He's a great, great person. He's honest, and he's about helping kids, helping people."

Ahmad was just as sold on Robinson's personality.

"He's a laid-back person, kind of like myself," said Starks, who, as a junior guard, helped Whitney Young to a state championship. "He can be funny. He's just a good person to be around. He knows how to get to people."

A lot of coaches don't enjoy recruiting. Even fewer are good at it. Robinson found himself to be that rare one who enjoyed it and was good at it.

It goes back to when he wore a suit and tie to a different sort of occupation. He spent time as the vice president for Continental Bank, a VP for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter and finally as a managing director for Loop Capital Markets.

"Recruiting is like sales and marketing," Robinson said. "If you spend 14 years in the business world, you can't do that without knowing something about marketing. How to market yourself, how to market your product, how to market your company. Recruiting is sales. It's the lifeblood of your program. Just the same as sales is the lifeblood of a company."


Robinson felt something missing in his life while working behind a desk. It wasn't the money. That was one upside to it all. But the corporate world just didn't satisfy him in a way that basketball had always done.

"I had been fortunate to be in a career where you could fulfill your goals and set up yourself in a good way financially," he said. "What I realized was I wasn't having any fun in what I was doing. I realized what I really loved was teaching and coaching."

[+] EnlargeCraig Robinson
Courtesy of Oregon State Sports InformationBefore coming to Oregon State, Robinson spent six years at Northwestern as an assistant coach under Bill Carmody.
In stepped former Princeton and current Northwestern coach Bill Carmody with the offer of an assistant coaching job with the Wildcats. Robinson, who had played at Princeton, had to consider whether the loss of income would be worth it to his family. When his family members assured him they'd be happy no matter what, he took the job in 1999.

Robinson quickly found coaching was no different from his previous occupations in some ways. Both were stressful, but he found the stress of coaching to be easier to absorb.

"I just enjoy the job and the lifestyle and being a part of a kid's life," he said. "You feel like you're doing more."

The one question he had for Carmody in the beginning of his tenure was whether the veteran coach thought Robinson was too old to be a head coach himself one day. Carmody didn't think so, and he was proved correct when Robinson was hired as the Brown head coach after six seasons with the Wildcats.

Robinson spent two years at Brown, leading the Bears to a school-record 19 wins and a College Basketball Invitational berth in the 2007-08 season. After his second season, Oregon State came calling.

Oregon State wasn't exactly a dream program to take over.

The year before, the Beavers had gone winless in 18 Pac-10 contests and won a total of six games. Their season ended on a 20-game losing streak.

"There were obstacles aplenty," Robinson said. "The first obstacle was me. They had to learn how to manage me and what I expected. Just everything from work habits to behavior on and off the court. Basically, how to get better every day."

To many people's surprise, Robinson had the Beavers' sinking ship back afloat in just one season. OSU went 18-18 and had the country's third biggest win improvement. The Beavers also won seven conference games, swept California and Stanford, and ended the year by winning the CBI in a best-of-three series with UTEP.

"I would be lying to you if I thought we would have been as successful as we ended up being," Robinson said.


Recruiting the Chicago area is nothing new to Robinson. He's just doing it from farther away than before.

At Northwestern, he brought in players from the Chicago area. At Brown, he did the same. Already, that trend is continuing at Oregon State.

In the Beavers' 2008 recruiting class, Robinson received a letter of intent from Lake Forest Academy's Angus Brandt. Brandt and Rhys Murphy, who also signed with Oregon State, played club basketball with Chicago suburban-based Full Package Athletics. Starks is committed for 2009. Whitney Young's Sam Thompson, Class of 2010, and Glenbrook North's Alex Dragicevich, Class of 2009, have mentioned Oregon State among the schools they're considering.

[+] EnlargeCraig Robinson
Courtesy of Oregon State Sports InformationAs a recruiter, Craig Robinson earns high praise from parents as being an honest man.
"The good thing about big cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York is there's a lot of good basketball players," said Robinson, who is always sure to stop at Lem's Bar-B-Q House on 75th Street whenever he's back home. "Clearly, Chicago has a warm spot in my heart because I'm from here. The older I get, most of the guys who are coaching in Chicago I've coached against them or played them sometime in my career."

Illinois Warriors coach Larry Butler and Full Package Athletics coach Steve Pratt are among those who have dealt with Robinson for many years. Both have always been impressed.

"Parents are going to listen to him when he comes through the door," Butler said. "Craig is a smart guy. He's a good recruiter."

"I love Craig," Pratt said. "Craig's a straight shooter. He's a tough coach. He's going to make you tough. But he's also a players' coach. He's looking to develop players."

To help in his Chicago recruiting mission, Robinson hired Pomeday to his staff last summer. Pomeday, a former Northwestern player, spent time coaching at Lake Forest Academy and Full Package Athletics. Both were in Deerfield in early July to recruit at the Chicago Summer Classic.

Of course, there's also the fact that Robinson is the brother-in-law of the president and Obama has declared he's an Oregon State basketball fan.

"He's closer to Barack Obama than 99 percent of the rest of the world," Dragicevich said. "There's a cool factor to that."

Pomeday believed there was another factor to it, as well.

"I think there's an advantage in a way in parents know we automatically have credibility as far as character and how we're going to treat our kids and how we act," Pomeday said. "Everything we do is under a microscope whether we like it or not."

Robinson said, "There's much more scrutiny. I'm not using that word as a negative. More people are playing attention. We want people paying attention."


Character is the word most associated with Robinson.

For Robinson, it's a word he associates back to his parents, Fraser and Marian Robinson, as he grew up on Chicago's South Side.

"They laid a very good foundation for success," Robinson said. "Teaching me and my sister how to behave, how to go about our business, how to love, building a base of fundamentals."

That discipline continued with his earliest basketball coaches and later when he attended Mount Carmel, an all-boys Catholic high school. In May, he was inducted into Mount Carmel's hall of fame.

"There was an accountability, which I love," Robinson said. "You were supposed to do your homework, and if you didn't, there were repercussions. You were supposed to behave in the hallway, and if you didn't, there were repercussions."

The coaches who have influenced Robinson's career have ranged from those at Mount Carmel to Princeton's Pete Carril to Carmody. One of the earliest was Gage, who coached him at the Martin Luther King Jr. Boys Club in Chicago.

In the 1970s, Gage possessed an AAU team that would make any coach jealous.

Alongside Robinson in the starting lineup, Gage played Mark Aguirre and Isiah Thomas. As expected with three future NBA draft picks -- the Sixers drafted Robinson in the fourth round in 1983 -- the team rarely lost. In the six years Gage coached the boys, he estimated they lost six, maybe seven games.

More important than dominating the competition, though, Gage thought he got through to Robinson on a different level. It might explain why Robinson still always answers Gage's phone calls.

"What I told those guys was by the time you're 36-37 years old, basketball is over," Gage said. "If you don't have an education, don't have the right mind, haven't been around the right people, around the right management, you're back at the start. Those kids listened to me, and they made it.

"I always say birds of a feather flock together. Craig Robinson and his sister, Michelle, look who else they hang around with -- Barack Obama and people like that. If my son was playing basketball and was able to go to a school that Craig was coaching, and he would be the last person on the bench, and he could start at any other university, I'd tell him to play for Craig. Just to be around him, you'll end up being a decent person. Anyone around him is not going to be bad. He's different. He's more different than anybody you can meet, I'm telling you."

Scott Powers is a general reporter for ESPNChicago.com. He is an award-winning journalist and has been reporting on preps, colleges and pros for publications throughout the Midwest since 1997.

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