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Yet for a brief period Payne generated hope of a revival. In 1995 he signed four highly touted freshmen: guards Corey Benjamin and Carson Cunningham and forwards J.B. Bickerstaff and Ron Grady. The plan was to build around them and improve each year. But after one season Cunningham transferred to Purdue to be closer to his family. Bickerstaff then bolted to Minnesota, Grady left for Colorado State, and Benjamin jumped to the NBA after only two seasons. Payne hung on until 2000, but he never recovered from the breakup of that class. Now the coach at South 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 to appear as if he were making excuses for why he didn't win in Corvallis. "I will say that I don't think changing coaches always solves the problem," he says. "It's the cheapest way, but the coach is not always the problem."
Next, Oregon State hired McKay away from Colorado State, but he left after two seasons for the job at New Mexico. "[ Oregon State] could be the toughest job in the country," acknowledged McKay, now the coach at Division II Liberty in Lynchburg, Va. "In the two years I was there, the Pac-10 had [five and then] six teams make the NCAA tournament. The league is just so good."
After Payne and McKay, two coaches plucked from smaller programs, Oregon State hired Arizona assistant Jay John in 2002. As an enticement, then athletic director Mitch Barnhart promised John that the basketball facilities would be upgraded—John was even shown photos of the planned renovations to Gill Coliseum—but Barnhart left 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," De Carolis says.
Still, John plowed on, and the 2004--05 team won 17 games and was selected to play in the National Invitational Tournament—the Beavers' first postseason trip since Anderson's first 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 next season 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 plan backfired. "After Lamar got hurt, there was no one to glue the team back together," De Carolis says. "It started spiraling, and then a couple of knuckleheads [like Giles] were thrown into the middle of it."
John was fired in January and is now an assistant at California. "We got to the top of the hump 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 a question about the school's commitment to hoops with "I knew what I was getting into." Then he adds, "If you stand on campus and look at the football stadium, which is gorgeous, and then you turn 180 degrees and look at Gill, you get an idea of basketball's importance there."
WHEN ASKED what it would take for a coach to win at Oregon State these days, McKay says, "I wouldn't say you need a perfect storm to win there, but you need a near-perfect storm." For De Carolis and Robinson the model for that storm exists 332 miles away, in Pullman, Wash. When Robinson and De Carolis explain why they believe Robinson will succeed where other qualified coaches have failed, they point to Washington State, where Tony Bennett guided the Cougars to the NCAA tournament 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 to play great defense," Robinson says. "If I get in living rooms, and if we get to kids where the parents are making the decisions, I am counting on parents' thinking that I am the kind of person they want their kids to play for."
Robinson has a compelling story to sell. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood on Chicago's South Side and starred for Mt. Carmel High. His father, Fraser, who battled multiple sclerosis but continued working for the city's water filtration department until he died in 1991, persuaded him to attend Princeton without a scholarship rather than take a free ride from more prominent basketball programs that courted him, such as Purdue and Washington. His younger 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 NBA draft and spent two seasons playing in England before returning to Chicago to get a master's degree in finance at the University of Chicago. He worked on Wall Street for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter from 1992 through '99, ascending to vice president of sales and trading, and then became managing director at Loop Capital Markets, a boutique firm in his hometown.
Even when he was earning nearly $1 million a year and driving a Porsche 944 Turbo, Robinson never found fulfillment working in finance. He scouted high school games to help Princeton coaches find prospects, and he even spent a season as head coach at the University of Chicago High School. In 2000, when Pete Carril disciple Bill Carmody called with an offer to be his assistant at Northwestern, Robinson jumped at the chance despite a pay cut of approximately 90%. He proved to be an adept recruiter and tactician in his six years at Northwestern, and then he led Brown to a school-record 19 wins in his second season there.
Oregon State's search committee spoke with Robinson for a total of 6 1/2 hours before offering the job, and members spent most of that time selling him on the position. They promised Robinson that Gill Coliseum would get a face-lift before next season (new windows and a fresh coat of paint for the basketball offices), that renovations would soon be under way on the basketball offices and a new training facility would be built. A new practice gym is also in the plans, though that is years away.