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The Unlikely Candidate
June 09, 2008
Like his famous brother-in-law, new Oregon State coach Craig Robinson is promising change, and his most winning quality may be how he differs from the men who preceded him
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June 09, 2008

The Unlikely Candidate

Like his famous brother-in-law, new Oregon State coach Craig Robinson is promising change, and his most winning quality may be how he differs from the men who preceded him

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ON A drizzly afternoon in early May, Craig Robinson addressed about 100 Oregon State boosters in a large banquet room in Portland. He stepped to a podium next to an American flag and opened with a playful joke about the height of the school's athletic director, 5'7" Bob De Carolis, the man who hired him in April to coach OSU's basketball team. � The audience of mostly middle-aged men chuckled, but the fans were still skeptical of Robinson. His unusual r�sum�—more experience as a bond trader on Wall Street (eight years) than as a college head coach (two)—coupled with the school's recent history of misfiring on basketball hires (he is the Beavers' fifth coach since 1990) would jade even the most ardent supporter. But he disarmed the crowd with small indulgences ("I will never wear [ Oregon] green," he vowed) and with the kind of hope speak that they've heard before but which seemed more genuine when stated in the Princeton-educated Robinson's assured cadence.

During the new coach's 40-minute talk it was hard not to draw parallels between him and his famous brother-in-law, Barack Obama. Like the probable Democratic nominee for president, Robinson is promising change, and his most alluring quality may be how he differs from the men who held the top spot before him. Like Obama, he seeks to motivate and educate when speaking to groups such as the one in Portland. When one fan criticized the "cupcake" nonconference schedules lined up by Robinson's predecessors, the new coach told him abruptly, "Sometimes you need a cupcake schedule." He then went on to explain why, a long answer full of fine print about "young players gaining experience" and "building their confidence in advance of conference play" that left the man and others in the room nodding in agreement. Robinson received a standing ovation at the conclusion of his talk, and more than a dozen people queued up to shake his hand afterward, their spirits lifted simply by the power of his words.

"He's such an unbelievable communicator," says Sue Poorman, a booster who peppered Robinson with questions about the modified Princeton offense he plans to run at Oregon State. "If he can coach as well as he can talk, we hired the right guy."

Of all the coaching changes in major college basketball since the end of the regular season, none was more of a head-scratcher than Robinson's selection by the Beavers, and few situations will be as interesting to follow in the months ahead. Like the job his brother-in-law seeks, Robinson's task is a daunting one. Oregon State is widely perceived to be the toughest basketball position of any in the six major conferences, which speaks to the location (cold, rainy, out-of-the-way Corvallis), the competition (rival Oregon's athletic program has the backing of billionaire Nike cofounder and alum Phil Knight), the facilities (59-year-old Gill Coliseum looks as if it hasn't been touched up since it was built) and the records of the last four coaches: Jim Anderson (79--90), Eddie Payne (52--88), Ritchie McKay (22--37) and, most recently, Jay John (72--97).

What's more, before Robinson accepted the post, San Diego coach Billy Grier, Randy Bennett of St. Mary's and Ron Hunter of IUPUI turned it down. Within the basketball coaching community, the task of turning around Oregon State's program—which did not win a Pac-10 conference game last season, and has had only one winning season out of the last 17—is akin to fixing Social Security.

Into this disaster stepped the 46-year-old Robinson, a two-time Ivy League player of the year at Princeton who spent six years as an assistant at Northwestern and the last two seasons as the head coach at Brown. He was such an unusual choice for the job that when Robinson's agent first contacted De Carolis in April, the AD suggested that he call Rice—a school better suited to Robinson's academic profile. But after De Carolis was repeatedly spurned by other coaches, he decided that an out-of-the-box choice was what Oregon State needed.

"The situation here made me a good candidate," Robinson says. "If it wasn't so bad, I wouldn't have had a shot at a job in the Pac-10."

POTENTIAL RECRUITS aren't old enough to remember, but Oregon State was once a national power in basketball and is still the 13th-winningest program in the country. With Ralph Miller coaching them for 19 years, beginning in 1971, the Beavers won 359 games; in his final 10 seasons, they were Pac-10 champions four times and went to seven NCAA tournaments, advancing to the Elite Eight in 1982. Future NBA players Steve Johnson, Lester Conner, A.C. Green and Gary Payton headlined Miller's teams, which were known for their pressing, full-court defense. In 1988, the year before he retired, Miller was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The school then promoted Anderson, a longtime Miller assistant, and his first team made it to the NCAA tournament. But after the Beavers failed to finish above .500 in any of the next five years, he was replaced by Payne, a well-respected tactician who had previously coached at East Carolina. If there was a tipping point for the program, it came during Payne's five-year term. An arms race was under way in college basketball, and schools hurried to improve facilities to better lure recruits. Oregon State didn't budge. Even the carpet in Payne's office was left over from the Miller era. If the gym, offices and workout areas were good enough for Miller, the logic among school administrators went, they were good enough for the coaches who came after him.

Then there are the disadvantages inherent to Corvallis. Besides the dreary weather, it is a relatively small (about 50,000 residents) and homogeneous (86% white) city. Just getting a kid to campus for a recruiting visit often requires a two-hour drive from the Portland airport. The area has its charms—the Pinot Noir produced nearby is highly regarded, and the Avery-Helm Historic District is quaint—but is that what a teenager looks for in a college? "I remember driving a black kid into town, and he looked at me and said, 'Where do I get my hair cut?'" says Leroy Washington, one of Payne's assistants from 1995 through '99 and is now a car salesman in Pullman, Wash. "I knew right then, he wasn't coming." Tack on the decaying facilities, and Oregon State is a tough sell.

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