- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It might be a reach to call Craig Robinson the most influential college basketball coach in the country. Then again, he wields considerable clout in some fairly important matters.

Robinson, who took charge of Oregon State in April after two years at Brown University, was once asked by his sister, Michelle, to check out a potential boyfriend by playing basketball with him. She liked him but wanted to be sure, the rationale being that you can learn a lot about people through competition. Robinson, who had taken a liking to the fellow, reluctantly obliged.

The boyfriend passed the test, and Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama eventually got married. If you believe the saying that behind every great man stands a great woman, it is not far-fetched to believe that, if Michelle had decided to dump the guy, there is some chance he would not be preparing to take office as the 44th president of the United States.

Robinson downplays his role.

“If he had turned out to be a jerk,” he said, “it would have probably come out.”

But there’s more. After his rousing keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, emerged as an intriguing presidential possibility. But given security issues and the physical and emotional strain of campaigning, Michelle and her mother harbored strong reservations.

Obama asked his brother-in-law, with whom he had become close, to try to sell them on the lofty ideal of chasing your dream. It was an argument Michelle employed when Robinson was considering a career change: giving up a lucrative business career to become a coach. Now it was Robinson’s turn to give the same pitch.

Needless to say, it worked.

“That was a small sticking point,” Robinson said Monday from his office in Corvallis, Ore. “They may have come around to it eventually, but they may not have.”

Important and interesting things seem to happen around Robinson, even when he isn’t directly responsible. Take Oregon State’s opening game Friday night; it’s against Howard at Burr Gymnasium. The teams have never met, but Robinson’s predecessor, Jay John, scheduled the game because one of his players, Calvin Hampton, was born in the District and grew up in Fort Washington.

Now here’s Robinson, coaching his first game for Oregon State in the city where his brother-in-law will take the oath of office in January. He said he doubts Obama will attend the game but holds out slight hope his sister will make it.

Then there is this added bit of coincidence: Robinson’s final game as a college player happened 25 years ago, when his Princeton team lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament’s West regional at Gill Coliseum - the homecourt of the Beavers.

“It’s mind-boggling,” he said. “Who knows what the gods have planned?”

Which is a good way to describe Robinson’s recent existence. In the past few months, he coached Brown to a school-record 19 victories, accepted the Oregon State job and moved cross country - while also helping campaign for Obama.

That part of his life ended last Tuesday when Obama won the election. Back in Chicago, Robinson and Obama spent the afternoon playing hoops at their favorite gym, running fullcourt for a few hours.

“It was a celebration,” Robinson said.

No, not that kind of celebration. Votes were still being cast.

“A celebration of friends and getting to this point,” he said. “Everyone was very apprehensive.”

Afterward, they returned to Obama’s house, and the family had a big dinner. Despite the enormous stakes, the TV remained off until later.

Upon getting the official word, they headed to Grant Park, where about 120,000 had gathered. In the following days, he has mused philosophically about the moment, about feeling the impact of a better world by looking out at the crowd. Being asked to campaign was at first “kind of an unknown thing” for Robinson - and somewhat daunting.

“I was a little bit apprehensive,” he said. “But then I got out there, and so many people were interested in my sister and brother-in-law, [it] made it easier to get in front of a group of people and talk about my family.”

And sneak in a plug for his program. At the Democratic convention in Denver, Robinson ended his brief address with a hearty, “Go Beavers!”

The 46-year-old faces a stern challenge, trying to rebuild a program that went 0-18 in the Pac-10 last year and had one winning record in the past 18 seasons. He installed the Princeton offense - which he learned from his legendary coach, Pete Carril - set down strict rules and demanded total dedication from his players. The team practices at 5:30 every morning.

“The guys have been really receptive in what we’re trying to teach and how we’re getting them to behave,” he said. “But you don’t turn a situation like this around in a month. … The reports I got before I got here was that they didn’t want to work and they were lazy, but I haven’t found that to be the case at all.”

Hampton said: “It’s lot different from the way it was. He came in and immediately demanded respect from us, and we’ve given it to him. There’s no such thing as a day off. If we don’t have a great practice, then it’s been a bad day. He doesn’t really cut anyone any slack. He wants things to be at 100 percent every single day.”

A 6-foot-6 forward at Princeton, Robinson was voted team captain and twice was named Ivy League player of the year. The fourth-leading scorer in school history, Robinson was drafted in the fourth round by Philadelphia in 1983 but never played in the NBA.

“He was a little slow to play in that league,” Carril said. “But he saw everything that was going on around him. He understood the role of the team. He helped other guys while they were helping him.”

Said Northwestern coach Bill Carmody, then a Princeton assistant: “He was tough. He could shoot the ball. He was just a winner. He got it. He figured it out.”

Robinson played in Europe before returning home to make serious money. He earned his M.B.A. at the University of Chicago and did well as a bond trader. But he always harbored a desire to coach.

By this time, Carmody was at Northwestern, and Robinson asked his old coach for a job. Carmody tried to talk him out of it, citing the financial hit he would take. Robinson ended up working six years as a Northwestern assistant before heading to Brown.

“He’s a basketball guy,” Carmody said. “That’s what I like about him. That’s what he is through and through. And I could trust him. If I was on one end of the court working with one group of guys, I wouldn’t have to look over my shoulder knowing he was doing the right thing on the other end.

“He just had it - that certain ability. I guess he’s got a knack for it.”

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