Oregon State University men's basketball head coach Craig Robinson (in gray) confers with assistant coaches Nate Pomeday, Doug Stewart and David Grace.
Oregon State University men's basketball head coach Craig Robinson (in gray) confers with assistant coaches Nate Pomeday, Doug Stewart and David Grace. Tom Goldman/NPR
He's the hulking guy you may have seen stumping for Barack Obama over the past 20 months. Or you may have caught a glimpse of him hugging Obama on the stage at Grant Park in Chicago on election night. He's Craig Robinson, brother of Michelle Obama, brother-in-law of the president-elect and a first-year head basketball coach at Oregon State University.
While the public has gotten to know the 6-foot-6-inch Robinson as the tallest member of the extended first family, the former Princeton basketball star is trying to establish himself as the coach who will turn around a Division I program that has been dismal in recent years.
Last year alone, the Oregon State Beavers men's basketball team didn't win a single conference game. Their win-loss record in the tough Pac-10 Conference was 0 and 18.
To achieve his hoops goals, Robinson finds it necessary to separate his politically connected life from his coaching duties.
"I want these guys to know that they are my No. 1 focus," Robinson says about his players. It's not that he won't talk about his famous sister and brother-in-law and the election, but he is not going to be the first to bring it up. "They can ask me any questions about it," he says, "but I want them to be the ones to generate the conversation about that."
It's not always easy achieving, as he calls it, "a separation of church and state" — politics and basketball. Sometimes the message he gives to his players sounds a lot like the speeches he would give in support of the Obama campaign. Robinson talks about change — changing a losing culture on the team — and you can hear the echoes of "yes we can!" when he exhorts his players to "be extremely positive about the direction we're going, and then go at it hard."
Robinson has instituted 5:30 a.m. practices, meaning players often wake up an hour earlier. He's a tough, discipline-minded coach, but his players say Robinson leads through example. He is often the first one there at those early morning practices, and although he stresses the importance of following rules, he'll bend his own rule about separating basketball and politics when it comes to recruiting new players.
If a hot young prospect perks up at the idea of getting a visit from the president's brother-in-law, "that helps us," says Robinson. "Cause if you're at the table, you've got a shot."
Robinson and Barack Obama not only share a family tie — they're both closely connected to the game of basketball. Robinson was a college and pro player, and Obama's love of pickup hoops is well-known. The two men played together on Election Day — a tradition for Obama — but the game was a bit more laid back than normal, says Robinson, just in case Obama won.
"It wouldn't have looked good at Grant Park showing up with a black eye or busted lip," he jokes.
President John F. Kennedy had his touch football. and Richard Nixon was an avid bowler. Is Robinson excited that basketball is about to become the presidential sport of choice? Not really.
"What's really cool," he says, "is that my brother-in-law and sister are going to be living in the White House. If he was into cricket, it wouldn't matter to me."