Craig Robinson's unique tenure ends
May, 5, 2014
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com
Few words in the English language are more confused than "unique." Most of the time, the word is used to mean slightly different or unusual.
In fact, unique means one of a kind. If something is unique, it is unlike anything else in the world. How many things are actually unique? Why do we use the word so commonly?
What we're trying to say is that it feels good to have a chance to use the word appropriately.
In a sport full of patterned trajectories and templated tenures, Craig Robinson's six-year run at Oregon State -- which ended Monday -- was, quite literally, unique. It's right there in the first line of his biography: brother-in-law of President Barack Obama. In the summer of 2008, at the Democratic National Convention, Robinson introduced his sister and future first lady Michelle Obama. He told his own story in his speech. Robinson had been miserable as an investment banker, and his sister encouraged him to rediscover his first love: teaching and coaching.
"And today I'm proud to be the coach of the Oregon State men's basketball team," Robinson continued. "Go Beavs!"
How many coaches get that kind of introduction?
It was a time for unbridled optimism. Robinson's White House ties would usher in a new era of Oregon State basketball. Recruits would flock to Corvallis, Oregon, to play for the president's brother-in-law.
In the meantime, his first season was a legitimate coaching success. Robinson inherited a team that went 0-18 in the Pac-12 and 6-25 overall in 2007-08. A year later, the Beavers were 18-18 with a 7-11 conference record. Their adjusted efficiency ranking jumped from No. 264 to No. 97. It was a major turnaround, a vindication of Robinson's coaching talent. Just two seasons at Brown (with a 30-28 record) left some wondering if the presidential bump was perhaps the only reason Robinson was hired. His first season quelled those doubts.
AP Photo/Eugene TannerThe first lady and president were in attendance for Oregon State's game against Akron at the Diamond Head Classic on Dec. 22, 2013, in Honolulu. Former Oregon State coach Craig Robinson is Michelle Obama's brother.
And then the Beavers just never got better. They won more than 18 games just once between 2009 and 2014 (going 21-15 in 2011-12). Forget the NCAA tournament; Robinson never took a team to the NIT. That big efficiency boost we just mentioned? Oregon State's metric climbed above 97 only once in the rest of his tenure (No. 94 in 2013). His teams' average KenPom rank: 121.7.
In 2012, Robinson made his second appearance at a national convention. He spoke alongside President Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng -- another of the family introduction/reminder speeches aimed at humanizing politicians. Robinson had more basketball jokes this time. He introduced himself as "Michelle Obama's big brother, father of four and head coach of Oregon State University's men's basketball team" and quickly added: "Any 7-footers out there, give me a call."
"I'm proud of her work to give our children a healthier start in life," Robinson said later, praising the first lady's nutritional initiatives. "And let's face it, Maya: I could use the recruits."
It was a good laugh line, but it wasn't accurate. In 2009, Oregon State had signed Roberto Nelson, the No. 17-ranked shooting guard. In 2010, four-star forward Devon Collier became the second ESPN 100 addition of Robinson's tenure. In 2012, Jared Cunningham became Oregon State's first draft pick in 14 seasons. The 2012 class was deeper and bigger than it appears in retrospect.
When Oregon State fans grew frustrated -- as did notable interested observers, such as SI's George Dohrmann (whose book, "Play Their Hearts Out," tracked Nelson's development from a young age) -- it was not because the Beavers lacked talent. Nelson and Collier both were still in the fold in 2013-14. One Pac-12 coach told ESPN's Jeff Goodman the Beavers had the third-most talent in the league last fall.
The Beavers just never improved. Whatever individual strides players made, the collective would always seem to fall short. In 2013-14, as Nelson and Collier formed a legitimately interesting group on offense, the Beavers suddenly played the worst defense of Robinson's tenure. (Oregon State allowed 1.10 points per trip in conference play. To be clear, that is not good.) It was strange. After years of offensive criticism, Robinson seemed to have finally put a potential tournament team together and the defense promptly crumbled.
On March 28, Oregon State athletic director Bob De Carolis issued a letter to fans and boosters touting Robinson's accomplishments and asking for patience and support. He had met with Robinson and made a somewhat reasonable case: "Oregon State has been .500 or better four times since 1991 and he has coached his teams to three of those seasons. … Oregon State has won eight conference games three times since 1993, of which he has had two of those seasons. … Oregon State had four wins against top-50 and six against top-100 NCAA basketball programs this past season, including wins over two teams that advanced to the Sweet 16." The letter had a lot of those bullet points. But the best one was the first:
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsRoberto Nelson averaged 20.7 points per game as a senior this past season for Oregon State.
"He is the fourth-winningest coach in Oregon State history with 94 victories and trails only Hall of Famers Slats Gill, Ralph Miller and Bob Hager," De Carolis wrote.
The gist of De Carolis' point was fair: Oregon State hasn't been good at basketball for a long time, and under Robinson, they were better than the average. When you're touting your coach's status as the fourth-winningest coach in the history of the program and he has 94 total wins at the school, you have a problem with your program.
Robinson's 94 wins were accompanied by 105 losses. Five weeks after the letter, Eric Moreland had declared early for the NBA draft, Hallice Cooke decided to transfer, and Challe Barton chose to stay overseas instead of returning to the program this fall -- all in addition to the losses of leading scorers Nelson, Collier and Angus Brandt. So supportive a few weeks ago, De Carolis swallowed Robinson's $4 million buyout Monday.
And so ended Robinson's run at Oregon State. It began with a speech at the Democratic National Convention and continued through three-fourths of his brother-in-law's presidency. It started with one of the most impressive one-season coaching jobs of the past decade and ended with a mass exodus. It took place at a program with little history of success; the boosters eventually had enough anyway.
How's that for one of a kind?