Throwback Wednesday: The Craig Robinson era of Oregon State Men’s Basketball

In this file photo from 2014, Oregon State head coach Craig Robinson patrols the sideline in a February game against Washington State at Gill Coliseum. Robinson is now the Executive Director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

Thomas Salgado de Almeida Leme, Sports Contributor

Former United States Vice President Joe Biden was recently elected into the White House, reminding Oregon State of its connection to his previous running mate Barack Obama: his brother-in-law used to be a coach in Corvallis. 

Students who have only recently become a part of the Oregon State community may not know, but Craig Robinson, who is now the Executive Director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, was Oregon State’s Men’s Basketball head coach from 2008 to 2014 before current coach Wayne Tinkle took over the program. He is also Michelle Obama’s older brother, and the brother-in-law of President Obama, creating a connection between Oregon State and the White House for all but two years of the Obama presidency. 

Robinson had led a highly distinguished life on his own, beyond his connection to the Obamas. Born in 1962 in Chicago, two years before his sister Michelle, Robinson was an accomplished student and basketball player. After high school, he enrolled in Princeton University for its Ivy League education, yet still stood out as an athlete, earning Player of the Year honors in the conference twice and then being drafted to the NBA, although he only played professionally in England for two seasons. 

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After his brief professional career, Robinson got his start in coaching but later decided to pursue a career in business and investment instead. Ten years later though, Robinson made the choice to return to coaching– despite earning a lower salary at first. He was an assistant at Northwestern University from 2000 to 2006 before being hired back to the Ivy League as the head coach for Brown University. His two years there were filled with accomplishments, as he won the conference’s Coach of the Year award in his first season there and led the team to the most wins in program history in his second year. 

It is at this point that Robinson made the choice to come to Corvallis, as Oregon State offered him the role of head coach to try to change the fortunes of a program that had a 6-25 record in the 2007-2008 season and hadn’t made the NCAA tournament since 1990. The 2008 year was thus a big one for Robinson. Not only was hired by a Power 5 team, but he also helped his brother-in-law’s campaign to be President of the United States. Both events turned out to be successful for Robinson. 

Robinson’s first year as head coach of the Beavers was successful given the circumstances. With largely the same roster that went 6-25 the year before, Robinson implemented a new offensive system that led the team to improve to an 18-18 record in his first season, capped off with a postseason berth to the 2009 College Basketball Invitational, which the Beavers ended up winning. This gave Oregon State its first season without a losing record since 1991 and its first postseason tournament championship ever. 

Robinson also had success on the recruiting trail, picking up highly rated players such as Roberto Nelson and Devon Collier in 2009 and 2010 respectively, both of whom were considered to be top 100 recruits in the nation according to ESPN.

Part of that recruiting work reportedly came while on the campaign trail with the Obamas, as Robinson is close with his sister and often helped on the campaign trail. Robinson has not only spoken at fundraisers and given introductions in both the 2008 and 2012 Democratic National Conventions; but also supposedly talked to President Obama regularly, even giving him pep talks when he was down. President Obama ended up winning both those elections.

Robinson had been close to President Obama for a while, as they met in the oft-quoted story where Michelle told Robinson to judge the future president’s character when they had first started dating. This was done by having Robinson play President Obama in a game of pickup basketball, as the President is a known basketball fan who enjoys both playing and watching the sport. Robinson gave Michelle a positive assessment of her boyfriend, and the rest is history. 

President Obama’s fandom of basketball and connection to Robinson led to the President crossing paths with the Beavers Men’s Basketball team multiple times during the rest of his tenure. He attended two Oregon State games that were played in the Washington, D.C. area, a game against Maryland in 2013 and one in 2011 against the small Baltimore school of Towson, which had never had a president visit its campus before. Additionally, he hosted the Oregon State team at the White House in 2012 and held the administration’s annual food bank along with the Beavers basketball players. 

This connection led to positive experiences for players under Robinson. Former Oregon State guard Ahmad Starks, for example, recounted his experiences meeting President Obama while with the Beavers fondly. 

“I remember him talking to me about how good he thought our team had a chance to be and he loved my 33-point performance against the New Mexico State Aggies a few days before,” Starks said via direct message. “The few times we were around him just solidified how great of a guy he is and his love for the game.”

Former forward Jarmal Reid, who was also on the team for that food bank visit with the President and the First Family, recounted a similar impact. 

“It was a great experience to meet him because he was the President and I never thought I would ever meet the President, especially the first black one,” said Reid over direct message. “The day was pretty cool because it was during our Thanksgiving break. So that just made it even more memorable.”

Despite knowing about Robinson’s connection to the President, neither player said that that had any impact on their decision to commit to Oregon State. Starks cited having a connection to Robinson already and the opportunity to play in the PAC-12 as his reasons for coming to Corvallis. Reid, meanwhile, said the possibility of having playing time early in his career and the opportunity to end an NCAA tournament drought was why he came to Oregon State. 

Yet, despite the good early start to his tenure at Corvallis, Robinson never managed to take the Beavers back to the NCAA tournament during his time at the university. He never achieved a winning record in conference and was fired after six years at the helm of the Beavers Men’s Basketball program. But Robinson’s connection to President Obama meant his tenure, at the very least, gave the young men on his teams rare and meaningful opportunities. 

“All of those experiences still impact me, especially in this day and age,” Starks said. “Looking back, we were all super fortunate to get those moments with the first black President. It was an honor but also makes us see how far we’ve come but still how much further we still have to go as a society.