"[My job is] a culture changing job and that’s what we’re going to be working on."
~ Craig Robinson, Head Basketball Coach, Oregon State University.
You might remember: a few weeks back Oregon State Coach Craig Robinson joined Channing Frye and James Jones at an event in NE Portland called "Hoops for Change." Coach Robinson was helping get out the vote for his brother-in-law, Senator Barack Obama, but he was also starting to get himself familiar with the Portland community. Those in attendance were impressed by his easy smile, kind demeanor, and Oregon-State-Orange-Nikes.
This morning, smack in the middle of the week leading up to Oregon’s presidential primary, with his sister and the (odds-on) future leader of the free world flying in and out of the state, with the challenges of turning around a struggling Oregon State basketball program (choosing assistants and learning new recruiting trails chief among the difficulties ahead), Coach Robinson made some time to answer questions from Blazersedge.
I left Hoops for Change thinking, "Coach Craig Robinson is a coach that gets it." I left our phone conversation today even more convinced of this fact. To read more about Coach Robinson and Senator Obama, check out this excellent piece by Paul Buker of the Oregonian.
Without further ado, here is the transcript of our conversation in which Coach Robinson discusses recruiting, "changing cultures," and everybody’s favorite: the Duck vs. Beavers rivalry.
Blazersedge: Coach, it was great to see you out in Northeast Portland and I thought that was a great way for you to quickly establish a strong connection with the Portland community. Would you say Portland is a center point of your recruiting strategy compared to other cities?
Coach Craig Robinson (CR): Absolutely. I won’t say more than other cities, [but Portland is] as much as any other place that we are looking at. We would hope that any good ball players coming out of the Portland area would consider Oregon State and I know in the past that hasn’t necessarily been the case. But we are looking into making some inroads into the high schools in Portland.
Blazersedge: What do you pinpoint as the biggest hurdle that currently faces your recruitment of Portland kids?
CR: Kids nowadays don’t necessarily want to be the guy that comes in and starts the turnaround process. And, historically, we’ve not had very good teams and that can be a deterrent for getting any kid let alone a local kid to take a look at Oregon State. What I’ve got to do is get the program is to a point where this is a destination place.
Blazersedge: In that vein, there has been a lot of talk around the Portland Trail Blazers franchise about "changing the culture" and most people point to General Manager Kevin Pritchard and Coach Nate McMillan as the tone-setters. Do you see yourself as a "culture-changing" personality in Corvallis.?
CR: Well, that’s exactly what we have to do. We have to get back to a winning mentality. The good thing is that, albeit awhile ago, this place has some history of winning. So I think if we can turn the corner a bit, we will get the support from the fans, the media, the high school coaches. So I do see this as a culture changing job and that’s what we’re going to be working on.
Blazersedge: What were your initial impressions of Corvallis?
CR: The first time I came here was when I played back in college. Back then. it was just another place to play. But you could tell it was a wonderful place to have a winning basketball team. Moving out here now, it’s not as big of a shock than if I had never been out here.
Blazersedge: What transitions have you had to make in going from Brown University to Oregon State?
CR: I’m moving from Providence, Rhode Island, which is a small state to Oregon, which is a relatively big state area wise. But Providence is a small city-- it’s bigger than Corvallis, certainly. Corvallis is much more of a college town, small town kind of feel to it. Sure, there are differences there but I spend most of time in my office and the gym -- and that’s going to be pretty much the same anywhere.
Blazersedge: USC has been in some turmoil this week with the scandal over OJ Mayo. Is this type of situation something that comes up during the recruiting process. If so, do you find yourself bringing up the cleanliness of the OSU program and your own reputation to recruits and their families? It seems like that would be very important to Ivy League players and their families.
Ben, I don’t ever get into talking about any program other than my own. [The Mayo situation] probably wouldn’t come up unless a recruit brought that up. What we try and do is we spend the time talking about the merits of our program and why we think a candidate would be a good addition to our program, and what we think our program can do for a potential student-athlete. I and my staff really don’t get into talking about other people’s programs.
Blazersedge: Understood. But does the integrity of both you and your program start to rise up to the top of the list of things that OSU can offer a student-athlete?
CR: When you are recruiting people’s children to possibly spend 4 years with you, you’re basically entering into an informal contract to help raise the parent’s kids. And I think it is evident that your character is going to come into play in the decision making process. But [character] is not something that you should have to lead with. It’s one of those things where hopefully people have done their due diligence on me and they know how I’ve gone about my life up until this point and it gives them some comfort in turning over their kids to me.
Blazersedge: There was a time when you’d walk into that living room situation and some kids would already have it made up in their mind: "I’m a Duck" or "I’m a Beaver." Have you started to get a sense for the in-state rivalry?
CR: Oh yea! Absolutely. What I like about it is that it’s a real tough rivalry but it’s not a malicious rivalry. it’s going to be exciting to be a part of it. When I’ve been approached in the airport by people who are Ducks fans, they wish me the best of luck except for one game. It’s been nice to get to know the rivalry and I’m looking forward to participating.
Blazersedge: Do you see yourself developing a professional rivalry with Oregon coach Ernie Kent?
CR: I’m so new I can’t even imagine that the two of us would have an actual rivalry. Rivalries are usually between the schools. I try to focus on my team and my school and I’m not really focused on the other coach.
Blazersedge: A new challenge for D1 basketball programs is the "one and done" player. Does that influence your recruiting outlook? Are you looking to target the 4 year starters or is it worth spending the time to chase the premier talents that may wind up going "one and done"?
CR: Well, you know, at some point that may be a concern for us. But right now, you yourself just talked about how we have had trouble getting Portland kids to come to OSU. When we have to start worrying about "one and done" guys we’ll address that. But right now, we need to get some players in here that can win some games against those "one and done" guys.
Blazersedge: Who do you look to as your biggest influences and mentor when it comes to basketball and life?
CR: My first coach and my biggest role model is my father. My parents—my mother and father. They always encouraged us to work hard: "if you work hard, good things will happen." And that’s in the classroom, on the court, in the community, any of that, on any level. From there, I went on to play for some pretty good coaches. I had a very good AAU coach when I was growing up by the name of Johnny Gage and then I played for Pete Carrill at Princeton and then I also played for and coached under Bill Carmody who was formerly of Princeton and Northwestern University. I’ve been around some really good basketball guys as well as good people. I would say those are the ones that have sort of shaped my basketball career. Getting back into coaching after spending some time in corporate America, that’s all my parents doing. They always said, "find something you love and do it and you’ll be good at it."
Blazersedge: Are there lessons or experiences from your time in the corporate world that you draw on as a basketball coach?
CR: Oh certainly. First and foremost, the discipline that is needed in sports is also needed in business and vice versa. It’s interesting, I’ve come full circle because my discipline that helped me be a good athlete, helped me be a good business person, which is also now helping me back in coaching.
Blazersedge: Are there any coaches in particular that you model your coaching style after?
CR: I tell people all the time that I’ve played for a lot of good coaches and I’ve also played a lot of basketball so what I’ve tried to do in coming up with my own personal style is take a lot of the good things that I’ve learned from all of those different areas of basketball and put together my own body of work. And, in the same vein, I try to disregard anything that wouldn’t be good for my situation. It’s a culmination of a lifelong career of being involved in basketball that leads into my style if you want to call it that.
Blazersedge: Recently, Senator Obama had some nice things to say about you. Have you found your relationship with Senator Obama to be a blessing or a curse to your professional career?
CR: Any statements I make from a political standpoint are my own and I have to give you that disclaimer when I talk about it. It has only been helpful in being related to Barack Obama and I would imagine that would continue to be the same now that I’m out here.
Blazersedge: Understood and thanks for your time, coach. Any final message for Beavers fans?
CR: I want them all to know that this is truly a team effort and the more support that we get from them, the better it is for our players and the more helpful it is for our players in trying to achieve our goals of trying to turn this program around.
There you have it. Thanks again to Coach Robinson and the OSU Athletic Department.
-- Ben (firstname.lastname@example.org)