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Originally published Wednesday, January 14, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Bud Withers

Obama's brother-in-law has promising campaign as Oregon State coach

I t was getting late. The Oregon State men's basketball program not only had endured an 0-18 Pac-10 season, but its search for a new coach...

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Thurs.

WSU @ Oregon St., 6 p.m., FSN; UW @ Oregon, 7 p.m.

I t was getting late. The Oregon State men's basketball program not only had endured an 0-18 Pac-10 season, but its search for a new coach was threatening to heap embarrassment upon indignity.

A couple of its candidates had said no thanks, and now the Beavers were screening some 200 to 250 possibilities that its search firm had unearthed. Along came the name of Craig Robinson: Princeton grad, ex-Northwestern assistant, head coach at Brown.

And the footnote below those two or three pages: "... brother-in-law of Barack Obama."

"We were like, 'That's kind of cool,' " says Bob DeCarolis, the Oregon State athletic director.

Kind of cool, that's Craig Robinson's world these days. In six days, he'll take a brief break from his job as OSU's coach to attend the inauguration of the nation's first African-American president.

If he can come to grips with that breakthrough, Robinson still has to wrap his arms around this one: The first-lady-to-be, Michelle Obama, is his sister.

"Unbelievable," Robinson says. "My sister and my mom are going to live in the White House."

A different place, to be sure, from the one where Robinson, 46, and his sister grew up in south Chicago. Older by 21 months, he describes their relationship even as kids as "extremely close."

"There would be Saturdays when we'd have our chores to do in the morning, knock 'em all out, go out, the two of us, and spend all day playing," he says. "Baseball, we'd move on to football, we'd play 'manhunt' — kind of like hide and seek.

"If it was raining, we'd be inside and she'd pretend she was secretary and I was boss of the office."

Decades later, Robinson would find himself on stage at the Democratic National Convention late in August, introducing Michelle Obama.

"It's funny to think this is the same person who used to wake me up early — and I mean early — on Christmas morning," he said that night. "This is the person who used to play the piano to calm me down before big games in high school.

"This is the person who, even though we were allowed only one hour of television a night, somehow managed to memorize every single episode of 'The Brady Bunch.' "

It was that night that Robinson, wearing an orange necktie, unleashed a hearty "Go Beavers!" in front of the conventioneers and a national TV audience.

To think that he'd ever be on the side of an Oregon State program that had lost its way from its glory days when it was No. 1 in the nation in 1981.

Just two years after OSU's greatest heyday, the 6-foot-6 Robinson, two-time Ivy League player of the year, took part in his last college game for Princeton — at the Beavers' Gill Coliseum. The Tigers, coached by legendary Pete Carril, lost there in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Boston College.

Robinson played pro basketball in England and spent one season helping the coach install some of Princeton's famous inverted, back-cutting offense. He returned to the U.S. and did some youth, high-school and even small-college coaching, but most of the next dozen years were spent in investment banking in Chicago. For a time, he was a vice president at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.

In 2000, he took the plunge toward a position that he says paid him "an eighth or a 10th" what he was making in the business world. Bill Carmody, a Princeton staffer when Robinson played, was head coach at nearby Northwestern. Robinson approached him about becoming an assistant.

"I told him, 'You'd be taking a huge pay cut,' " says Carmody. "I knew he'd be good. He was a basketball guy through and through; he just happened to be good at a lot of things. I didn't worry about the commitment or if he knew the stuff, or if it was a midlife crisis. I just wanted to know if he knew about the finances."

He did. And he still loved it.

In 2006, Robinson went on to basketball-starved Brown in the Ivy League. Last year, he took the Bears to 19 wins, unprecedented at the school.

In his first game there, recalls radio analyst Russ Tyler, Brown was within three points of Michigan State inside the two-minute mark at a timeout.

"[Robinson] changes defenses, turns Michigan State over," Tyler remembers. "I said to the guy on the radio, 'We got ourselves a coach.' "

"You know when somebody says they're playing as hard as they can possibly play?" says Rick Giles, a college classmate and Robinson's agent. "He gets them to play harder."

So this was the coach whose résumé DeCarolis was staring at last spring at the Final Four in San Antonio, well past when he thought he'd have a new coach.

"Looking at his background, where he had coached, it was screaming: 'Private institution,' " says DeCarolis, who adds that he even tipped off a colleague at Rice about Robinson.

Then Giles, fronting for a couple of the other candidates in which OSU had expressed interest, urged the Beavers to think about Robinson. Hardly in a position to argue, DeCarolis said what the heck.

They talked for a couple of hours and DeCarolis and an associate liked Robinson, who never mentioned Michelle Obama.

"He knew we knew," DeCarolis says, "but he never brought it up."

DeCarolis liked that Robinson would bring the Princeton principles to a place that needed to be a little different. He saw OSU as "like Washington State five years ago," a place where it could be done with something out of the box.

Meanwhile, Providence, right there in the same city with Brown, was fishing for somebody to replace the fired Tim Welsh. In the wee hours after the national semifinals, DeCarolis offered the job to Robinson, telling him he needed an answer by noon the next day.

At 11:59 a.m. the next morning, DeCarolis' phone rang and his heart sank.

"This is not good," he thought, figuring he'd been one-upped by Providence.

"They can't tell me anything," Robinson said, surprising DeCarolis. "Let's do the deal."

It's believed Providence rushed Robinson in the next few hours with a better offer. But he was committed to Oregon State, and it was done.

At the time, the Obama candidacy was still only a vision. But as it began to crystallize, Oregon State realized it might have a unique phenomenon on its hands.

His appearances on behalf of his brother-in-law must be on his personal time, per the dictates of OSU legal counsel. Robinson is familiar with the constraints from his time at Brown.

Says Brown athletic director Mike Goldberger, "I can't tell you the number of times Craig would get a call, and once he knew it was a political question, walk off campus, return the call with his cellphone and then return to work. It was kind of crazy, but those were the rules."

Still, it's impossible to separate Craig Robinson completely from the Obamas — starting with the fact he's a dead ringer for his sister. Robinson appears to be recruiting well for the Beavers, and has acknowledged that the connection is getting OSU into homes.

"He's the poster child for the way parents want their kids to turn out," says DeCarolis.

Robinson has the Beavers at 6-8 with the Washington schools coming this week. Says DeCarolis, "I think there might be one or two that haven't totally bought into the whole thing, but I think we're pretty close."

On Jan. 4, after OSU upended USC and broke a 21-game conference losing streak, Robinson rewarded the Beavers by moving practices back 90 minutes from 5:30 a.m. Shortly after the game, his cellphone rang — Barack Obama, congratulating him and wondering why USC didn't foul down the stretch to protect a three-point lead against the tying shot.

Robinson, married with children 16 and 12, finds his life marked by moments like this. On election night, he was in Chicago, taking the Obama girls home from the Grant Park rally and awaiting the arrival of their parents.

He, and those around OSU, acknowledge some distraction, but it's mostly good.

"We couldn't have picked a better time to move to a place like Corvallis, a small town," Robinson says. "Just think if I'd moved to Chicago or L.A. or Seattle."

He thinks there will be a day when the novelty of this story will die down. Says Robinson, "Hopefully, people will want to talk more about Oregon State men's basketball. [But] none of us have been down this road before."

None of them, including the new residents of the White House.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Bud Withers
Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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