Craig Robinson On Growing Up, Coaching, and Encouraging Players

5 Sep

From a 2010 (now interview

This past week I had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Oregon State University men’s basketball coach, Craig Robinson, for the Play It Forward campaign.  While I didn’t get an opportunity to ask much about his sister, First Lady Michelle Obama, coach Robinson did tell me about about his life before basketball, his experiences as a player and coach, and the importance of the Play It Forward campaign. He also shared with me his thoughts about Lebron James, since, of course, I had to ask. Check out the interview below.

How instrumental was your former coaches in your life like, for instance, legendary Princeton coach Pete Carril?

Before I talk about coach Carril, it’s important to know that my first real coaches were my mom and dad. They had a huge impact on me getting into coaching. The kind of things that I learned from them helped me become more receptive to coaching. Hard word, diligence, time management, and all those kind of character building traits, I learned from my parents.

In terms of coach Carril, I think that one of the things I learned I hadn’t really picked up on, or understood the nuances, was how much hard work can overcome talent. It’s important to know because it’s not something you can easily pick up on because you just assume everyone is working just as hard as everyone else. It’s like if he’s an NBA player and you’re a college player, then the NBA player should win out all of the time, right? However, I learned from coach Carril that’s not necessarily the case. Team work and a lot of practice can make anyone compete at a much higher level than you think.

You left a lucrative career on Wall Street to coach college basketball. Was that a difficult decision for you?

Initially it was difficult only because when you’re working in investment banking there are a lot of “trappings” you get used to. You live a very nice lifestyle and you make a very good living. If you’re in management, you get to do some coaching, but it’s not coaching of kids, of course. The decision to change my lifestyle was a difficult one because I had young children at the time and I didn’t want them to have to suffer based on what I wanted to do. So that took some real mulling over before I had the courage to do it. Once I had the opportunity it wasn’t hard at all. I knew at some point in my life I wanted to retire and coach high school basketball — so I knew it was going to come. I just didn’t realize it was going to come as early as it did.

As an African-American NCAA coach, do you find that the lack of diversity in NCAA basketball makes it challenging for black coaches overall to advance in their careers, network, and gain exposure opportunities?

I understand what you’re saying, but I think the college basketball ranks have probably done the best job in hiring minority coaches. The difficulty in getting these jobs has to do with the number of jobs available. When you think about Division I basketball, there are roughly 340-something jobs. That’s not very many. Then you also put the number on paper and see that each one of the those 340-something teams have a head coach and three assistant coaches. So that’s four times that number of positions. Each year, only about 50 jobs open up. The difficulty in getting the job [is about] the number of jobs available for the number of people qualified to do the job. I just want to go on record and say that men’s college basketball has done a great job in having a more diverse coaching roster than, say, football.

According to U.S. News and World Report, white Division I basketball players graduate at a 28% higher rate than their African-American counterparts. Why do you think that is?

It would be interesting to see what the overall graduation rates are between blacks and whites because here at Oregon State most student athletes graduate at a higher rate than the overall population at the university. I’d have to see how that statistic compares with the rest of the campus because if it’s the same, then it just is what it is, and that’s a different societal problem and not an athletic problem.

As a coach, how do you encourage your players to succeed off the court and after basketball?

I try to be extremely realistic about what the chances are in making a living playing basketball. That’s first and foremost. When that doesn’t work, I just show them the numbers. There are sixty guys that get drafted every year out of the thousands of college basketball players – it might even be tens of thousands of college basketball players depending on whether you take into account Division II and III. So what we try to do is, while we’re using our opponents to motivate the kids to play better, we’re also using them to motivate the kids to do better in the classroom. We encourage them to recognize all the resources available for them as student athletes; career counseling, mentorship programs, etc. It’s tough because just about every kid you recruit thinks they’re going to play on the professional level, whether that’s in Europe or in the NBA. We have to be really diligent when sending out that message.

I recently spoke with one of your former player, Mark MacDonald, who recently told me that you keep a thesaurus and dictionary in the locker your, can you explain why you do that?

I played and worked for coach Bill Carmody, of Northwestern University, and he did that and I thought it was a wonderful tradition to keep going. The reason why I do it is because I try to talk to the guys like I would talk with a reporter or another person. I use the language best suited for the conditions and sometimes those are words that kids who play college basketball aren’t used to hearing. When they do hear the words and it’s a word they haven’t seen before or don’t understand, I tell them to go look it up! They can use the dictionary or thesaurus to figure it out.  What I enjoy the most, Tara, is when they come back at me with one of the words I used on them.

What are some life lessons you learned, and are learning, as a coach?

I’ve found that there are very few people who can’t be taught something. You know, a lot of players and students get into a kind of box that some coaches and teachers feel they can’t get out of. I’ve found that there are many ways to teach. I’ve learn in this profession that there is more than one way to skin a cat. It’s opened my eyes to the many ways that teachers can be creative when they’re in classrooms. The tried and true trait that we talked about earlier is that a little hard work is good for the soul and it gives you a sense of accomplishment, even if you don’t win the game. Those are a couple of things that I continue to learn as an adult.

Why do you think the Play It Forward campaign, which encourages young athletes to bring lasting change to their communities through sport, is important for coaches and players to be involved with?

I’m a big proponent of giving back. Athletes have this wonderful ability to attract attention and people listen to them. So when you get former and current athletes helping out in the community, you get more bang for your buck. It’s good karma. We’ve always had someone in our lives help us to get where we need to go, so why not reach back and try to do the same thing? So I think [Play It Forward] is a wonderful campaign.

How do you think Lebron James handled his situation to leave the Cleveland Cavs for the Miami Heat?

We live in a society where you can work where ever you want to work. So I don’t have any problem with Lebron going to Miami at all. I just would’ve wanted the separation to be less public, just for the sake of the fans in Cleveland who got left. You know, I’m excited to see what Lebron can do down there [in Miami]. I don’t have any problem with that. If it was me, though, I would’ve given a heads up to the people of Cleveland. It was almost like he celebrated leaving, and I’m sure that’s not what he meant, but that’s the way it came across.

Everyone in the league and the fans know it’s a business, players move around. More power to them. I just would’ve hoped for a bit more sensitivity for the fans he was leaving.

Many thanks to coach Robinson for this exclusive interview. Also thanks to YouthNoise, Play City, and Up2Us for co-sponsoring the Play It Forward campaign. Stay with Play City this summer for more uplifting interviews from inspiring coaches from around the country!


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