The Performer: Basketball coach Craig Robinson

On character, talent and the key to defeating his brother-in-law, President Obama, on the court.

Two years ago, Oregon State University hired Craig Robinson to revive its losing men’s basketball program. A star player for Princeton in the ’80s and then a successful investment banker, he quit the business world in the ’90s to coach the game he loves, building a national profile at Brown University with his tough-love approach and emphasis on personal character and academics. (He famously once used a pickup basketball game to test the mettle of his sister Michelle’s then-boyfriend, Barack Obama.) Robinson’s memoir, A Game of Character, documents the lessons he learned from his working-class parents growing up on Chicago’s South Side, and how he’s applied them in life and in basketball. He spoke with Canadian Business staff writer Jordan Timm.

Height: 6’6′

Total points scored for Princeton: 1,441

Seasons he won Ivy League Player of the Year: 1982, 1982

Salary cut he took when he traded investment banking for coaching: 90%

Ivy League Men’s Basketball Coach of the Year: 2007

OSU’s record in ’07-’08: 6-25

OSU’s record under Robinson in ’08-’09: 18-18

How exactly do you define character?
I always felt because of how I was raised that character — and I don’t want to trivialize it — but it’s the ability to do the right thing when no one’s watching. It’s easier to do things right when you know everybody’s watching you. But when you’re alone and you have an opportunity to cross the line a little bit, character is what keeps you inside the line.

The late John Wooden said that sports don’t build character, they reveal it. Do you agree with that?
My father always said the same thing, and I don’t know whether he got it from Wooden or not, but he would particularly say it about basketball. It’s a game that you cannot consistently win without making use of your team. He thought that you wouldn’t necessarily get a guy’s personality revealed playing one-on-one or playing horse, but over an hour and a half of playing [on a team] with a guy when he’s tired and his defences are down, ultimately his personality is going to come out.

What does a day in the life of a Division 1 basketball coach look like?
It’s a lot less glamorous than just running up and down the sideline calling plays. The games are a small part of what we do. We share our facility with women’s basketball, volleyball, wrestling and gymnastics, so the first thing I’m trying to figure out is when can I get the gym. I’ve been known to hold practices at 5:30 in the morning, as a disciplinary, toughness, Marine Corps-type bonding situation, but it’s also when I can get the gym all to myself for 2? hours. Away from the court, I spend time fundraising for the program. We’re a state school, not a private university with a huge endowment. Right now, we’re building a practice facility, and I’m raising $16 million to do that, so I’m spending a lot of time talking to alumni. Then you have your daily issues that come up, like academics, which we’ve gotten a handle on now that I’m here. And usually you’re preparing for two games a week, getting film and information from other schools who have played that team, and then analyzing and building your practice plans and game plans. But the lion’s share of my time is spent on recruiting. [That] means getting on a plane, going to see a kid, then coming back the same night or the next morning.

Beyond on-court skill, what do you look for in a recruit?
We’re looking for elite players who want to come play for Oregon State. And that seems simple, but when I was getting recruited out of high school, I wanted to go somewhere where I could make an impact. These days, kids want to go someplace where it’s going to vault them directly to the NBA without much effort. So as a staff we look for kids who are interested in making a difference. They have to be good enough, though. It can’t be a kid whose talent is mid-level, because no matter how much of a difference he wants to make, if he’s going against guys who are going into the pros, he’s going to have a tough time.

When you talk about making a difference, do you mean within the program?
In life, too. The kind of kid who wants to come in and make a name for himself. He doesn’t want to go to a school just because they’ve won national championships, he wants to go somewhere and say he’s the one who won the national championship, he’s the one who turned the program around. We look for that kind of hunger in players, and typically when we find it, it manifests itself in the kid’s play, too. They play harder, they’re hungrier, they’re stronger in character. So it’s no big secret, those are the kids we’re looking for. I’m sure everyone else is looking for those guys, and it all comes down to marketing.

So if there are a dozen other coaches knocking on their doors, how do you convince those kids to sign?
There are three things we sell right now, because they’re the only things we can sell — we can’t sell the fact that we’ve been winning. Number one, you’re going to play in a high-quality basketball conference. The Pac-10 over the last few years has had 20 players in the first and second rounds of the NBA draft. The second thing we sell is playing time. Because we’re turning the program around, there’s ample opportunity, and in order to be good you have to be in the game. The third thing we sell is being in the Craig Robinson network, which means whether you end up in the NBA or doing anything with basketball, you’re going to leave Oregon State with an education, and with a network. Not just on the basketball side, but with connections to business people, connections to politicians — the kind of connections that most people garner when they’re in college, that scholarship athletes don’t typically avail themselves of. So those are the three things that we sell right now. And it’s been working.

Speaking of your network, your brother-in-law, President Obama, is an avid ballplayer. If I ever find myself on the court with him, how should I play him?
He is a very good basketball player going to his left; going to his right he is an average basketball player, so I’d make him go right. As with most players our age, he’s now a better outside shooter than he is at going to the basket, so I’d crowd him, because if he’s open, he’s going to make a shot. And on offence, you have to take the ball in to him so that he can’t use his length on you, because even though he’s only 6p1?, he’s got long arms. You would only be able to tell that if you saw him on the court. He’s taller than average, so you wouldn’t necessarily post him up if you were his size or smaller because his arms might cause you some problems. But he’s very slight. He’s not heavy at all, so you might be able to bully your way in there.

So I should put the body on him, coach?