Craig Robinson was a twotime Ivy League player of the year at Princeton. He’s been a college coach at Brown and Oregon State and worked on the Knicks and Bucks staff in the NBA.
He has worked in the financial sector and has given speeches to campaign for his brother-in-law, former President Barack Obama.
With experience in a variety of capacities, Robison said he felt taking over as executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches in July was a perfect fit.
“What made this most appealing is the fact to really take a job where you can encompass all your experiences together at one particular job,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is a really cool thing, and it’s very worthy.’ We can get a lot done if we could get focused and get our ducks in a row. It was the ability to take all of my past experiences and skills I’ve learned and focus them on one job.”
Robinson, who grew up in Chicago and was the Class of 1979 valedictorian at Mount Carmel, takes over at a crucial time for college basketball as the game focusing on cleaning up its reputation from a federal corruption probe and learning how to play during the COVID-19 pandemic.
His plans include inclusivity platforms and focusing on the athlete experience.
Robinson, the brother of former First Lady Michelle Obama, spoke to the Tribune about his role and how he navigates sports and politics.
On feasibility of a college basketball season: Our priority is the health and safety of our coaches, our student-athletes and the communities that we all come from. I am meeting regularly with folks at the NCAA to talk about potential adjustments, alternatives to the upcoming basketball season. The NCAA and NABC working together, you get as many ideas and as many smart people in the room, you’ll come up with some solutions or at least a host of solutions to see which works the best.
If a season can take place _ and we all think it can, we have a nice model the NBA and WNBA has made for us _ we have to all come together on the best ways to do that.
Barack Obama watches along with Michelle Obama as Craig Robinson coaches a college basketball game for Oregon State against George Washington on Nov. 28, 2009.
Barack Obama watches along with Michelle Obama as Craig Robinson coaches a college basketball game for Oregon State against George Washington on Nov. 28, 2009. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
On finding unity among college basketball coaches:
This is going to be decided by the coronavirus, not those that want to play or don’t want to play. The key words we try to get across to our membership is we need everyone to be flexible when it comes to playing and we need everyone to be patient. We feel like we’ll be able to put together some kind of season and tournament. We just don’t know what it will look like yet.
On NABC’s role in college basketball’s future:
What I want to get across about NABC is we’re doing a lot of stuff and it’s all thanks to coaches and staff, but we have a lot more to do. We need to think about how to be ready for the future as coaches and how to take care of this game we love playing.
Robinson on standardized testing as an eligibility requirement:
I just think in this day and age, we have more information. We have more data. We can look at the numbers and look at things quantitatively and you see that what sounded good 30 years ago may not necessarily have been the best way to do things. This goes for wearing seatbelts and wearing bike helmets and doing things we didn’t do that now we know, “Oh my gosh, we should do this for the good of our children.”
To me that’s the same with the SAT and ACT. What we’re realizing is that there is a huge disparity in education. The SAT and ACT aren’t performed on a level playing field for everyone. The ACT and SAT are not perfect predictors of how kids will do in college. Our student-athletes are graduating at a higher rate than our regular students and it’s not correlated to their SAT or ACT scores.
Men’s basketball graduation rates and graduations rates for Black players in particular have continued to rise despite the standardized tests requirements remaining the same.
As a result of COVID, people can’t go to testing centers like they used to and now they’re saying, “Well, you don’t really need standardized tests to admit people to college.” That gave us a little bit of a window of saying, “Well, if you don’t need it for regular students why would you need it for athletes?”
(During the pandemic, Division I and Division II athletes in the incoming Class of 2020 were exempt from SAT and ACT eligibility-qualifying scores. The NABC Committee on Racial Reconciliation, co-chaired by Tommy Amaker and South Carolina coach Frank Martin, said the scores enforce longstanding institutional racism and the organization submitted evidence to persuade the NCAA to permanently eliminate these test scores.)
On what he hopes the committee on racial reconciliation will accomplish:
I noticed this back when I was coaching, there is a lack of coaches of color in head coaching in men’s basketball and a lack of representation in athletic administrative roles. John Calipari, Tommy Amaker and (South Carolina’s) Frank Martin were all instrumental in coming up with an idea where coaches would donate half of a salary to an athletic department to hire scholars who are people of color to have a go in athletic administration.
A lot of the problem is minorities only get exposed to athletics as players, not on the administrative side or the business side. What we’re hoping is these schools will pay the other half of the salary for this person to come in and get exposed to the administrative side of athletics and be mentored by the basketball coach. This will give them a year, sometimes two years we’re hoping, of work experience too.
We’re hoping this will help add to the pipeline of people of color who are in athletic administration, which will ultimately help us hire more coaches of color or expose more coaches of color to people in athletic administration.
(NABC supported men’s basketball coaches’ partnership with the McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative, led by Harvard’s Tommy Amaker and Kentucky’s John Calipari. The NABC Committee on Racial Reconciliation was formed in June 2020.)
On the Coaches’ Voter Engagement Playbook, aiming through a partnership with nonpartisan All In to register 100% of men’s basketball players in college:
It’s great to get the 15 guys on the basketball teams and the managers and the (graduate assistants) and other students affiliated with the basketball team. But ideally, we would like to get all of our players educated and registered and that will have an effect on the rest of campus we’re hoping.
On navigating while being associated so closely with politics:
Unlike most people, everybody knows my politics. Right? I’m related to the former president and the former first lady. I just try to be me. I try to be fair. I try to have character in what I do. I know when I’m dealing with the public I want to be bipartisan. That’s why this voter registration is important. We’ll register as many people who want to be registered irrespective of their party.
Because people already know my politics, when they say stuff, it just doesn’t mean anything. Unless it’s not the truth, it doesn’t bother me.
I have been a player and a coach. The beauty of being a player and turning into a coach is your life has been with the other half of people who are rooting against you. It doesn’t matter because you’re doing something you love to do as a player and coach. The people who root against you don’t define you. That is how I’m able to deal with how people know my politics.
On being one of the first guests on his sister’s new podcast, appropriately named ‘The Michelle Obama Podcast’:
It’s just like imaging you’re sitting down (with your siblings) and you’re talking about life when you were younger and as you grew and got older and had kids. It’s like a holiday. It’s like a vacation. Kids are over there playing and we’re sitting here reminiscing. That’s what people will get from listening to it.
On sharing details about playing pickup basketball against Barack Obama when he was dating Michelle:
That story is well told. I’ve been telling that story since he was campaigning for the (Illinois) state senate. I retell that story and people get a better feel but they’ll hear my sister on why she asked me to do it (play against him). In our family, we always talked about how basketball was a great revealer of character, especially pickup basketball when you don’t have any officials and nobody’s watching.
On what he thought of his sister’s speech on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention:
I couldn’t have been any more proud of her, but she’s getting to be so good at it. It’s like you’re waiting for her to be better than the last one you heard. She just keeps getting better and better. It’s like if you go to an “Earth, Wind & Fire” concert once, then you go to the next one and it’s even better than the one you went to before. How do they keep doing it?