Craig Robinson, First Coach

Marian Robinson's children certainly have reached new heights … Her daughter is now the First Lady ... while her son is what you could call the First Coach. Jim Axelrod takes us courtside:

It's game day for the Oregon State University men's basketball team, and the ear-splitting, roof-raising crowd is their biggest in years.

The Beavers are taking on the University of Oregon, an intrastate rivalry so fierce they call it "The Civil War."

It's a crucial early test for OSU's new coach Craig Robinson, brought in to turn around a once-proud program that's hit the skids. Oregon State won just six games while losing 25 last year - last place in their conference.

"What are you aiming to achieve here at Oregon State?" Axelrod asked.

"Well, I'd like to say that I'm aiming for perfection on the court and then all the stuff that comes with that," said Robinson.

Perfection? After a last-place finish? You'll have to excuse Craig Robinson if he dreams big. You see, as Michelle Obama's older brother, he understands better than most the audacity of hope.

"Can you tell me what it's like to stand on that inauguration platform and look at a million and a half, two million, three million people moving in waves?" Axelrod asked.

"It was extremely humbling to me," he said. "I'm still trying to wrap my arms around it, I really am. It's my little sister. You know, this is the little girl who, when I got a new bike, she came wheeling up in her tricycle. I still can't fathom that my sister's the First Lady and my brother-in-law is the President of the United States. Can't!"

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Both their lives have taken turns they never could have imagined growing up in this apartment in an all-black working class neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. Two years older than his sister, they've always been very close.

"At six foot six, I've often felt like Craig was looking down on me - literally - but the truth is, both when we were kids and today, Craig wasn't looking down on me, he was looking over me, and he has been there for me every step of the way," Michelle Obama said in Denver.

Their father, Fraser Robinson, died in 1991. He was a pump operator for the city water department … battling multiple sclerosis but never missing work. Their mother Marian was a secretary. Today, she's living in the White House to help raise her granddaughters.

"People look at what you and your husband did," Axelrod asked. "You produce a division 1 college head coach and, oh by the way the first lady of the United States. And they want to know what kind of magic dust were you sprinkling in your home?"

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"I don't think it was magic dust, as a matter of fact," she laughed. "I think there were a lot of families doing the same thing."

"It wasn't magic dust," Craig said. "There was love. There was discipline. There was respect. My mom and dad always gave my sister and I a sense of who we were."

"We wanted them to have the feeling they can try anything," Marian Robinson said. "The saying was, 'If it can be done, you can do it.' It's a matter of choice."

They weren't poor, but money was tight. A high school basketball star, Craig Robinson had a choice for college - a full scholarship to play for the University of Washington, or Princeton, which didn't give athletic scholarships. Craig chose Washington.

"And my dad did that thing that dads do when you make a decision that's not what he thought you should make," Craig Robinson said. "So, he went like this, (rubbing his chin), he put his chin down like this, and he just thought for a minute. And he said, 'Well, why did you pick University of Washington?' And I said 'It's free.'

"And he said, 'Well, listen, if you pick your school based on how much I have to pay, I'd be very disappointed.' And the next day I said, 'Well, you know, I really did like Princeton and it would be great to be able to go to an academic institution like that if we can handle it.' And that right there changed my whole life."

Twice the Ivy League Player of the Year at Princeton, Robinson played a couple of years overseas after graduation, and then started a career in finance. He was making a high six-figure salary, but in terms of psychic income - he was broke.

"My folks always said that if you take a job based on the pay, ultimately you're not gonna make enough money to put up with the mess," he laughed.

So big brother took some advice from his little sister:

(AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, File)
"When I wasn't happy doing what I was doing, she was the one who encouraged me to go back to my first love, teaching and coaching. And today I'm proud to be the coach of the Oregon State men's basketball team," he said on stage in Denver last August. "Go Beavs!"

Robinson took a nearly 90% pay cut to become an assistant coach at Northwestern, having learned watching others to follow your heart, not your wallet.

"How is Craig Robinson Fraser Robinson's son?" Axelrod asked Marian Robinson.

"My husband used to say, 'A smart man learns from his own mistakes, a wise man learns from the mistakes of others.' And Craig lives by that. He doesn't do anything that someone else has done that's stupid! And I love that about him."

Craig Robinson was trusting basketball to help him find the right path. It's sort of a family tradition.

He told how Michelle asked for his help when she became serious about one young man: "My sister, after she'd been dating him awhile, found out that he fashioned himself a basketball player. And she said, 'You gotta take this guy out,' having heard my father and me talk about how you can tell a guy's real personality on the basketball court, and she wanted to know what he was like when she wasn't around."

The guy, of course, was her future husband, who still fancies himself a bit of a basketball player. Craig Robinson gave Barack Obama a playground grilling:

"The thing that I could tell right away was that he was very team-oriented," he said. "He passed the ball when he should. He shot when he should. And I tell people all the time, the most impressive thing to me was that he didn't just pass me the ball because he was dating my sister!" he laughed. "Wasn't trying to suck up or anything like that."

"So you knew after playing with him, he passed whatever test he needed to pass?" Axelrod asked.

"I was able to report back to my sister that it was a good workout," he said.

History is hatched in a lot of different places, but rarely on a playground.

So Craig Robinson is back where he belongs: The hard-nosed scrapper from the South Side of Chicago, taking on a program he found in total disarray.

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Axelrod spoke to some of the players: "I think everybody was happy, 'cause we knew we needed discipline," one said.

How could they tell Robinson meant business?

"When he said we were practicing at 5:30 a.m., we knew he meant business!" another said.

"You didn't practice at 5:30 in the morning before he got here?" Axelrod asked.

"Never in my life!"

Tough, but cool. Demanding, but not dramatic. He's also let loose his Ivy League side.

Player Calvin said, "He uses words, very big words during practices." Omari laughed: "Sometimes, we don't understand what he's saying. So he says, 'Look it up in the dictionary.'"

And yes, there's a dictionary in the locker room. "Yeah, Webster's. Right on one of the stools. If you don't know it, we just go look at it. Very smart man.

And one who's teaching a bunch of kids who lost 21 games in a row last year how to win. Already this season, the Beavers have won twice as many games as last. Robinson's name is being kicked around basketball circles in his conference as a candidate for Coach of the Year.

He showed why on the day we visited, his team coming from 14 points down for a thrilling win against their archrivals … their first win over University of Oregon in three years.

"Fellas, I couldn't be happier for all of us," Robinson told his team. "I'm happy for me but I'm really happy for you guys."

Yes, the Robinson family is having quite a year, an all-American success story, twice-over. Maybe there was no magic dust. But clearly something very special was going on in Fraser and Marian Robinson's Chicago home.

"If your husband could look at the life Craig's leading right now, what do you think would be filling him with the most pride?" Axelrod asked.

"You know, he was crazy about that child before he did anything in life," marian laughed. "So, I've said this before, you would not be able to stand to be in the same room with my husband right now because he thought he had the greatest kids that God ever gave anyone, and he just thought that the minute they were born. And I think the children felt it."

"So he wouldn't be surprised by anything either of the kids have done?"

"No, he would not."

"Not even first lady?"

"Not … well, that would surprise anybody now!" she laughed.

Even while becoming the biggest man on campus at Oregon State, he's still taking a back seat to his kid-sister … just the way he likes it.

"Michelle Obama used to be Craig Robinson's little sister, because of basketball," Axelrod said. "Now you're her big brother."

"Now I'm Michelle Obama's brother and I love every minute of it," Craig said.


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