August 19, 2020

Boasting Vast Experience at All Levels of Basketball, PU Alum Robinson Taking Helm of Coaches Group

EXECUTIVE DECISION: Craig Robinson speaking at the “Thrive: Empowering and Celebrating Princeton’s Black Alumni” conference last fall on campus. Robinson, a former Princeton men’s hoops standout, college coach, and NBA executive, was recently named as the executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC). (Photo by Denise J. Applewhite, provided courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)

By Justin Feil

Having seen many sides of basketball over the last 40 years, Craig Robinson is getting a new view of the game as he was named the executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) last month.

Robinson was a two-time Ivy League Player of the Year for the Princeton University men’s hoops program in the early ’80s, an assistant college hoops coach at Northwestern from 2000-2006, and a head coach at Brown and Oregon State from 2006-14. Since leaving coaching, he has been a college basketball analyst for ESPN, a front office executive with the Milwaukee Bucks and then the New York Knicks, as well as general manager of the Knick’s G League Westchester Knicks.

“It’s really the first time I’ve been able to bring all of my experiences to bear on one particular job,” said Robinson, 58, who worked as a bond trader, investment banker, and executive in the corporate world after graduating from Princeton before making the move into college coaching.

“I think the NABC is guided by the core values of leadership, advocacy, education, and service, all of which have been pillars in my family.”

Robinson is also the father of a college player, Leslie Robinson, who followed in his footsteps to Princeton, where she starred for the women’s basketball team, graduating in 2018 and getting selected in the WNBA draft.

“It was tremendously uplifting for me and our family for Leslie to play at Princeton,” said Robinson, whose younger sister is Michelle Obama, a fellow Princeton alum.

“It made us, and made me particularly, proud because I tell people all the time I’m from the south side of Chicago, neither one of my parents went to college, and I had no idea what legacy meant when I was a student at Princeton. I would hear that term and I didn’t really understand what it meant. And lo and behold, my daughter ends up having a legacy of her own. As a parent of a Princeton athlete, you’d be really proud, but a parent of a child who ends up taking almost your exact same path, it’s really humbling. It’s much harder being a parent of a Princeton basketball player than it is being a Princeton basketball player.”

The NABC represents more than 5,000 basketball coaches, mostly from college and ranging down to high school. Founded in 1927, the NABC seeks to support and develop coaches and promote their importance as well as improve the game of basketball for student-athletes.

“We’re trying to help coaches develop on and off the court,” said Robinson.

“We’re trying to help them have a voice on issues that impact the profession. I think my experiences in corporate America and as a coach, as a professional front office person in the NBA and G League, all of that is going to be important in this role, especially the NBA relationship. Many of the issues that impact
college basketball and the NBA are the same. There are going to be some things we need to cooperate on. Hopefully my relationships with folks in the NBA and G League will help that.”

Several NABC members are also former Princeton players like Robinson and they have been quick to offer their support for him in his new post.

“My relationship with the Princeton family, the guys out there coaching, I’ve heard from just about every single one of them and it’s all been positive,” said Robinson, a 1983 Princeton alum, who scored 1,441 points in his college career, the seventh-most in program history.

“It’s good to know there’s a group of folks who will be supportive in the beginning as I get to know the coaches that I don’t have relationships with. The one thing about being in the fraternity of Princeton and Princeton coaches and players is that it’s one of the few organizations where we all know each other or know of each other and we wouldn’t have played together. It’s a fun brotherhood to be a part of.”

In his newest role, Robinson will be leaning on every aspect of his personal and professional experience and seeing basketball from every vantage point is a huge plus for him.

“Being a parent is another tool to add to my tool kit,” said Robinson.

“A lot of my experiences fortunately have made me uniquely qualified for a position like this. Parenting is just one of them. Coaching is another. Having been an executive in the front office of an NBA team is one. Having had some experience in corporate America is another. All of those I hope to bring to bear on representing our membership the way they would like to be represented and taking advantage of this unique time for basketball.”

With college basketball  facing an uncertain future in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and already at the heart of addressing hot topics of transfer eligibility and name, image and likeness legislation, Robinson is taking over the NABC at a critical time.

“This is a time for me to come in and take a look at what has taken place in the industry and to really do some listening to our coaches, our membership, listening to our stakeholders,” said Robinson.

“There are a couple things that are easy to point out – it’s critically important that we have a good working relationship with the folks at the NCAA. That’ll be at the top of the list. We want to make sure one of the big benefits of being a part of our organization is coaching development, and we’re committed to pushing for more developmental opportunities for the next generation of coaches. There is a lot of work to be done, but I want to do a lot of listening to our membership to get a feel for them where they want this organization to go because ultimately they’re the ones that this organization is made for.”

In addition to those issues, there is a new focus nationwide on social justice that impacts every sport. The NABC’s naming of Robinson puts an African American in an important role for men’s college basketball.

“I think it’s important, but it’s a time where just about everybody is focused on societal issues, so anyone who would have taken this position would be someone who would be sympathetic to what’s going on out there,” said Robinson.

“Being an African American in a leadership position like this is an important statement for the NABC, it’s an important statement for the coaches, especially when we’re trying to help more coaches of color get positions. I can be a spokesperson for them, but I can also be a spokesperson for any young coach trying to get to move up in the profession. I feel really honored to have been selected and I’m excited to get started.”

Robinson wasted no time in getting to work. In the first week after he was named to the position, the NABC made two major announcements. The NABC proposed that the NCAA no longer require SAT and ACT requirements in its initial-eligibility standards. A week later, they announced their support for college men’s basketball coaches’ partnership with the McLendon Foundation’s John McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative.

“It’s a whirlwind; I can’t take any credit, those were initiatives that were in place as I was coming aboard. I think the NABC has done a great job with them, especially with the McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative,” said Robinson.

“I think John Calipari and Tommy Amaker have done a wonderful job in trying to put in place an apparatus for more people of color to have jobs in the sports administration side of our business, irrespective of any kind of playing career. That’s been terrific. That was easy to get behind. The elimination of standardized tests has been in my wheelhouse for as long as I can remember. There have been plenty of studies done on how biased those are. Those are two initiatives that were easy to get behind. They didn’t wait to throw me into the fire.”

Taking over for Jim Haney, who served as Executive Director of the NABC for the last 29 years, Robinson isn’t being asked to head an unfamiliar program like he did at Brown in his first head coaching job, or to rebuild a struggling basketball program as he did at Oregon State.

“Unlike those coaching positions, this is one where Jim and I knew each other beforehand,” said Robinson.

“And he’s still around sort of helping, which you don’t see when you take over as a new coach. You don’t have the former coach help the new coach. He’s been really gracious with his time and support and there are some big shoes to fill. But these are some really interesting times for basketball, college basketball in particular, and I look forward to accepting those challenges.”