June 16, 2006
by Bill Reynolds, Providence Journal columnist
PROVIDENCE -- He was 37 when he decided to change his life.
By all accounts, he already was an incredible success story, the kid from the South Side of Chicago who had gone to Princeton and then into the world of high finance in Chicago, a case study in upward mobility.
He had an MBA from the University of Chicago, worked for a Wall Street firm, had Illnois Sen. Barack Obama as a brother-in-law and had made the kind of money Princeton graduates on the fast track are supposed to make. The American Dream, right in the palm of his hand.
"But it was becoming a job, not a passion," said Craig Robinson.
Then Bill Carmody became the new coach at Northwestern.
The same Bill Carmody who had been his assistant coach at Princeton.
"I read about it in the paper and thought it was great," Robinson said. "I figured I could hang around once in a while."
Then Carmody called him, asked if he wanted to be an assistant coach.
"I was on the trading floor," Robinson said, "so I took a break, got in a cab and rode around for a half-hour thinking about it."
Because coaching always had been the road not taken. It had been what he was thinking about when his playing career ended, after he had spent two years playing in England after leaving Princeton in 1983 as the back-to-back Ivy Player of the Year. But Pete Carril, his coach at Princeton, had told him that he didn't want to be a coach, not at that stage of his life, anyway. Still, coaching always was a siren song, even when he was starting his financial career, to the point that he helped out at a Chicago college and at a Chicago high school.
"I always thought that one day I'd teach seventh grade and coach basketball," he said.
So when Carmody offered him a chance to come back to basketball, Robinson took it, even though Carmody told Robinson, "You're going to take a million-dollar pay cut."
So it began, the first step in the basketball journey that brought the 44-year-old Robinson to a press conference at Brown yesterday, where he was announced as the school's new basketball coach, the end of a six-week search that began when Glen Miller went off to the University of Pennsylvania.
It was a journey he never has regretted. He says he's a poster child for someone who loves what he does, someone who gets up in the morning and wants to go to work, something that money can't buy.
But Robinson had taken chances before.
Maybe the most important one was when he was a senior in high school, back at Mt. Carmel, the Chicago school that later would send Antoine Walker to play basketball at Kentucky and Donovan McNabb to play football at Syracuse. Robinson was one of the elite high school players in Chicago then, had several Division I offers, Princeton being one of them.
The problem was Princeton was close to $14,000 a year at the time, which for a family from the South Side of Chicago might as well have been a million dollars, and he could go to the University of Washington for nothing. And even though he was going to get a lot of financial aid at Princeton, he was going to take the basketball scholarship to Washington. Until his father said, "If you pick a school for what I have to pay, I'm going to be disappointed."
Robinson decided on Princeton.
And not without its culture shock.
Not without its adjustment.
In the beginning, he felt he was over his head, like some kid who has stumbled into the wrong pickup game. But he learned. He grew.
It was a good era for Princeton basketball. Carril, one of the most respected coaches in the country, still was there. The Tigers won two Ivy titles in Robinson's four years, playing the kind of selfless, fundamental game that has made Princeton famous in the basketball world. Robinson was a great Ivy League player, good enough to be in camp with the Philadelphia 76ers after he graduated.
More than that, he came to realize Princeton was a moveable feast, opening up doors he never could have envisioned back there growing up on the South Side of Chicago.
"I can't tell you how much going to an Ivy League school changed my life," Robinson said yesterday.
That's the message he's going to bring into the homes of prospective recruits, the sense that going to Brown can change a life, change a family's history, change everything.
"Not to be immodest about it," said Craig Robinson, "but I'm hoping that kid is going to be me."