A single phone call in 2000 changed everything for Craig Robinson.
It came from newly hired Northwestern men's basketball coach Bill Carmody and eventually led to Robinson, a Mt. Carmel graduate, joining the Wildcats' staff as an assistant.
"It was very challenging from a salary standpoint," said Robinson, now in his second year as the head coach at Brown University. "But I thought to myself, 'I grew up on the South Side of Chicago and I would still have more than I had then.' It took me full circle, though, and immersed me in something I love."
Robinson's connection to Carmody dated to when Robinson was a star for Princeton in the early 1980s and Carmody was on Pete Carrill's staff. Robinson had dabbled in coaching even while working in the Chicago financial community, with short stints as an assistant at the Illinois Institute of Technology and as the head coach at University High in 1999-2000.
Though Robinson was a coaching novice, breaking into the college ranks in Evanston proved a good fit. He soon found many similarities between Northwestern's culture and the one he encountered Princeton two decades earlier.
Although he developed into one of the best players in Princeton history (he is still the program's No. 4 all-time scorer), the difficult transition that he underwent was still fresh in his memory.
"Like all high school players, I thought I was a really good player," remembered Robinson. "I thought the main part of the game was scoring, but playing for Coach Carrill was an awakening for me. Once I got to Princeton, I recognized that it was a process. I learned how to play basketball in a different way."
Once acclimated, he thrived under Carrill's team-first system. He was the first two-time Ivy League Player of the Year, sharing the award as a junior and winning it by himself the following season. He helped lead the Tigers to NCAA Tournament appearances as a sophomore in 1981 and two years later, when Princeton upset Oklahoma State in the tourney's first round.
Robinson was also transformed off the court during his time at Princeton.
"Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I wasn't prepared for Princeton, both socially and academically," he said. "It opened my eyes to a different world."
He expanded his horizons further after graduation. Robinson was a fourth-round pick of the Philadelphia 76ers but didn't stick on the roster after training camp. But he wasn't ready to hang up the sneakers, so he played for two seasons in Manchester, England. The salaries overseas weren't as high as they are now, so Robinson decided to put his Ivy League degree to use.
He landed a position in the Loop at Dean Witter Reynolds and had subsequent tenures as a Vice President at Continental Bank from 1990-92, Vice President for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter from 1992-99, and as Managing Director for Loop Capital Markets, where he worked when Carmody came calling.
"Investment banking is a great career," said Robinson, who also earned an MBA from the University of Chicago in 1992. "It's challenging, lucrative, competitive -- it's a good fix for an ex-athlete. But the whole time, I was thinking that 'This isn't something I'm passionate about.' "
The passion Robinson has for basketball has already served the Brown program well.
His first Bears team was picked to land at the bottom of the Ivy League but came in fifth, with a 6-8 league record and an 11-18 finish overall. The season included a win over Big East member Providence and Brown was competitive with perennial Big Ten power Michigan State, holding the Spartans to 45 points. Robinson was named Ivy League Coach of the Year.
The turnaround has continued this season. The Bears enter the final week of regular season play in second place in the Ivy League (17-9, 9-3 in conference) after a 64-57 win over Princeton last Friday and a 75-43 rout of Penn Saturday.
The Ivy League is the only conference in the country without a post-season tournament, so undefeated Cornell clinched the league's lone NCAA Tournament bid over the weekend. But with one victory in this weekend's final two games, Brown would set the school record for wins in a season.
Although the school is in Providence, R.I., it's no coincidence that there's a Windy City flavor to Brown's roster. Four freshman hail from Chicagoland -- guards Sean Kane (Carmel) and Garrett Leffelman (St. Joseph) and forwards Jelani Floyd and Peter Sullivan (Loyola). Sullivan broke into the starting lineup in the middle of the year and has been named Ivy League Rookie of the Week three times.
Keeping up with ... Mt. Carmel's Craig Robinson
ChicagoSports.com follows local high school athletes who have kept up their game after graduation
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