I got a chance to speak with Sports Illustrated's George Dohrmann in the wake of the firing of Craig Robinson, where we covered both the state of AAU basketball and his thoughts on Oregon State hoops.
Dohrmann followed former Beaver shooting guard Roberto Nelson throughout his high school career while writing his book Play Their Hearts Out, and since has become the go-to national writer for analysis on Oregon State basketball. In addition, Dohrmann was also the co-writer of The Dirty Game, an investigation into misconduct inside the Oklahoma State football program.
Connor Pelton: You wrote Play Their Hearts Out to try and understand AAU ball from the inside out. How different is it from what the mainstream media thinks?
George Dohrmann: The AAU scene often gets painted as being saturated by bad people, and I guess my book contributes to that if you don't read it and just look at the reviews or the jacket text. The reality is there are many, many noble AAU coaches who really want to help, who are not looking to make money off kids. I highlighted a few of them in book, but people like Joe Keller, the main character in my book and a bad guy, overshadow those good coaches. I think when people write about AAU they can fall into the trap of thinking every AAU coach is a bad one because there are a lot of bad apples there. They aren't all bad.
CP: What was Roberto Nelson like in high school and how has me matured, both on the court and off, since?
GD: Off the court, Roberto was a lot like he is now. He has matured, sure, but he was very gregarious then and engaged in the community, traits people saw at Oregon State. He certainly cares more about school now than he did in high school and is more aware of the world around him. I don't know if that is too different than the transformation every person makes when they go from being a teenager to someone just out of college. On the court, he is a better player in some areas and worse or the same in others. He is better shooter now, but he is about the same in terms of setting up teammates and creating shots. Defensively, he was better in high school.
CP: If I understand correctly, you would talk to Nelson's father while in prison and give him updates on his son. Can you take us through this process? What would his reactions be like when the team was doing decent or badly?
GD: Bruce would call me collect during the season, and I would update him on what happened in games and read him the stat sheet. I would also mail him articles I printed out. Those conversations were hard for him. I tried to give him as much information as I could, but he knows the game because he was a coach and he knows his son's strengths and weaknesses and so he was asking for more and more info and sometimes I couldn't provide him everything he wanted. I also talked to Roberto and I asked him questions and then conveyed what I learned to Bruce. It was an imperfect way for Bruce to get information about his son but it was the best we could do.
CP: You have called Oregon State's 1-3-1 zone "gimmicky" and say it shouldn't be used because it's easily exploited. However, poor fundamentals had rendered Craig Robinson's man-to-man useless. If you were the coach, what would you have done?
GD: I don't have a problem with the 1-3-1 as a look you throw at opponents once in a while, but to use it as a base defense is nuts. Once the Pac-12 teams had good film on his defense they started carving it up. If poor fundamentals were the reason Oregon State has been such a poor defensive team, I'd ask: who is teaching the players defense? All of Craig's players played man-to-man in high school and on the AAU circuit. Roberto played man growing up; it isn't like it was foreign to him or the others.
It is different in college, of course, and getting kids to buy in defensively, to work as hard as you have to do on that end to succeed in college, is a serious challenge. But it is a challenge every coach faces with his incoming players. The good coaches get it done. The mediocre ones don't. If I were in Craig's shoes I would have brought in an assistant coach proven to be an excellent defensive coach and I would have turned that side of the ball over to him to 100%. It is something he should have done about four years ago.
CP: You once wondered aloud on Twitter if Robinson knew he was allowed to play more than two guards at once. Do you think the biggest problem with Robinson is a stubbornness to change how he does things, or is he just one of the worst X's and O's coaches in the country?
GD: Many coaches are averse to change. Their mindset is: If I am going to go down, I am going to go down doing it my way. It took Craig so long to dump the 1-3-1, so long to realize building an offense around Ahmad Starks was stupid, and there were so many other times he stuck with something too long that clearly wasn't going to work. It is obvious that one of his great faults was an inability to acknowledge when his plan has failed and shift gears. That's stubbornness. Now, when it comes to the X's and O's, Craig was in over his head in the Pac-12. Why did Oregon State blow so many leads early in the second half of conference games? The coaches and players who know him and his personnel best adjusted at the half and he didn't.
I can't say Craig is one of the worst coaches in the country, but I can say that his teams weren't often prepared for games. Several years ago in a game at Cal, Oregon State's 1-3-1 was getting shredded and so the Beavers switched to a man-to-man. It was the first time I'd seen them play man for an extended period of time since Roberto got there. Well, Cal shredded the man defense as well. After the game, I asked a Cal assistant about the Beavers surprising switch to man, and he said, "It seemed like they didn't know what kind of sets we were going to run against man." Later, I asked Roberto if the team scouted Cal's offense against man-to-man. Not only had they not done that, he said, they hadn't even practiced man defense all season. Craig asked his players to play a defense they had never practiced, against offensive sets they had not scouted. That is unbelievable. That is akin to rolling the ball out and just saying, "Play!" (It was a year later at Cal when he famously didn't use his timeouts at the end of the game.)
Craig is a guy who when they brought him in wasn't ready to coach at this level. That's fine. It was a decent gamble and Oregon State was shooting for the moon, hoping a smart guy could learn on the fly. But he didn't, and as a result some talented teams have underachieved.
CP: Now that Robinson has been let go, who do you think would be a good hire for the Beavers?
GD: Craig had been playing up how tough it is to win at and recruit to Oregon State as a way of explaining his struggles. He is not wrong in that Oregon State doesn't have some of the advantages of other Pac-12 schools. However, Craig proved that you could get talented kids to come to Oregon State. He succeeded as a recruiter; he failed as a coach. I would look for a coach who has enough of a reputation to get in front of recruits AND who has proven he can handle the X's and O's.
I've tweeted that Eric Musselman at Arizona State would be a good candidate. He was a head coach in the NBA, so that will help in recruiting, and he has really helped Herb Sendek these past few seasons. Also, some of the AAU coaches in Southern California I know like him a lot and that can help. I have no idea if he'd be interested in the job, and the roster may be so barren he and others aren't as enticed as they might have been earlier, but I do think he is a guy Oregon State should investigate.