On March 13, 2012, President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron gathered, as world leaders do, to discuss matters of grave national importance. To unwind after a day of negotiations over the future of the free world and the perilous position of keeping humanity safe from pestilence and global annihilation, Obama and Cameron relaxed by... watching a college basketball game.
They didn't watch Duke-North Carolina, or Georgetown-Syracuse. They saw Western Kentucky, of Bowling Green, Ky., against Mississippi Valley State, of Itta Bena, Miss. They saw two No. 16 seeds. They saw KenPom's Nos. 182 and 350-ranked teams.
President Obama didn't take Cameron to see LeBron and the Heat, or to see his beloved hometown Bulls. He took him to an NCAA play-in game between two teams even Jay Bilas has likely never seen play. The two world leaders saw a terrific game, in which Western Kentucky rallied from a 16-point deficit in the last five minutes to win by one. (Their players were appropriately awed by the experience.)
The best part was when MVSU guard Kevin Burwell hit a 3-pointer in the second half and started jawing -- playfully, I think -- at Obama. This was Cameron's first-ever basketball game, and it featured Mississippi Valley State and Western Kentucky. He was a bit bewildered by it all, saying, "it's hard to follow, sometimes, who's done what wrong."
The President shoots hoops with Clark Kellogg, he never misses a chance to fill out his bracket with ESPN's Andy Katz and, as we were reminded last night, he has a family connection to the game. The President and his family watched Oregon State, coached by Obama's brother-in-law Craig Robinson, beat Maryland last night, and the Prez was so casualled out that he was even chewing gum. (Nicorette, I'd bet.)
President Obama is a White Sox fan, a Bears fan, a Bulls fan, but more than anything, he enjoys college basketball. His pronouncements on other sports are often vague and general -- as one would hope, considering the rather overwhelming nature of his day job -- but his picks with Katz are oddly specific and well-researched. Last year, he somehow knew St. Louis had been hot in the second half of the season, that Notre Dame had worn hideous neon green jerseys a few weeks earlier and that Kelly Olynyk had great hair. I know professional national sports columnists who didn't know any of those three things. The man loves his college hoops. In a day and age in which college basketball is thought to be in some peril, having the Prez on your side might come in handy.
But then again: It might not be enough for his brother-in-law. For all the subplots of this college basketball season, I find the idea that Michelle Obama's brother is on one of the hottest seats in college basketball among the most compelling. Robinson is now in his sixth season as Oregon State head coach, and it's fair to say he's in some trouble. Robinson has only notched one winning record in his time in Corvallis, and last year, which was supposed to be the breakthrough one, ended 14-18. This season, Oregon State began its season with a humiliating 78-73 home loss to Coppin State, and even after its win over Maryland last evening, it's only No. 88 in Ken Pomeroy's rating. This is a school that hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 1990, and Robinson may need to finally end that streak to survive.
Which is sort of wild to comprehend: Is the President's brother-in-law -- Michelle's brother! -- really going to get canned? Many have wondered whether Robinson was maybe a bit too much of an overhire by Oregon State in the first place. Robinson had some success at his previous school, Brown, but he never won the Ivy League and he was only there two seasons. In fact, he was hired by Oregon State when Obama was taking the political world by storm and just about to overcome Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination; it was as popular as Obama had ever been, and would be again. The hiring was a major surprise to Oregonians; several coaches had turned OSU down, and local beat reporters were actively stunned by Robinson's emergence. It made sense, though: Who wouldn't want to go play for the President's brother-in-law? This isn't Billy Carter or Hillary's dopey brother Hugh. Robinson is a respected, deeply admired guy. The hire made a ton of sense.
It's probably down to this year for Robinson, really. That Coppin State loss put Robinson's job in danger of a death spiral. (Last night's win helped a ton, though.) Inevitably, questions about Robinson's family ties have popped up, as a negatives and positives. An Oregon columnist opined earlier this year:
I think Robinson actually could last longer in Corvallis than his brother in law, the POTUS, is going to be in Washington. Which is fitting, actually, because I believe the family connection was a big reason why Robinson got the job in the first place and why he's been able to hold onto it. There's a big belief in some quarters that Robinson can recruit well because he's offering up that trip to the White House almost every season with a chance to meet the president. What was once reserved for the NCAA champ is now a tiny piece of the Beaver basketball program. And hey -- Robinson wears that orange and black scarf to the inauguration -- even though it's always mistaken for Princeton colors.
There's a tiny Fire Craig Robinson Facebook page that directly references the President -- "CRAIG ROBINSON has brought no real CHANGE and we are losing HOPE. Time to move FORWARD!" -- and, perhaps inevitably, Robinson's job safety has been inaccurately tied to Obama's job performance by the President's detractors. For his part, Robinson doesn't mention the President or his sister in his team bio, not that anyone would be confused anyway.
There might be a solution: Obama has attended four Oregon State games since Robinson began coaching the team … and the Beavers are now 4-0. Last night's win over Maryland was a hugely important one; winning on the road against an ACC (soon-Big Ten) team doesn't erase the Coppin State loss, but it puts the Beavers back on the right track. (A road game at DePaul on December 1 looms large.) Considering that Robinson is 76-90 when Obama isn't in attendance, well, Obama loves college basketball and, hey, who among us couldn't stand to spend a little more time with family anyway? Worst case scenario, if it all goes wrong for Robinson at Oregon State, Mississippi Valley State is off to an 0-2 start and is projected to go 6-21 by Ken Pomeroy. They may have an opening. Maybe the President was just doing some long game advance scouting.
If Robinson does get this turned around, though, and gets Oregon State back in the tournament, I want to see Obama's NCAA picks with Andy Katz that year. Leader of the free world or not, picking against Michelle's brother strikes me, ultimately, as unwise.