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July 23, 2012When Steve Robinson accepted his first head coaching job at Tulsa, he was following in the footsteps of a beloved coach (Tubby Smith) and on the heels of the school's two most successful NCAA appearances to that point in time. And while he only stayed two years before taking the same position at Florida State, Robinson made a significant mark at TU that included two NCAA appearances of his own, a glut of quality wins and memorable moments from some of the program's favorite sons.
In this interview, Robinson talks about those experiences and what it was like to coach in two conferences over two years.
• Chad Bonham: What did you know about TU basketball before taking the head coaching job here?
Steve Robinson: I knew Tubby, so I kind of followed his career. I knew a little bit of what Nolan had done. Once you come into the Midwest, you find a lot more about Tulsa. Being at Kansas, we would recruit against those guys. I remember the year when they beat UCLA in the NCAA tournament. I actually watched some of that game on television.
• Bonham: What was the feeling heading into the 1995-96 season?
Robinson: It was exciting for me. It was my first head coaching job. I was following a guy (Tubby Smith) that a lot of people loved in Tulsa. I just wanted to come in and try to work hard and do the things that I had been taught how to do by being at Kansas with Coach (Roy) Williams.
I think one of the best things that happened for me was the team had been set up to take a foreign tour. I got a chance to go to Europe with those guys in August of that first year. That was a lot of fun. It gave us a chance to implement our style of play. We played differently than what Tubby played. The kids needed to adjust. It was a rewarding trip, and it really gave us a chance to bond and come together.
• Bonham: You got off to a great start with that 100-51 season opening win against North Carolina A&T. What do you remember about that game?
Robinson: The first game you walk out on that court and you don't really know what to expect. We were playing Dewayne Bonner at the point guard position. The crowd was into the game. We were down at the Convention Center downtown playing. It seems like so long ago. I still remember stepping out on that court.
• Bonham: Talk about your first experience playing Oral Roberts and facing Bill Self, who was their head coach at the time.
Robinson: We'd gotten off to good start then I remember us going really cold and hitting a stretch where we couldn't hit a basket. They went on a run and pulled away from us and we could not catch up. It was disheartening because of the way the game unfolded. There was a big-time crowd. It was a great atmosphere. We got to a good start but they got going and next thing I knew, we'd lost by 12. It was a good basketball game, and that night they were the better team.
(Bill's) teams played hard and were very competitive. You've got two teams in the same city that are rivalries. It didn't matter. Those games were always going to be hard fought and highly contested events.
• Bonham: Three days later you had another in-state rivalry in a home game against Oklahoma State. Talk about that big win.
Robinson: I remember that game being intense. I remember how focused the kids were as far as playing and being prepared. We felt like we had a good, experienced basketball team. OSU was really talented that year. They had Chianti Roberts, Joe Atkins and Glendon Alexander.
It was one of those games that was just a dogfight.
• Bonham: Your first year was TU's final season in the Missouri Valley Conference. What was it like ending such a historic era?
Robinson: The success that Tubby had beforehand marked them as a team that people were coming after. You add to the fact that we were leaving. The league was really good. Illinois State and Bradley and us were in a real fight throughout the course of the season. Every game was so close. It was nip and tuck most of the season. We finished third in the conference but then we ran the table during the tournament. I thought defensively we were as good as we'd been all season long in those games.
• Bonham: Dewayne Bonner was an unsung hero on the team. Talk about his improvement throughout the season.
Robinson: (Dewayne) wound up being our starting point guard for the entire season and he did a fantastic job. I remember at the beginning of the year, Dewayne was bringing the ball up the court and he was kind of dribbling it sideways and backing it down the court. As the season progressed, he would bring it in transition and push it and make decisions.
• Bonham: What memories stand out from the first round NCAA game against Louisville?
Robinson: When they announced us, I remember jumping up and down. We knew we had qualified, so that takes away some of that pressure and anticipation, but we knew we had to be ready to play. Of course, we had to face the legendary coach Denny Crum. We played an experienced basketball team and our guys played extremely well.
You take away maybe one or two possessions in that game and maybe we're in the second round. They hit a shot and there was a controversial walk called against us. We had the ball and the score was tied. Rod Thompson made a shot on a move that he normally makes and they called traveling. They came back and their guard made a shot to give them a two-point lead.
• Bonham: What was the mood leading into the 1996-97 season?
Robinson: (Ray) Poindexter, (Craig) Hernadi, (J.R.) Rollo, (Dewayne) Bonner and (Cordell) Love gradated that year. We had (Rod) Thompson, (Shea) Seals and (Rafael) Maldonado back.
The question mark was who was going to play in the three spot and Michael Ruffin ended up starting. Once we found out that Shea wasn't going to have to do it all, we figured out that we were going to be a pretty good basketball team.
• Bonham: Opening up that year at UCLA (NCAA champions from two seasons earlier) as part of the Preseason NIT was a special opportunity. Talk about that experience.
Robinson: The thing I liked about our team is they always expected to win. It didn't matter who we were playing or where we were playing, they expected to win. It was a great trip. We got off the plane and went to baggage claim and boom, there's Al Michaels from Monday Night Football, and we had a chance to visit him for a little bit. We went to our hotel and staying in our hotel is the Utah Jazz. I ran into (former Kansas University player) Greg Ostertag and I talked to Jerry Sloan, and Greg Ostertag rides to practice with us and watches us practice.
At practice, all of the sudden here comes Jerry West to watch us practice, and he speaks to the team. We go to shoot around on the day of the game and Magic Johnson and his traveling team is there. He talks to the team and tells them how to prepare and go out and do your best.
A lot of good things happened on that trip, and then we go play the game and all of the sudden we have a redshirt freshman (Zac Bennett) go to the line and make one of two free throws and ice the victory in overtime. He had worked hard, and he'd prepared himself, and you just hoped he could knock one of those free throws in. He stepped up and showed some toughness and got the job done. It was a great win.
We had to hustle to get out of there because we had a flight we had to catch. We go into overtime and it took even more time. I remember sitting next to Michael Ruffin on the plane ride back and it's two or three o'clock in the morning and he's studying for exams. He had class the next day. I wanted to cut the light out so I could take a nap.
• Bonham: After beating Oklahoma State in the second round of that Preseason NIT, the team made the trip to New York for the tournament semi-finals. How did that impact the players?
Robinson: Most of the guys on the team had never been east of the Mississippi River. Rod Thompson from Beggs, Oklahoma is hanging out in downtown New York City. That's a little different story. We played the semi-final game against Duke. They were big and physical inside. It was one of those games that was back and forth and we just couldn't get a couple of balls to go down late in the game. We felt good coming out of there. We'd competed. We were right there and we just needed to continue to get better.
• Bonham: Talk about walking TU through that first season in the Western Athletic Conference?
Robinson: It was very challenging. You don't know the landscape. You don't have a feel for the teams and how they play. We had to make that adjustment and focus in on our style of play. We opened up the WAC season with a late night game against Rice on ESPN for Big Monday. The school had a pajama party. Our defense just smothered them. We took them out of everything they were trying to do. It was one of the best games from a defensive standpoint that we played. We didn't allow them to get into any offensive flow the entire night.
Our next two home games were at the Mabee Center because the circus was being held in the Convention Center. We played New Mexico (coached by Dave Bliss) and UTEP (coached by Don Haskins). I kind of complained quite a bit but there was nothing that I could do. I can look at it now and say, "Man that was good that we could win those games."
• Bonham: What were some other memorable moments from that first season in the WAC?
Robinson: We played a Utah team that had future NBA guys like Michael Doleac, Keith Van Horn and Andre Miller. Miller hit a shot at the buzzer to beat us in Tulsa. At halftime in our game against TCU down in Fort Worth, Ruffin had 20 points and the team had 80 points. Later that season, TCU knocked us out in the second round of the WAC Tournament.
• Bonham: Where do you think that season ranks in TU history for strength of schedule and quality wins?
Robinson: I've always tried to play a good schedule. Nobody could ever say that I've tried to back away from good competition. I don't think Tulsa had ever been in the preseason NIT before that season and I was able to get us into that tournament. I do think sometimes that the (1996-97) season goes a little unnoticed, but I think that the people that were around the program at that time will tell you that it's definitely one of the toughest schedules ever played at TU, and it wasn't like we had to go on the road for all of those games.
• Bonham: That season, you made the second round of the NCAA Tournament but dealt with some difficult circumstances against Clemson. What made that game so frustrating?
Robinson: We played a pretty good Clemson team. All I remember about that game is that we played most of it without Shea. He only played about 15 to 18 minutes of that game because every time I turned around he was sitting on the bench because they'd called another foul on him.
• Bonham: Let's talk about some of your former players. What about the aforementioned Shea Seals?
Robinson: He was the complete player. He is what you want to have out of your best player. He was the guy that could make tough shots. He was the guy that was a great defensive player. He was all-purpose. He could do a lot of things and we asked him to do a lot of things. I felt like we should honor that guy while he was there. Sometimes you let them go away and you have problems trying to get them back.
• Bonham: Michael Ruffin?
Robinson: He is Mr. Defense and Mr. Shotblocker. Michael Ruffin was the most advanced defensive player that I had ever coached. I used to say that Steve Woodberry at Kansas had the most savvy of any defensive player I'd ever coached, and Michael Ruffin was on that level and beyond. He had unbelievable timing and the ability to be in the right place at the right time. He's a great human being and I love that kid to death. And he was a 4.0 student. I didn't know how he could do that in terms of the time commitment that sports requires.
• Bonham: Dewayne Bonner?
Robinson: I loved Dewayne Bonner. Here's a guy that just did what I asked him to do. I feel like I was able to help give him something back in return. I gave him on opportunity to get on the court and play. For three previous years, I think he struggled to find his identity with the team. Sometimes life can be so unfair and it's unfortunate that his life was cut short. He was a wonderful human being and a role model to a lot of athletes who came through the program.
• Bonham: Rafael Maldonado?
Robinson: The big Raf. He was a big old boy. He had great size and great ability to make some shots. He wasn't the smoothest of players but he was an effective player. I remember that big, deep voice of his and how he expressed his opinion. But he was quiet a lot of the time. He was a deep thinker.
• Bonham: Jonnie Gendron?
Robinson: Jonnie never found a ball that he didn't think he could shoot. He liked to shoot. He was trying to decide what he wanted to do because he was leaving baseball, and I challenged him to come to TU and find his niche. Jonnie had a good career. I remember the toughest thing I had to do was call him into the office and tell him when his brother had passed away.
• Bonham: Cordell Love?
Robinson: Cordell at times could just be phenomenal. He could make plays. He had very quick hands. Cordell could score 15 points in two minutes. There were times when his lack of discipline hurt him a little bit. He was a fun loving guy and a tremendous athlete. I kept pushing him to make sure he finished school and graduated.
• Bonham: J.R. Rollo?
Robinson: He liked to throw his body around and he wasn't afraid to bump people inside. I always said we had the biggest frontline in basketball when you put Maldonado, Rollo and Poindexter out there. J.R. was a hard worker and he gave everything he had. I had a chance to bond with all those guys in a way that goes deeper than basketball.
Chad Bonham is a 1993 graduate of The University of Tulsa and longtime Broken Arrow (Okla.) resident. He has authored or contributed significantly to 12 published books including Glory of the Games and Golden Hurricane Basketball. Visit his national sports column at features.beliefnet.com/inspiringathletes.