Photo courtesy of Cyclones.com.
AMES — You name it, he did it.
When Iowa State assistant Daniyal Robinson first embarked on his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Arkansas-Little Rock in 2001, his short and long-term prospects necessarily hinged on becoming the Swiss Army knife version of a coach and young man.
“I learned a lot on that job, being a graduate assistant at that level, you do a little bit of everything,” said Robinson, who’s in his second stint as a Cyclone assistant, having first served on Greg McDermott’s staff from 2008-10. “So I was able to do film exchange. I did stats in practice. I actually practiced. I was with them for three years in that capacity, so I ran study hall. I did class check. So on the court stuff wasn’t something I was able to do in that position but I did a little bit of everything else.”
He helped with meal prep, too — even as the lean times, money-wise, made every morsel he could occasionally procure precious to him.
“I think the meals were the hardest thing to come by,” said Robinson, who’s helping No. 23 ISU (18-6, 7-4 Big 12) prepare for Saturday’s big showdown with 18th-ranked Kansas State (19-5, 9-2) in Manhattan. “Consistent meals, in that position, were the hardest thing to come by.”
Thankfully, now that’s not the case. Robinson has matured into a long-tenured assistant who’s wound his way through mid-majors, including Illinois State and Loyola of Chicago with his mentor, Porter Moser, to Ames, not once, but twice.
His key to success: Character. It might sound cliche, but his rock-solid commitment to consistency makes him a standout in the profession.
“He’s a really good guy and a really good coach,” ISU senior guard Nick Weiler-Babb said. “He’s really centered around his family and I think he takes us in as kids. He wants the best for all of us. He gets on us, but never in a bad way. He just tries to find the right way to say things — as I’ve learned. I’ve been here for four years, so we kind of came in together and I think he’s a really good guy. There’s not many coaches in the country, assistant coaches, who will be like him and I know he’ll be a good head coach if that’s what he wants to do.”
Robinson served as an associate head coach under Moser at Loyola, but was coaxed back to Ames when Steve Prohm took the Cyclones’ top job after “the Mayor” Fred Hoiberg left to coach the Chicago Bulls.
“I think the biggest thing Daniyal brings, number one, is his character,” said ISU head coach Steve Prohm, whose Cyclones have won four of their past five games, but fell to TCU, 92-83, last Saturday at home. “A really good man, great with people, very articulate, sharp; got a great family, does know this area well and has helped us recruit the Midwest. But we all kind of have done it together from that standpoint of, each one of those guys from the Midwest have their own kind of tie-in here, but I think, collectively, he’s a good fit here because he gets along well with people, and he is great with the guys and can help challenge them. He’s loyal and he cares. That’s the biggest thing you want in this day and age in this business is loyalty and character.”
Robinson began building his “brand” two years after concluding his playing career at Arkansas-Little Rock.
He’d always wanted to coach. Moser — who led the Ramblers to the Final Four last season — gave him that chance and Robinson ran with it. He didn’t live in a basement “dungeon” as Prohm did as a young coach, but he did quickly learn the importance of being responsible for himself and others.
“I lived in apartments with the players,” Robinson said. “I didn’t have a player as a roommate, but I lived right next to them and that was part of my job, too, was to monitor them and make sure they were doing the right things at the apartments.”
It’s that father figure element of Robinson’s character that resonates most with players. He’s stern, but fair. He jokes around, but clamps down as needed. He even mixes it up in the paint every now and then.
“He’ll come out here and show the bigs up sometimes,” Weiler-Babb said with a smile. “He works with our bigs a lot and we always talk smack to him, and I always tell him he can’t shoot, but he comes out there — he’s still got a nice little jump shot.”
He’s helped a lot of Cyclones hone their skills — from distance and at the rim — over the years. Robinson still keeps in touch with several former players, including McDermott-era standout, Craig Brackins, who turned into a first-round NBA Draft pick before injuries curtailed his career.
“We message quite a bit,” Robinson said. “When I was here before, I would always play good cop, bad cop with him between Coach McDermott and T.J (Otzelberger). So now you see Craig with a family —he’s got a young family, he’s got a son. So it’s always good to hear from him and see where he is now. He’s much more mature now, so he’s one that comes to mind, because when I first got to this level and coached here for this couple years I was here, we spent a ton of time together. And to see where he is now, being successful and raising a family, and taking care of them, that’s what you want. That’s your goal as a coach. That’s your job.”
It’s his job as a recruiter, too. Robinson — who played a key role in convincing three of Illinois’ top four recruits, Talen Horton-Tucker, Zion Griffin, and George Conditt to come to Ames as freshmen this season — wants to help mold basketball skills that merge with academic excellence and personal development.
“The number one thing in recruiting is the relationships you build,” Robinson said. “People want to help people that they feel are genuine. … So a couple things that have helped for me, is I’ve been able to work for really good guys, so they’re easy to sell. Like, Steve Prohm, he’s easy to sell. Greg McDermott is an easy sell. Porter Moser was an easy sell, because those guys, they are who they are, then the recruiting is with the high school coaches, the families and then I think its s identifying the talent, evaluating the talent, knowing what works for your coach.
“There’s a ton of talent out there, but do those players fit?” Robinson added. “Do they have the character and all those types of things.”
Call it a Swiss Army knife approach. Winning games is great — and required, but what does the whole picture look like? Who can elevate his game along with his character? Those are the types of questions Robinson and his Cyclone cohorts ask. Then, they converge to collectively find the appropriate answers.
“I’m not one that gives one guy certain things,” Prohm said of his staff. “Now, within the concept of practice, Daniyal and William (Small) work with the big guys, James (Kane) works with the guards in our pre-practice segment, but everybody scouts, everybody recruits, everybody does things in the community — all that stuff, because I want them to touch every phase of the program, because that’s how it was when I worked as an assistant and it helps you as you grow.”
Robinson’s growth stemmed from that necessarily all-inclusive approach early on. It’s served him well on a journey that’s twice landed him on ISU’s staff — and carries him forward during this resurgent season and beyond.
“Over the years it all changes,” Robinson said. “In perspective, early on, I loved just the excitement of recruiting, the excitement of — you know, you have the Midnight Madness, all the little things that are almost from a player’s standpoint, that players liked? Then, as time goes on, you get to appreciate the relationships that you build. think the most rewarding thing is the relationships that you build through the young guys that you work with, as well as their families, and then between the coaching community. I remember we were doing film exchange together, VHS — FedEx’ing film and stuff like that and we’re still really good friends today. And that’s 16 years ago. So those relationships in the coaching circles and those relationships you build with the players over the years, I think are the most rewarding.
“When you look at the players, they go through a transformation. They come in and they’re wide-eyed and they’re normally the best players on their high school teams or their junior colleges, or wherever they come from, and then they have to make the adjustment to the level of play, and then the commitment level of the academics, the structure. So just seeing those guys transform over the years to kind of being someone that really had a perception of how college would be and then making the adjustment and the transformation by the time they leave — that’s the most rewarding part right now.”