Sports USC

Former USC coach John Robinson knows what Trojans need to come back

On the first day Ed Orgeron became interim head coach of the USC football team, another coach, a former USC coach who had some success at the school, asked Orgeron if he wanted to chat and perhaps listen to some advice.

Orgeron looked at John Robinson — 78 years old, with eyes as clear as the sky after Santa Ana winds and a back as straight as a ruler — and told him, "Of course."


FOR THE RECORD:
John Robinson: An article about former USC football coach John Robinson in the Oct. 13 Sports section said that Robinson and former NFL coach John Madden attended Junipero Serra High School in Northern California. Madden attended Jefferson High in Daly City.


Though Robinson would never say it, previous coach Lane Kiffin wasn't as eager to listen to Robinson, who comes to practice occasionally and does fundraising for the Trojans more often.

"I'll never force myself on anyone," Robinson said while eating chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant near his Encinitas home. "But I'm happy to talk to anyone at USC if they want."

Orgeron wanted. He said that what Robinson told him, with his arm around Orgeron's shoulder, didn't take many words and was exactly right.

"He told me I needed to be the head coach," Orgeron said. "I needed to make a point of spending time with the offense because I had been a defensive guy. That's all. It was perfect."

Before Kiffin was fired after the Arizona State loss and after the Trojans had been upset by Washington State, rumors floated that Robinson might serve a third stint as USC head coach, this time as the interim guy to bring some order and spirit to the Trojans.

"Yeah, if they wanted a head coach who needed a nap in the middle of practice every day," Robinson said, though he doesn't look like a man who needs extra rest.

He does NFL radio broadcasts each week for Sports USA Radio Network, serving as a color analyst and keeping his hand in the game he loves.

There is no reason for Robinson to still be so tied up with USC. He grew up in Daly City, Calif., and went to Junipero Serra High, where Barry Bonds and John Madden, among others, attended. His first big coaching job, as an assistant, was at Oregon.

But he talked about USC, and said that if Kiffin suffered from a major fault, it was not knowing "exactly how to be a head coach."

Robinson also talked about why he drives up to Los Angeles two or three times a week to watch practice or check in with the fundraisers, why he'll speak to just about any USC alumni group in Southern California and why it hurt to watch the Trojans lose, 62-41, to Arizona State two weeks ago.

"I can't explain it with words," Robinson said. "But once you're at USC, it's in your blood. It stays there. There is nothing like it at any other school, I don't believe. As long as I live, if USC calls, I'll answer."

Robinson was head coach of the Trojans from 1976 to 1982 and again from 1993 to 1997. His record was 104-35-4, a winning percentage of .741. He won four Rose Bowls and the 1978 national championship.

When he was fired in 1997, the story was that then-athletic director Mike Garrett left him a voicemail. Robinson won't relive that day, but it isn't something that has tarnished his love of the school.

Robinson also coached in the NFL, with the Oakland Raiders and Los Angeles Rams, spent five years at UNLV and in 2010 even spent a season at San Marcos High near San Diego as defensive coordinator. He also played on a Rose Bowl team at Oregon in 1958. But Oregon isn't in his blood, USC is.

He led the Rams twice to NFC title games and both times lost to eventual Super Bowl champions — the Chicago Bears in 1985 and the San Francisco 49ers in 1989.

Marcus Allen, who played for Robinson at USC from 1978 through 1981, said he has no doubt Robinson could have still coached the Trojans and done well the rest of this season.

"He is the epitome of what a head coach should be," Allen said. "He looked everyone in the eye, told you what he expected.

"He used to tell us we could go across the parking lot and beat the Rams. You know, the Rams that were in the NFL. And most of us believed him."

Allen said that the first thing he realized about Robinson was that he cared about him.

"He was a leader, he was charismatic, he was honest," Allen said. "He cared about you individually.

"What John did at practice, he spent time with every group, with the O-line, the defensive backs, the quarterbacks, the running backs. We knew he had an interest in every aspect of each group of the team and that was important.

"At USC, the head coach, if you walk into the room, you need presence. He had that presence."

Pat Haden, USC's athletic director, said it's common to hear talk of the Trojans family. "There is no greater representative of our family than John Robinson," Haden said. "He's upbeat even when he's putting his socks on."

Indeed Robinson said he didn't think USC should use the NCAA sanctions still in effect as an excuse for losing and was sad to hear that Haden and Kiffin had even suggested it.

Haden called Robinson a "confidant of mine," said he was a "really, really big part of the program" and that he would definitely lean on Robinson when putting together a list of coaching possibilities.

"Whoever Pat zeros in on, it will be the right guy," Robinson said. "He is better equipped to make that decision now. He has the background, experience and the intellect."

Robinson said Haden absolutely understands where USC ranks in Los Angeles because Robinson told him.

"When I got the coaching job the first time I went to New York and they had me go see [USC alum] Robert Wood, president of CBS," Robinson said. "He ushered me in, got up from his desk and came running at me. He jumped on me, hugged me and couldn't tell me how much he wanted 'SC to be successful. I'm thinking, 'Wow, this guy is nuts.' Now I know, once you're around USC, we're all nuts."

John Jackson, a former Trojans wide receiver, said he expects Robinson to play a role behind the scenes in finding the next USC football coach. And he should.

"People who've had success, you learn from them," Jackson said. "Coach Orgeron will learn from him. The university as a whole learns from him. To have him around, that gives me an indication Pat Haden understands what he has, the resource he has."

Haden's right-hand man, J.K. McKay, son of legendary coach John McKay, who won four national championships at USC, said Robinson is the best resource the school has. "He understands the place, every corner of it. Any of us would be silly not to listen to him."

The optimism that marks Robinson came out at the end of an extensive interview.

"USC is right on the edge of exploding into a really good era," Robinson said. "The next coach is going to have a decade of really good players and football. It's important for the city, it's important for yourself. The point is not winning or losing but playing to maximum potential. That was what was sad about the Arizona State game. I don't think anyone performed to maximum potential.

"I expect Pat to find a magnificent coach, a motivator, a leader, somebody where if we're all sitting at a bar, and he tells us to go, we'll follow. Maybe that's Ed [Orgeron]. He's got the physical presence, the verbal presence, the voice, the passion. He doesn't apologize about being passionate. He's not going to be subtle. But whoever it is, he needs to be all that. That person is out there. Now we find him."

diane.pucin@latimes.com

Twitter: @mepucin

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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