An Uphill Task for Robinson

This, with apologies to Dickens, is a Tale of Two Coaches.

You know you always like to check out a new coach on the local scene. So, I wandered down to the Disneyland Pigskin Classic at Anaheim the other night. To see what this new fellow the USC Trojans brought in to coach the team was like.

He seemed a pleasant enough chap. Kind of cherubic, actually. Big, round face, sort of like an apple pie, nice smile, an appealing stammer when he gets excited. Sort of looks like your favorite uncle. You picture him coming ‘round with lollipops. A face that inspires trust, confidence. You’d buy a used car from this man without a qualm.

But, coaching USC requires more than a sunny countenance, built-in affability, ample stomach. This is a job for a guy who’s part Pope and part Patton. A take-no-prisoners guy. This is a school that considers the Rose Bowl part of its curriculum. This is the school that had the audacity to schedule Notre Dame in the days when most football powers would rather schedule a bus wreck.


This is a school whose alumni consider a 9-2 season a prosecutable offense--particularly if those two losses are to Notre Dame and UCLA.

This is the school of the Morley Drurys, Amby Schindlers, Cotton Warburtons, O.J. Simpsons, Mike Garretts, Student Body Rights, Heismans at tailback, offensive lines that look in poor light like stands of Sequoias.

This is where second place is nowhere, a tradition where, when the coach lost a postseason game to Fresno State last year, he was lucky he merely got fired.

So, you had to wonder how this new coach would make out. A bad game or two and they would be on him quicker than you could say John Robinson. When you lose at Troy, you’re better off in Beirut.


So, it was with considerable interest that I watched this new coach’s team take the field against North Carolina on Sunday night.

Now, North Carolina’s not Notre Dame. But, neither is it Juniata. It was 18th in the polls last year. USC didn’t make it that high.

Yet, USC went into the game an eight-point favorite.

The game had to be ranked disappointing. It had to have Troy types gnashing their teeth.


You know how USC teams are supposed to be. They’re supposed to run right over you, as unstoppable as a flood, as relentless as a glacier.

They’re supposed to be fast. Everyone out here, even 275-pound tackles, runs the 100 in 9.7 or so, right?

Not this bunch. It could never figure out which way Carolina went. The Trojans looked like housewives chasing chickens all night. All they needed was brooms.

That wasn’t the worst of it. You know, some years ago, they used to have this offense in college football known as the split-T?


It’s long since out of use, but it was a pretty deft concept. How it would work is, the quarterback would take the ball. Then he would press it into the belly of the fullback, who was about to dive into the center of the line. This would freeze the linebackers.

If it didn’t, the quarterback might leave the ball in the fullback’s stomach and let him plunge ahead for a good gainer.

If it did freeze the defense, the quarterback would then slide along the line of scrimmage with the ball. Behind him, trailing a little off to the side, a running back would move.

When he came to the end of the line of scrimmage, the quarterback would watch the defensive end or corner. If he dived at the quarterback, the quarterback would then pitch the ball back to the trailing back, who would be off to the races with the corner cleared.


If the defensive man didn’t charge the quarterback but played the trailer, the quarterback kept the ball and slipped inside, helping himself to first-down yardage or more.

When it works, it’s demoralizing. And it worked against the Trojans Sunday night. North Carolina rolled up 31 points and 291 rushing yards with it. USC was helpless to stop it.

The new coach was loathe to identify it as the split-T. “It was just a simple option play,” he insisted.

Maybe so. But, you know, it ran like a split-T, quacked like a split-T and had feathers like a split-T. It must have been a split-T.


If it was the split-T, here’s a bit of advice from this seasoned second-guesser, coach. Some years ago, UCLA Coach Red Sanders, watching another USC team being victimized by the split-T in a Rose Bowl, no less, offered this solution: “We feel like we stopped it by having one man play the keeper and one man playing the trailer. You can’t have one man trying to contain both, not even a great defensive end or corner.”

USC looked as if it could have used the advice again Sunday. In any case, it’s free.

The interesting thing is, this is not the first coach USC has had named John Robinson to lose like this. They hired a John Robinson in 1976, and he, too, lost his opening game, 46-25, to Missouri. He went on to win all the rest of his games that year, including the Rose Bowl game over Michigan, 14-6.

So, even if this one doesn’t win the remainder of his games, the worst they can say to him is “You’re no John Robinson!”