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Lame Duck : John Robinson Wasn’t Much of a Player at Oregon, but It Wasn’t for Lack of Knowledge

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oregon week. The Ducks are coming to the Coliseum on Saturday.

Some cursory research reveals that one of the USC Trojans used to play for Oregon. And a few phone calls reveal further that he wasn’t much of a player at Oregon.

A real Webster Webfoot, in fact.

But once the guy came on board at USC, he became famous.

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That guy, of course, is John Robinson, USC’s 59-year-old coach.

Over the years, Robinson has had a number of wisecracks at the ready to describe himself in his 1954-58 Oregon playing career.

“I got so little playing time at Oregon, the zipper on my warm-up jacket rusted shut,” he often says.

Robinson, a two-way end, played in the 1958 Rose Bowl game, when Ohio State beat Oregon, 10-7.

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On the last play of the game, that is.

“Casanova (Oregon Coach Len Casanova) sent me in for the last play,” Robinson said. “The Ohio State quarterback took the snap, went to one knee and the game was over.

“An Ohio State tackle slapped me on the back and said, ‘Nice game.’ I said, ‘Thank you.’ ”

OK, how bad was he?

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One reason Robinson never started a game at Oregon was because he played behind an All-Coast receiver--they called them ends then--Ron Stover.

“John’s problem was his speed,” Stover said recently. “He didn’t have any.

“For Robby to run a deep pattern, the quarterback needed about 14 seconds.

And frankly, he didn’t have the greatest hands in the world, either. I think Stickum was invented for him.

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“We finally designed a play he could run. It was a buttonhook. John could get downfield 10 to 12 yards in four or five seconds, then turn around and catch a pass.”

So how did he wind up in a major college football program?

Casanova, who is 88 and will attend Saturday’s game, blamed it on a bum recruiting tip. “Robinson could catch the ball, but he couldn’t run fast enough to get open,” Casanova said.

“His high school coach (at Serra High in San Mateo) played for me at Santa Clara, and he called me one day about Robinson. He told me Robinson could really catch that ball, but didn’t say anything about his speed. So I took his word for it and we brought him up here.”

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Shortly after Robinson’s arrival, his boyhood pal from Daly City, John Madden, showed up too. According to Casanova, the future Raider coach wanted a tryout.

“Madden was a big, strong tough guy, so I took a look at him,” Casanova said. “He had good straight-ahead speed for a lineman but he had no lateral movement at all. We turned him down.”

Robinson and Madden were grammar school chums, went to separate high schools and were finally reunited in 1975, when Madden made Robinson his backfield coach with the Raiders.

Robinson began coaching on Casanova’s staff after graduating from Oregon and stayed there 12 seasons before becoming USC’s offensive coordinator in 1972.

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Stover, Casanova and another former teammate, Jim Shanley, all remember Robinson as a coach in the making.

“He had a great imagination,” said Stover, a vice president of Willamette Industries in Portland.

“He was always drawing up plays, with guys running in all different directions, saying, ‘Stover, you give a curl here, then a fake there. . . . ' Someone would break in and tell him, ‘John, it would take five minutes to run that play.’

“But even then he was a football technician, always thinking of little things that would make plays work better. He used to drive Casanova crazy. He had a technical perception of football that none of the rest of us had. We could all see he’d be a good coach one day.”

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Shanley, an Oregon running back who later played for the Green Bay Packers, recalls Robinson as a good downfield blocker.

“Robby once threw a downfield block on a defensive back for me against San Jose State that I needed for a 50-yard touchdown run,” he said.

“He didn’t play a lot. He had bad knees the whole time he was at Oregon. But he was great on the sideline. He was like a coach in a uniform. He was always fired up, always encouraging everyone.

“I knew he’d be a coach. He was the coach of our fraternity basketball team. The great thing that’s never changed with him in all those years is his ability to laugh when things aren’t going so good.

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“I never saw him complain or gripe about not playing.”

Robinson, who today often talks with players unhappy about their playing time, said it just wasn’t done in the 1950s.

“Complaining to the head coach--you just didn’t do that,” Robinson said. “It was another era.

“Besides, I knew I wasn’t as good as the guys who were playing ahead of me.”

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Recalled Stover: “In those days, your head coach was God. You showed him respect, like you did your parents. Complaining to Casanova then meant maybe spending the rest of your career on the bench.”

Stover also said Robinson could take a shot.

“One time we were playing UCLA at the Coliseum,” he said. “He got hit on his blind side running downfield on a play and it was one of the worst hits I ever saw.

“He almost got knocked into the seats. I started looking for the ambulance. But he bounced right up and ran back to the huddle, a big smile on his face.”

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Casanova remembers Robinson as . . . well, pesky.

“He was always coming into my office with some play he’d drawn up,” he said. “He’d say, ‘Coach, we gotta try this one.’ He had some good ideas. But some were not so good.

“One time he showed me a play he said would revolutionize football. We tried it, and it didn’t work.

“So I said to him, ‘I thought you said that play would revolutionize football.’ He said to me, ‘It’s not worth a damn, coach--too easy to defense.’

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“One time he talked me into painting our green and lemon-yellow helmets all green for the Oregon State game. So we did. I think we lost.

“He was a great guy on the sideline, always yelling, cheering everyone. Most games, he didn’t play at all, but I don’t ever remember him complaining.

“Yes, I could see he’d be a coach. He was brimming over with ideas. One time we played a bad first half against Idaho and were down at halftime.

“We came into the locker room and I was going to really tear into the team. Robinson meets me at the door and says, ‘Coach, we gotta do this, we gotta do that. . . . ‘

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“I said to him: ‘If you don’t mind, I’ll do the talking here.’ ”


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