Dear John: Don’t Be Resigned to Losing Tonight

USC is not going to a bowl game, but John Robinson is.

Today, at the Coliseum, at an hour when it’s difficult to tell shadows from substance.

USC versus Notre Dame, and one thing is clear:

A coach who has spent four years waxing about big games finally has one.


A game to decide his future.

The Job Bowl.

If the Trojans are competitive against the Irish, Robinson should be allowed a chance to lead this young team to the next level, as he has promised.

If they are not competitive, he should resign or be fired.

This is not about winning. Asking any team to defeat a more talented opponent without the full services of its starting quarterback is unfair.

This is about showing up. For parts of this season, the Trojans have not shown up.

For critical parts of their two biggest games each year since Robinson returned in 1993--against UCLA and Notre Dame--the Trojans have not shown up.

Today, Robinson has a chance to prove he can still coach a team to show up.

If he can, under the swinging noose of a 13-year winless streak and limp support from his bosses, then he deserves to come back.

If he can’t, then he probably never will be able to coach this team again.

It is a chance he should welcome.

Hasn’t he always been like the guy who wants the handoff at the two-minute warning, the guy who wants to take the shot in crunch time?

What better way to end the speculation than by coaching his cleats off against the nation’s 10th-ranked team?

A Notre Dame team filled with personal motivation--either to honor the old boss or impress the new one?

And to do it in front of top Trojan recruits being flown in to walk the sidelines and better understand the USC mystique and mission?

For Robinson, this is not just a football game, this is a fastball down the middle.

This is also a chance his players should welcome.

They can actually give weight to their blustery words of recent days.

So, they are going to leave school if Robinson is fired?

Fine. Then play hard enough to keep him.

(Somebody also needs to tell these guys, by the way, that it is not cool to refer to him in the newspaper as J. Rob, or J.R., or Coach Rob. That sort of buddy-buddy talk makes Trojan alumni sweat all over their Mazda dealerships.)

Is any of this fair? Of course not.

But sports are unfair, or else nobody would watch them.

Life is about an accumulation of time, but sports are about moments.

While a man’s value to his computer company is measured in years, world championships are decided on one pitch. National championships are decided on one shot.

And yes, coaches’ jobs are decided on one game. It happens all the time.

Or are you forgetting about that USC guy who went to five bowl games in six years, including three Rose Bowls, but then made the mistake of losing to Fresno State?

What was his name? Larry Smith?

Robinson knows this better than most. He knows he could become a tenured professor somewhere and nobody would ever discuss his livelihood on the front page.

Yet nobody would also cheer him at his workplace, or pay him about $600,000 year to show up there.

He also knows that with the NFL gone, college football in Los Angeles is no longer a nice place to hide.

If he thinks this is the Rams’ situation all over again . . . well, it is.

The only thing really unfair about any of this would be if the Trojans played well today and Robinson were still fired.

Then, any prospective USC coach would have to ask himself, do I want to work for a man like Mike Garrett?

After all, Robinson has never embarrassed the program, only those get-a-lifers who don’t like the way he dresses. (If you believe them, Bobby Bowden wouldn’t have lasted five years at this school.)

OK, he cost the kids a great learning experience last week by shielding some of them from the media after the UCLA loss. They, and we, will survive.

This has been printed a dozen times this week but is worth one more look:

John Robinson has won three bowl games in three years before this one, including the Rose Bowl last year against a Northwestern team that has since proven it was legitimately good.

Now for the bad:

His teams increasingly play as he looks. Yes, disheveled.

In three of the Trojans’ six losses this year, they have blown halftime leads. In a fourth loss, the score was tied at halftime.

From these losses, one might surmise that somebody is not making the proper adjustments in the locker room. That somebody’s team is getting not just outplayed but outcoached.

From the big-game losses to UCLA and Notre Dame, it also can be surmised that somebody is not teaching these players what every student must learn, from the business school to nursing department.

Somebody is not teaching them to perform under pressure.

One could argue that the only truly pressure-filled game that the Trojans have won during Robinson’s second stint there was the Rose Bowl last Jan. 1. But even then, how much heat was national darling Northwestern feeling?

Since Robinson returned, the Trojans have a losing record against ranked teams. It’s not a good feeling for alumni used to being the ranked team.

In 3 1/2 hours this afternoon, this can all change. After a week of being vilified, John Robinson has a chance that many beleaguered coaches never get.

He has a chance to defend himself, to save his job, to maintain his reputation. And he is given that chance on a national stage.

The audience awaits.


The Big Two

A look at John Robinson’s record against traditional rivals UCLA and Notre Dame: *--*

1976-82 Team W L T Pct UCLA 5 2 0 .714 Notre Dame 6 1 0 .857 vs. Big Two 11 3 0 .786 Overall 67 14 2 .819 1993-96 Team W L T Pct UCLA 0 4 0 .600 Notre Dame 0 2 1 .167 vs. Big Two 0 6 1 .071 Overall 30 16 2 .646 COMBINED Team W L T Pct UCLA 5 6 0 .455 Notre Dame 6 3 1 .650 vs. Big Two 11 9 1 .548 Overall 97 30 4 .756