John Robinson last walked the sideline as the Rams coach a quarter-century ago, but his imprint on the organization remains.
And it goes beyond Coach Jeff Fisher, a former USC player and Rams assistant under Robinson.
In 1999, Robinson was coaching at Nevada Las Vegas when Rob Boras found himself at an early career crossroads.
Boras had worked as an assistant at the University of Texas and then spent a year as head coach at tiny Benedictine University in Illinois.
Now he was in Robinson’s Las Vegas office, seeking an opportunity.
The young coach impressed Robinson — winner of a national title at USC and 75 games with the Rams — with his football knowledge and demeanor.
“I hired him on the spot,” Robinson said.
Seventeen years later, Boras is the first-year offensive coordinator for a Rams franchise that has returned to Los Angeles after more than two decades in St. Louis.
It’s a huge opportunity for a 45-year-old who coached tight ends for the Chicago Bears and Jacksonville Jaguars before Fisher hired him in 2012.
“You can’t look at it as, ‘this is the first time,’ and have excuses,” Boras said, “because you might only get one time.”
Boras is directing and calling plays for an offense that seemingly can go nowhere but up after finishing the 2015 season ranked last in the NFL.
It still could be a challenge.
Running back Todd Gurley is the reigning NFL offensive rookie of the year, but a receiver corps that features Tavon Austin was not significantly upgraded.
A career backup, Case Keenum, will open the season as the starting quarterback while the Rams wait for No. 1 draft pick Jared Goff to develop.
Boras is confident there will be improvement in a unit striving for balance. The Rams ranked last in passing in 2015.
“We like to run the football, but you have to score points,” he said. “And it’s hard to consistently score a lot of points by running the ball, so we want to have that balance.”
Boras got a trial by fire last season. Fisher fired offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti with four games remaining and installed Boras as interim replacement.
The Rams went 3-1, losing the finale against the San Francisco 49ers in overtime.
“Put him in a really difficult position last year, because he hadn’t called plays,” Fisher said. “But we all thought he did a really great job.”
Boras ascended to offensive coordinator without having coached quarter-backs, running backs or receivers as an assistant. His background — like Kansas City Chiefs Coach Andy Reid and Tennessee Titans Coach Mike Mularkey — was with offensive linemen and tight ends.
Robinson, 81, said that experience gives Boras a broader perspective than a skill-position specialist.
“Some of the guys get around that passing game and they go out and get their pants pressed and want attention because they think they’re intellectual,” Robinson said. “Rob is smarter than most of those kind of guys.”
Boras grew up in Illinois and was a four-year starting offensive lineman at DePauw University, an NCAA Division III school in Indiana.
“As a freshman, he knew every offensive-line assignment from tackle to tackle,” said Nick Mourouzis, who coached at DePauw for 23 seasons. “He was like a coach on the field.”
Boras joined DePauw’s staff as a graduate assistant and then moved on to Texas, where he initially experienced culture shock.
“I’m going from where you stop at McDonald’s on the way to a game,” he said, “to all of sudden playing in front of 100,000 people.”
Boras worked with the offensive line and tight ends at Texas for four seasons. When coach John Mackovic was fired after the 1997 season, Boras became head coach at Benedictine at age 28.
It was another huge transition after coaching at big-budget Texas. Boras’ father painted his tiny office. His parents helped with equipment and laundry.
“It was total mom and pop,” he said of the operation.
After Benedictine finished 3-7, a coaching colleague recommended Boras to Robinson. He spent five seasons as UNLV’s offensive line coach, the last three as offensive coordinator.
“You learned Xs and O’s,” he said of working under Robinson, “but you also learned how to treat people.”
Boras, with a recommendation from Robinson, moved on to become tight ends coach for the Bears. When Boras and other assistants were fired after the 2009 season, Robinson called then-Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, a former USC player under Robinson.
Boras coached tight ends for the Jaguars for two seasons. When Fisher took over the Rams in 2012, Robinson called on Boras’ behalf.
“I owe Coach Robinson quite a bit,” he said. “He’s been influential in every job along the way.”
Boras, however, said he had no inkling he would become the interim offensive coordinator after Cignetti was fired.
“I wasn’t even looking at it big picture,” he said. “It was a job Coach asked you to do and you have to go out there and do your best.”
As the Rams prepared for Monday night’s opener at San Francisco, players said they were looking forward to a full season of Boras helming the offense.
“We’re very like-minded,” Keenum said. “At times, I think too much and he does a good job of reminding me, ‘Hey, see what you see, take what they give you and don’t try to overthink it.’”
Boras’ background, tight end Lance Kendricks said, will enable him to take advantage of Gurley’s talent without solely relying on it.
“Knowing the offensive line and knowing us, he’s able to put together a really good offense that kind of gets us all involved as well as getting Todd the ball,” Kendricks said.
Robinson said he would be watching when the Rams open the season on “Monday Night Football.” It’s a big stage for Boras and an offense that must perform for a team that has not had a winning season since 2003.
Robinson has no doubt that his former assistant will rise to the challenge.
“He’s going to do great,” he said.