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Former USC coach John Robinson connects with new generation at LSU

Former USC football coach John Robinson stands on the sideline during a practice at Louisiana State.
Former USC football coach John Robinson stands on the sideline during a practice at Louisiana State.
(Chris Parent / LSU Athletics)

John Robinson is trying to come up with the word.

“This young generation … millennium … millennials! Yes!” says Robinson, the 84-year-old legendary former USC and Rams coach. “They see things different.”

The millenials on the Louisiana State football staff carry computers everywhere they go, it seems to Robinson. Early on, they showed him how to turn on his machine and, later, how to wield its analytical powers.

It has been a thrilling four months for Robinson consulting for Ed Orgeron’s LSU Tigers, who will take their 12-0 record and No. 2 ranking into the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday against the No. 4 Georgia Bulldogs in Atlanta. With LSU practically guaranteed a spot in the College Football Playoff based off a dominant regular season, Robinson now feels more up to speed with the new pace that is required.

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“I was here about an hour and a half, and I said, I’m about 10 to 12 years behind the times here,” Robinson says. “I thought I would be right up with it … bull. The computer has really changed everything for all these guys. You want to see this game? Boom. You know? Fortunately, I have an office mate that helps me.”

Aside from a one-year stint in 2010 as a defensive coordinator at San Marcos High, Robinson hadn’t coached since he announced his retirement from Nevada Las Vegas in 2004. In the early part of this decade, former USC athletic director Pat Haden put Robinson to work as a fundraiser for USC, where he was revered for leading the Trojans to four Rose Bowl wins and a share of the 1978 national championship.

Robinson met Orgeron through his fundraising during Orgeron’s second stint as USC’s defensive line coach. The two became closer during Orgeron’s time as interim head coach in 2013 after the abrupt firing of Lane Kiffin.

Orgeron had failed in his first head coaching opportunity at Mississippi and would mine Robinson for tips about running a top program. As Orgeron coached the Trojans to a 6-2 record and made himself a candidate for the permanent position, he valued having Robinson’s ear.

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“If I had gotten the job at USC,” Orgeron says, “I would have hired him as a consultant.”

Former USC football coach John Robinson at LSU Football practice.
Former USC football coach John Robinson at LSU Football practice.
(Chris Parent / LSU Athletics)

USC hired Steve Sarkisian instead of Orgeron, and Clay Helton followed Sarkisian. Robinson said he never approached a USC coach about consulting because it didn’t feel right given that he had held the position in the past. Recently, Helton has hired former Dallas Cowboys coach Dave Campo and longtime NFL offensive coordinator Tom Moore as consultants.

Robinson called NFL games on the radio in addition to his USC fundraising, but none of it was scratching the itch enough.

Robinson’s wife, Beverly, grew up in South Louisiana, where, like most, she was raised a diehard LSU fan. In the last few years, the couple had been visiting Beverly’s mother in New Orleans, and they had also made a few trips over to Baton Rouge to reconnect with Orgeron.

No plans of an arrangement were hatched, but when former USC athletic director Lynn Swann informed Robinson last summer that his services were no longer needed, it contributed to the feeling that a big life change was coming.

Robinson calls Swann a friend and holds no ill will toward the school, which he said was looking for ways to save money.

Watching USC football change so much over the years was hard for Robinson at times.

“It’s part of aging, you think you’re no longer relevant,” Robinson says. “You’re no longer the star and then they begin to change things. The uniform has changed. I can remember being really pissed, like, What are they doing? They do need to take the uniforms back. There’s too much stuff going on. You don’t mess with tradition.

Clay Helton knows he will be returning as the head football coach at USC. For some of his assistants, there is a lot of uncertainty.
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“You know, when I got the job from John McKay, I didn’t change anything. Now, I changed some things, but I didn’t talk about them. I talked about the tradition and underneath I was putting in a better passing game.”

So, it was time for a fresh start. When Robinson told Orgeron he was moving to Louisiana, Orgeron quickly jumped on the chance he never got at USC to have Robinson help his continuing education.

On the first day of LSU fall camp Aug. 1, there was Robinson, outfitted in purple and gold gear that covered up the butterflies he was feeling.

“I just kind of looked around,” Robinson says. “I was excited. Really. I felt like a rookie again. Just because it was what I love to do, you know, and it was what I was good at, and just being a part of the team, I had a ball.”

As a consultant, NCAA rules prohibit Robinson from coaching players directly. Still, those first days and weeks, “I was exhausted,” he says.

Robinson arrives at the LSU Football Operations Center around 7:15 a.m. and leaves around 10 p.m. An offensive coach by trade, he helps the Tigers’ offense get to know itself better, because Orgeron has enough staff devoted to scouting the opponent.

Orgeron says every Monday morning Robinson brings him about 10 observations.

“I use it every day, I promise you that!” Orgeron says.

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Robinson has gotten to be a part of the greatest offensive transformation in college football. The Tigers, known for a stubborn, smash-mouth style under Les Miles, have morphed into a relentless modern spread attack during the last year. LSU enters the Georgia game with the second-ranked total and passing offense nationally, and senior quarterback Joe Burrow has the Heisman Trophy all but locked up.

Former USC coach John Robinson, left, watches a USC practice session with ex-Cal coach Jeff Tedford, center, and ex-USC coach Lane Kiffin.
Former USC coach John Robinson, left, watches a USC practice session with ex-Cal coach Jeff Tedford, center, and ex-USC coach Lane Kiffin.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Tigers’ offensive staff is a melding of generations, from 30-year-old passing game coordinator Joe Brady — whom Orgeron hired away from the New Orleans Saints this offseason — down to Robinson.

“It’s been just a fascinating experience,” Robinson says. “If you were just doing research on football, and trying to compare my generation with this generation and what’s happening, I think I’ve been exposed to a great show.”

Orgeron and Brady may be up for all of the postseason coaching awards, but it’s Robinson who has often received the most admiration as the Tigers have made their way around the South this fall.

Before LSU’s “Game of the Century” against Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Orgeron was talking to the game officials when they made a request:

They wanted to meet John Robinson.


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