John Robinson and Ed Orgeron at LSU Leave USC Nation in a Purple Haze

Chris Dufresne

NEW ORLEANS—John Robinson is 84 now and seems as healthy as a man his age can rightfully expect to be. He has diabetes, yeah, and an irregular heartbeat, yeah, and can’t remember names.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

He is also having the time of his life as a special consultant and "consigliere" for the LSU Tigers team playing Clemson on Monday for this year’s national title.

Robinson knows what this looks like on HD television to the apoplectic USC crowd back home: it looks like a giant Tommy-U to the school that fired him via message machine and these days the team that can’t shoot straight, or beat Iowa in a Holiday Bowl.

Former USC head coaches Ed Orgeron and Robinson now dress in purple and advocate on behalf of the Ti-gaws. Marcus Allen, the former USC Heisman Trophy winner, is a sideline observer.

The fingerprints of Pete Carroll, who led the last Trojan dynasty, are all over Orgeron’s work.

The LSU Tigers are the closest thing USC fans can get to winning the national title right now. The Tigers are the 2004 Trojans on steroids, an embarrassment of riches and scoring machines led by a Heisman-winning quarterback.

Robinson swears none of LSU’s success is being done at USC’s expense.

“I understand,” Robinson said when I caught up with him Saturday in New Orleans. “Things are going bad at SC, that’s true. But you’re up to your ass with your own problems. People from USC call me sometimes, but everyone I know loves SC and would love for USC to be national champions. That’ll change but for me, this sure is fun.”

Robinson, honestly, never expected THIS kind of season to unfold and agreed to become a consultant for Orgeron last summer partially to get out of the house.

Why Baton Rouge? Well, for one, his wife Beverly is an LSU grad.

“That was part of it,” he chuckled.

No one envisioned a magical season that is 60 well-played minutes from turning into a 15-0 championship year.

“It wasn’t like comparing this team to the 1972 championship team at USC where I was assistant,” Robinson said. “Or the team in ‘78.”

Robinson, of course, led the 1978 Trojans to a share of the national title. The coach known as J-Rob joined Orgeron’s staff this year to serve as a sounding board and also to have access to better gumbo.

Getting the chance to earn another championship ring at his age was the last thing on Robinson's mind. In fact, looking at LSU’s schedule this year, he remembers “We were scared to death.”

Robinson thought LSU might lose the opener to Georgia Southern.

“But every week we got stronger and the impact of (quarterback) Joe Burrow was on a different level than anyone else. The offensive line right now, may be the best in college football. The defense, well, a lot of things went wrong at the start, with injuries, but all of a sudden it started changing.”

LSU allowed 38 points to Texas, 38 to Vanderbilt, 41 to Alabama and 37 to Ole Miss before tightening things up in late November.

“I still cringe sometimes and HOPE they play good,” Robinson said of the D.

Robinson has marveled at the maturation of Orgeron, who went 10-25 at Ole Miss and 6-2 as an interim at USC in 2013. Those two losses were to Notre Dame and UCLA.

The consensus around the SEC when Orgeron got another chance at LSU was that he would not succeed.

But Robinson said Orgeron did what good coaches do: he evolved out of necessity. The wake-up call came last year after a very good LSU team lost to Alabama, 29-0, in Baton Rouge.

LSU was still stuck on the conservative, run-first style that used to dominate the SEC.

After Alabama, though, Orgeron realized those days were over.

Orgeron hired Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints and revamped the offense. How’s that worked out? Oregeron hired Robinson to keep him in check on what Robinson called “big picture things.”

Robinson, as a consultant, can’t work with players directly, but he can help out on the finer points of being a head coach, a subject he knows well.

He’ll tell Orgeron if he thinks the team is tired or distracted or offer other suggestions.

Sometimes a good coach needs an extra pair of eyes.

“He’s been willing to seek other opinions, not just from me,” Robinson said. “But that’s part of the reason I’m here.”

The joke was whether Robinson, who helped sustain Tailback-U at USC and coached Eric Dickerson while at the Rams, would tolerate LSU's matriculation toward "Air Orgeron."

Robinson still thinks “Air Raid” offenses make life tough on Air Raid defenses and noted USC this year as a shining example.

“Everyone forgets about the defense,” he said.

High-flying offenses can work, though, when you can combine them with SEC defenses.

Part of Robinson was stuck in “old” school when he arrived in Baton Rouge.

“I may have started out that way,” he laughed. But he became a convert to “high-flying” after he saw what Burrow and OC Brady were cooking up on offense.

With LSU protecting a large lead against Texas early in the year, Robinson said he found himself screaming "Throw the ball! Don’t get conservative!"

Robinson said Orgeron, because of his gravely voice and sometimes coarse manner, has been misunderstood.

“He kind of reminds me of John Madden,” Robinson said of the former Raiders coach and childhood friend. “People used to look at him say, ‘well he’s not smart,’ but that’s bull. Ed is the same way.”

So don’t put too much more meaning into Robinson’s season than this: he’s a man in his mid-eighties roaming the sidelines, doing what he loves.

He doesn’t know if he’ll be back next year because thinking that far ahead would be presumptuous.

“Hey, this is as good as it gets,” he said. “I’m relevant again. People come up to me and say ‘I remember you SOB…you beat us in 1978!’ It makes the aging process easier. I don’t pay attention to it.”

As for Monday night’s game against Clemson?

Robinson: “I think it’s going to come down to the last play.”

And what about USC's sorry condition? Is it permanent?

"I don't think so," Robinson said. "There's so much talent. The tradition is obscured, but that's temporary. They'll be back...I don't know when."


Chris Dufresne