Keep an eye on John Robinson as he walks the sideline. No headset for the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. He'll pace, arms crossed, with little strutty steps, hitching his pants, picking his way over sideline cables. His color will deepen from baby pink to mauve, and when he lowers his jowly head, a ridge will appear over his eyes. Then he will be a ram incarnate, butting along, sniffing the air of combat, looking brutally possessive, comically mean.
This will be the most misleading appearance in sport. For not only does Robinson have a folio of refinements—from a mortal weakness for classical music to a history of executive experience as vice-president of a major university—but he is a good appreciator, a fine forgiver, a great friend. Just look at the guy he grew up with.
"We were degenerately absorbed in sports, only sports," says Robinson, who was born in Chicago, moved with his family to Provo, Utah, at the age of six and then to Daly City, Calif., at nine. There he met another absorbee, John Madden. "Madden and I had it figured," he says. "We'd play for the Yankees in the summer, the 49ers in the fall. Later, we began to see what the chances of doing any of that really were. So the coaching fantasy came fairly early to us both. In part, it was the sublimation of our goals, from doing to teaching."
A nice word, sublimation. At its root is a transmutation, an ascent from the earthly to the sublime. Madden, of course, burst from his sublimation to coach the Raiders to 112 wins and a Super Bowl victory between 1969 and '78, and now jubilantly celebrates the jolts of the game for CBS. Robinson took USC to three Rose Bowl victories and a national championship between '76 and '82, and he has escorted the Rams to the playoffs in each of his four years with the team. Now that he finally has a good quarterback in young Jim Everett, greater things may be in store. Assuming, of course, we get back to playing serious football.
October 26, 1987
To hear Robinson and Madden recall their childhood, it was the equal of anything that came after. "If you bought an ice-cream cone," says Madden, speaking of the fifth grade, "and a guy said 'Bites' before you said 'No bites,' you'd have to give him bites. So to prevent that, when a guy said 'Bites,' you'd spit on it...."
"Madden was the only guy who'd ever spit on the cone!" cries Robinson, happily indignant at the thought of it.
"And Robinson was the only guy who'd still take bites," says Madden.
"That got him," says Robinson, still smug after all these years. "He couldn't believe I'd dig right in."
"Aw, hell, it got so you stopped bothering with spitting on it," whines Madden.
They were, and are, a pair of big-chested kids, funny, adventuresome, evenly matched. "When he moved to Daly City," says Madden, "we were both catchers. That wasn't going to work. He was good. I thought I was better. My dad was manager of the team. I became the catcher."
Robinson's brother, Jim, was five years older than he, and Madden has two sisters but no brothers. "So John and I were like brothers, all the way through," says Madden.
"We didn't know what we had," he says. "We didn't know what we didn't have." Neither of them had any money. "But we didn't know that." They both had enthusiasm. "But we were kids. We didn't notice it. We lived in the streets, in the playgrounds. We used to sneak into everything. Ball games at Cal and Stanford. We used to sneak into drive-in theaters, just plop down by the pole, pull the sound box off. This with no car."
They played whatever was in season. "But we were interested beyond just playing," says Robinson. "We had a lot of friends who went to games, but John and I were the only ones who went to practices." They hitchhiked to the 49ers' training camp at St. Mary's College in Moraga. "We knew every 49er and where he played, and tried the best we could to fathom what the coverages were," says Robinson. "We'd talk, we'd wonder. We'd bounce things off each other for hours."
Their discussions were all the more frenzied, the more secret, because Madden and Robinson both stuttered. "We'd talk and talk," says Madden, "and no words would come out." This must have been when Madden's gestures grew to the expansive ones we know today.
Robinson's friends say that in later years he gave the impression of having such swift and multiple thoughts that neither his nor anyone else's mouth could have kept up. "No, no," says Madden. "He was a real stutterer. I got rid of it before he did. My wife says I only revert to it when he and I get back together."
"My biggest struggle was on the phone," says Robinson, "and talking to girls. People used to razz me about it, but it wasn't a paralyzing thing. I got to be student body president in high school."
"He was the only guy ever to have a new bat," says Madden, resisting talk about teenage stuff, dragging the story back to when they were young and easy, under the apple boughs. "For $2.50—and where he got that I have no idea—he bought this bat. It was black. Neither of us had ever had a new one...."
"Those things were treasures," says Robinson. "A baseball glove was like a house. It was so personally yours that I have nothing to compare it with in adulthood. You kept it for life."
"We had read somewhere that to make a new bat good, you had to bone it," says Madden. "So he got this huge bone from the butcher shop, and for weeks he carried around that bat and that bone, rubbing it, rubbing it...."
"In the show, in the dark...."
"You could hear him scraping away. He called it the Black Beauty. You couldn't even get swings from him. We all had to put up with this, but we believed in it, too. This was the way to do it. Finally, it was time. We went to Marchbank Park...."
"A pickup game."
"And on the first pitch, John swung, and connected, and split the Black Beauty in two! I can still see the look on his face. I thought it was the funniest thing."
"I wanted to cry," cries Robinson.
"He was completely destroyed," exults Madden, whose reaction seems to contain both affection and savagery. Those were the essential ingredients, of course, that made them football players.
They attended different high schools. Madden went to Jefferson, where he played football and baseball. Robinson attended Serra, in San Mateo, where he played end and was named All-Northern California. Robinson then went to Oregon, where he was coached by Len Casanova, white-haired, correct and paternal. Casanova is still all of that, and lovingly abusive. "Robbie's high school coach, Jess Freitas, told me, 'John can catch the pass,' " says Casanova. "And he could. But he was too slow to get open."
Yet Casanova, praise heaven, saw to the welfare of his young men without regard to their talent. "He simply shaped how I feel about people," says Robinson. "The relationship of football coach to athlete can put the coach in a position of dealing with people when they're at their absolute lowest." Case in point: Robinson during his sophomore year, with two broken ribs. "He came in and said, 'Coach, I'm going to quit school and become a priest,' " says Casanova. "I'd never had anyone say that before."
Casanova rose to the occasion. "He called his wife," says Robinson, "and told her he was sending me to their home, just to sit and relax, have lunch, reflect and not quit. And that's what I did. I was embarrassed. I showed up at practice and did the smart thing. I kept my mouth shut and never mentioned it again. But the lesson and his influence were there forever—a balance between authority and concern." He pauses, his gaze unfocusing. "Lord, I'd have set back the priesthood a hundred years."
Madden, too, started out at Oregon. But, strangely, he felt he didn't fit in, and he left after his freshman year. "That was the first time I was ever aware that I didn't have any money," he says now. "My roommate in the Sigma Chi house had a closet full of clothes, and I didn't have any. Robbie adjusted. I couldn't. It was easy for me to understand people who didn't have any money, but not the ones who did. Hell, I still hate to be presentable. But Robinson likes it."
This Madden says as an accusation. "And he likes culture and fine restaurants. I don't want culture. I don't want any clothes. I don't want to go to great restaurants." He concludes with what seems a cry of the heart: "Everyone doesn't have to be the same!"
In 1958, Oregon went to the Rose Bowl for the last time in this century and scared the life out of Ohio State before succumbing 10-7, Oregon end Ron Stover set a Rose Bowl record with 10 receptions, and Robinson, a senior, replaced him on the last play of the game. "Just in time to get shot in the rear end with the final gun," says Casanova.
"An Ohio State defensive end across the line, exhausted and bloody, stood up and embraced me," says Robinson. "He said, 'God, you played a great game!' He wasn't being sarcastic. He thought I was Stover." Nineteen years later, before the 1977 Rose Bowl. Robinson took his USC players out to that hallowed field in Pasadena. "I've been here," he said. "I know what this means."
In 1960, after six months in the Army, Robinson joined the Oregon football staff, where he remained for the next 11 years, assisting Casanova and then Jerry Frei. It was a golden age. "You loved being there," Robinson says. "Casanova was the father figure, always on my butt, and two assistants were like gods to me in their technical competence: Jack Roche and John McKay."
Casanova remembers Robinson as a foaming ball of optimism. "He'd be in my office on Monday, arms waving, and say, 'Cas, we're gonna revolutionize football offense! I got a system!' And he'd rush out. About Thursday I'd ask about this system. We needed one. And he'd say, 'Ah, it doesn't work for poop.' "
The Robinson figure of those years was a decidedly comic one. "You can still chart the season by watching his sweater expand," says Frei, now a scout for the Broncos. "He's a nervous eater."
"Before the season opener against Nebraska one year." says Bruce Snyder, who coached with Robinson at Oregon, USC and the Rams, and who is in his first year as head coach at California, "he wanted the opponent scout team to look like Nebraska, so he got swim caps, painted them red, and stretched them over the helmets. On the first hit they shot all over the sky." Echoes of the Black Beauty. The players and coaches fell sick with laughter.
Robinson remained undaunted. "He tried to beat Oregon State," says Casanova, "by having six coaches paint all the team's yellow helmets green." The Ducks lost to the Beavers anyway.
"Once, playing Indiana back there," says Casanova, "we were getting beat. At the half, Robbie came in yelling. "We've got to change this, we've got to change that.' Well, that set me off...."
"So he fired me on the spot," says Robinson.
"I didn't fire him. He always says I fired him," says Casanova.
"He said, 'You're fired!' " says Robinson, picking up the story. "Anyway, while this was going on, our kicker, Dave Tobey, was trying to get past us to the toilet. Cas was so mad at me that he kicked Tobey in the butt and told him to sit down and listen, and by the time Cas was done talking, we had to rush out for the second half, and Tobey never did get to pee. And he had to kick off.
"Well, he was pretty much incapacitated by then. His kick just—forgive me—dribbled for 10 yards, and we fell on it, and stormed back and won. Afterward Cas was credited with an inspired play, an onside kick, so I wasn't fired after all."
"I didn't ever fire him," says Casanova. "I enjoyed him. But he did take some ribbing. We used to howl at this piece of film of a game that showed Robbie getting into the path of a wedge of single-wing blockers and backtracking before it. He wasn't the bravest guy out there."
"I played not to hit, really," Robinson says later. "I tackled to get the ballcarrier down."
Robinson's joy and technical absorption made him a natural teacher. "Robbie liked doing what he was doing so much that it was infectious," says Bob Newland, who went on to play four years for the New Orleans Saints. "During my senior year he had me so convinced I was the best receiver in America that I was shocked I wasn't drafted in the first round. He made everyone feel that way."
Oregon's football ranks were chronically thin, but rich in individual gifts. In 1970, besides Newland, the Ducks had a backfield of Dan Fouts, Tom Blanchard and Bobby Moore, later to be known as Ahmad Rashad. Robinson, the Duck offensive coordinator, opened up the attack to suit their abilities, and, among other accomplishments, they scored three touchdowns in the last four minutes to beat UCLA 41-40.
To hear Rashad tell it, Robinson, no matter what else he might accomplish in life, can die a fulfilled man. "John Robinson was the single most important person I ever came across," he says flatly. "He was the person who let me know how good I could be. In football, understand, they don't want you to know how good you are. There's a mold they want you to fit. Exploring your talent to the fullest doesn't always conform to the mold. But Robbie told me it was almost a deadly sin not to reach full potential."
Robinson did this by being what Casanova had been for him. "In the beginning you need to find yourself, you need to experiment," says Rashad. "He let me do that, he encouraged me, and when I got too far off the path, he brought me back. He never quit on me. He doesn't deal in negatives. Even after a disaster, he picks out the one thing you did right. I learned that from him. I had a career without accolades at the time, and so did Robbie. It's funny how things have changed. God, I hope Robbie is as proud of me as I am of him."
During that era, Oregon was coached by Frei, whose teams didn't even play .500 football (22-29-2), but Robinson, in his incurable enthusiasm, always promised more than the Ducks could deliver. "I had us going to the Rose Bowl every year," he says. When the hopes he'd raised were annually dashed, Robinson became a target for the scorn of Portland alumni. In 1971 pressure was exerted on Frei to replace his assistants, especially Robinson. In this fevered context, Oregon played Oregon State in the season finale. "With a minute to go, we were down 30-29 and had the ball," says Fouts, "but I turned the wrong way on the hand-off, got tackled, and we lost. I was crushed. I knew Jerry Frei would quit after that. I knew it was my fault. But Jerry and Robbie wouldn't let me shoulder the blame."
Frei was exhausted after a long season and the death of his father. Rather than submitting to the pressure and firing his assistants, he resigned. "Accepting that resignation was the single greatest mistake in the history of Oregon sports," says Rashad. The Ducks went 55-106-4 with three coaches over the next 15 years.
Within days of the loss to Oregon State, McKay, who had been plucked from the Oregon staff to be coach at USC in 1960, called Robinson south to coordinate his offense. "One of my disappointments was never getting over the hump at Oregon," says Robinson. "It always surprised me that we didn't win. We'd go, like, 5-5, 6-4 and we cared about each other, so I'd have these doubts. Are we losers? Are we doing it right, even? Well, I went straight from that to the '72 USC team, the unquestioned, undefeated national champion. All we did was win. And that finally swept away the doubts."
Moreover, McKay grounded Robinson in his dogma. "My concept of the game is physical football," says Robinson with deceptive simplicity. "Play defense well. Run the ball well. You've got to do those things."
That commitment, thinks Snyder, makes for a Robinson paradox. "He loves to be creative, but at the same time, the McKay influence is strong within him.
"When you boil it all down," says Snyder, struggling to encapsulate the McKay-Robinson principles, "you must be more physical than the other side, because a prime alternative is to rely on tricks. To bring up a trick play with him, well, you'd better choose your moment with care. It's not that something wouldn't work, it's that you betray the team if you are going to let it rely on tricks."
Passing the ball, it needs to be said, is not a trick. But, pass or run, there is a code of conduct at work here. "John's players have an advantage," says Snyder. "They know that, in their skills and effort, they have the final responsibility. So their resolve will be greater. There is tremendous pride among the Rams that if a game is close, they're going to win it."
In 1975, honoring an old pledge, Madden brought Robinson to the Raiders as backfield coach. At USC, Robinson had called the plays. In Oakland, quarterback Kenny Stabler did it. That left Robinson free to fold his arms and stare at the game and view things from a new perspective.
"He has great belief that he can see through the b.s. to the core issue, the point the game will turn on," says Snyder. As that belief grew, so did a yearning for responsibility. It helped that Robinson had acquired something of a patron in USC president John Hubbard.
"I was impressed by Robinson's ability to communicate what he wanted, why he wanted it, and how, if you did it differently, you could expect a different result," says Hubbard. "It was some of the best teaching I'd ever seen."
The same year Robinson joined the Raiders' staff, McKay announced his departure from USC to Tampa Bay. Three of his assistants, Craig Fertig, Marv Goux and Dave Levy, were able candidates to replace him. "Naturally, they all wanted it like sin," says Hubbard, "and I knew the longer I took to decide, the harder the dividing lines would grow. My problem was simple. The guy I wanted was John Robinson. He knew the place. He was a great teacher."
Hubbard, with the help of the chairman of the board of trustees, Robert Fluor, rammed Robinson through. At 40, he was a head coach for the first time in his life.
"So here we went," recalls Hubbard. "Opening game against Missouri. I'm sitting with Bob Fluor. The new Trojan tradition is about to be established. And Missouri runs us out of the Coliseum 46-25."
After the debacle, Robinson, Hubbard and Fluor gathered in Robinson's cubicle in the locker room. And hid. "We'd clearly demonstrated that USC had the dumbest president, the dumbest chairman of the board in the country," says Hubbard. "We could have had anybody."
Robinson gathered all the blame to himself, but he didn't have to suffer long. USC won the rest of its games that season and beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Robinson's teams would go 56-13-2 the next six years. "So we were geniuses," says Hubbard.
Despite all his years in the game, Robinson has resisted the football-is-life sort of dementia. "I was always struck by the breadth of his intellectual curiosity," says Hubbard. His wife, Barbara, is a pianist and music teacher, and the Robinsons always subscribe to an L.A. concert series, the kind of "culture" that stirs such dread in Madden.
"If I had three wishes," says Robinson wistfully, "one would be to play violin for the L.A. Philharmonic in the Hollywood Bowl. Music is important to my creativity." He says his best ideas come to him in the car, with his beloved Beethoven's Sixth Symphony surging and wheeling around him.
Says Hubbard: "When we talked about what would happen when the pros came to court him, he said it would have to be a city that provided the kind of cultural life that we have here. I sat with him and worried when the Patriots made their move on him, because Boston is not exactly a desert, but he didn't go. He kept talking about the university as a whole. So when I retired, and my successor [James Zumberge] was having a devil of a time trying to find the right man to fill the vice-presidency for university relations, I said, 'Hell, take a crack at John.' "
He did, and in 1982 Robinson accepted. "I'd been head coach for seven years," he says. "And I talked myself into thinking I wanted to do something else." But in three months, discipline himself as he might, he found out otherwise. "It was the only time in my life I slept in. My enthusiasm had dropped,"
Then, in February 1983, the Rams made an offer, and the old zip came back. "I felt bad at letting Zumberge down," says Robinson. "I'm glad I took the university job in some ways. Change is good for you. You can hang on to one thing too long. Often, your first year in a job is your best. You're not protecting a record, you're just flailing away."
He had to do some flailing with the Rams, who had gone 2-7 in the strike-shortened 1982 season. "These guys were all scared to death of me," he chuckles. "They were sure a college coach was going to lay down all kinds of rules."
Instead he delivered a summary of what he wanted—and what he would give. "Honesty and passion," he said. "Honesty in a relationship is an accurate perception of what is good and bad. If you cannot praise, it is almost dishonest to criticize. There will be no name-calling. What you do may be blasted, but not what you ore."
The result: Robinson is only the third NFL coach to make the playoffs in each of his first four seasons.
"It is amazing what he has done without a quarterback in a league that everyone says requires a quarterback," says Madden. "John took what he had—the running game and special teams—and did them as well as they've been done in a long time. And he did it by knowing people, by seeing their strengths and weaknesses, getting them doing what they do best. Bill Walsh, say, plays football like a game of chess. John plays it like a game of people."
Robinson still harbors a wish to deal with a wider world. "I don't see me coaching forever," he says blandly, "at least not trying to achieve an arbitrary number of wins. I should have three or four more jobs, if I live long enough."
He has been sounded out about entering politics—and has passed. Hubbard thinks Robinson would thrive in the college classroom. But Madden is incredulous at this talk of Robinson's leaving football. The game, in his experience, is a matchless energizer, just short of war.
"And look," Madden says, "we've been doing this stuff for 40 years. We don't know anything else. It's nice to talk about 'broader interests,' but that's a lot of baloney. Once, he told me he wanted to be a filmmaker. That's fine, if it's going to be on football, on what he knows, but listen, he's not going to...." Madden casts about for absolutely the most distasteful image he can summon. "He's not going to sit with a bunch of guys in suits on a board somewhere."
If he does, Madden says, he won't be absorbed for long. "When we were kids, playing wasn't part of our lives. It was all of our lives. When we realized all those years ago that we couldn't play forever, we decided the way we could was to coach. So now I think we're in it for life."
Once up there with the sublime, there is no going back to the ridiculous.