The Trojans' Horses

For John Robinson and a resurgent Southern Cal, there's no substitute for a superstar tailback and a stellar running game
September 11, 1994

Last January it was little more than a concourse of cracked concrete, a symbol of seismic devastation that jeopardized both the history and the hopes of a community. The Olympic torch had been tipped over. Columns were fractured. In the spring, months after the Northridge earthquake, if you had taken a seat in Row 79 of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, you could have dropped the shells of your peanuts into a fissure that penetrated, according to one witness, "to the center of the earth."

Yet there the Coliseum was last Saturday, not quite spick-and-span, but certainly rescued. The grand peristyle had been rebuilt. Three-story video scoreboards flanked the torch—burning again—and seats were bolted back down. Anchoring piles driven 90 feet into the earth secured the stadium, and arches filled with reinforcing material held everybody at a comfortably constant elevation. It took only $60 million and, in the last three months of an eight-month repair job, 1,300 workers laboring in three shifts a day to restore the stadium in time for the college and NFL seasons. It took only a miracle.

Happily for Los Angeles, one of the Coliseum's principal tenants also seems renewed, entirely reengineered and once again safe to enjoy. Rebuilding Southern Cal football has taken a similarly rushed and committed effort. At this point the team needs more finishing touches than docs the 71-year-old Coliseum, but after a 24-17 victory over Washington, the Trojans at least seem to be on the same sure footing as the stadium.

Working in a facility that some of the Trojans had helped refurbish in their off-season, USC finally recalled some of the glamour that it and the Coliseum once stood for. True, USC wouldn't have won if the Huskies hadn't turned the ball over five times. Also, if you're handicapping the Heisman Trophy race, give Washington's Napoleon Kaufman (152 yards rushing, 244 all-purpose) a leg up over USC quarterback Rob Johnson (18-23-1, 129 yards and a touchdown) after Saturday's game. This little comeback might fall short of a national championship, but the style of this Southern Cal team harks back to another era—preearthquake, premediocrity. Like the Coliseum, it seems reassuringly sturdy, meant for something grander than the Freedom Bowl.

Coach John Robinson, in his second year of his second regime with USC, has been trying to return the Trojans to a glory they last enjoyed under him, from 1976 to 1982, when they won three Rose Bowls and one national title. Now 59, he has gone about it pretty much the way he did the first time. He insists on a running game, the kind that has peopled Heritage Hall with a gallery of Heisman Trophy winners but which now strikes some as impossibly old-fashioned. Even Stanford coach Bill Walsh, a good friend of Robinson's, has called USC "Yesterday U."

But what if Robinson's way still works? Although he has a gifted quarterback in Johnson, who stands to break all USC passing records and go in the first round of the NFL draft, Robinson stubbornly insists that the team will be carried by its running game. To that end he has nourished a massive offensive line that averages 290 pounds a man. He has encouraged the development of offensive muscle, standout tackle Tony Boselli, returning from summer vacation with the ability to lift the Coliseum back onto its moorings. And he has recruited with an eye toward that elusive standard of Trojan excellence—the tailback who routinely gains 100 yards a game in that Neanderthal offensive ploy "student body right."

Certainly the current team is more like a John Robinson team—"Big," he says, laughing—than the squad last year, when Johnson passed for 3,630 yards and only one of the tailbacks gained more than 100 yards in a game. Knowing he needed to back up the serviceable Shawn Walters at that position, Robinson put the rush on two prized high school All-Americas and a junior college star. Robinson realizes the days are long gone when a recruit could be paraded through Heritage Hall and allowed to notice that dust had gathered on the trophies. Four years ago Kaufman was lost to USC on just such a visit when, marched past the Heisman displays, he was forced to consider the recent lack of excellence at his position. Says Kaufman, "It was like the past three or four years they hadn't had one running back who started the whole time who was the Man."

Saturday it was Kaufman who was the Man, albeit for Washington. To build up his senior star's chances in the Heisman race and in the NFL, which looks askance at athletes as small as Kaufman (5'9", 180 pounds), coach Jim Lambright has loyally promised to put the ball into his hands 30 to 35 times a game. Still, with everyone in the Coliseum knowing exactly what was coming, Kaufman gained 152 yards on 26 carries, caught three passes for 34 and ran back two kickoffs for 58 yards.

A perfect reminder of how he might have fit in at Yester...uh...Tailback U, which is precisely what Robinson is rebuilding, and everybody knows it. It was no secret that USC had better receivers than tailbacks last year and that the passing game, however spectacular at times, was strictly a fallback position. "And this year," said Johnson, almost sadly, "the line is so much bigger and stronger."

Boselli, who at 305 pounds is the best on the line, noticed as well. The tailback prospects that Robinson brought in were giving the offense a new look. Without disparaging Walters, who did after all gain 91 yards and score two TDs against the Huskies. Boselli points out that "we've got guys now where, I might miss my block, and they're still by my man. They open your eyes."

Besides noticing how Robinson wanted things done, Boselli noticed when Robinson wanted them: real soon. Boselli watched, surprised, as Robinson gathered bunches of junior college kids. "I remember only one JC player being recruited in my time here," Boselli said. "Now the message is, we're recruiting the best players, period."

Besides Leonard Green, a JC All-America at tailback, Robinson signed up impact transfers like Errick Herrin, an inside linebacker who served not only at Mount San Jacinto Community College but also in Desert Storm. He was a four-year marine. Then Robinson got outside linebacker Israel Ifeanyi out of Nigeria by way of Orange Coast Community College. Both players served honorably Saturday, Ifeanyi getting a sack in his first Pac-10 game.

And yet the most intriguing athlete on the field was a freshman tailback who may be no more than third or fourth on the USC depth chart. With Green out with a hamstring pull, the call to back up Walters went to Delon Washington. It might just as well have gone to Rodney Sermons, another freshman of outstanding credentials. It simply didn't.

Washington has an otherworldly story. He was groomed for greatness by his brother Benny, who was too small to consider the college game himself but who undertook to manage his younger brother's nascent career. All along, Benny was promoting USC as a destination, so when he was killed in a drive-by shooting in Dallas last January, Delon immediately decided on USC. A sad story made inspiring when, midway through the third quarter, with his team trailing the Huskies 17-10, Delon Washington took over the game. In the drive that tied the score, he ran for 12, 9 and 34 yards to set up Walters, who stood up a safety and knocked him into the end zone. Altogether, Washington ran 10 times for 110 yards. USC fans remembered Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White and Marcus Allen. Washington just remembered his brother. "I pictured him in the crowd, saying, Go inside, go outside." Washington said.

Clearly, Washington has more than the acceleration of the archetypal tailback; he has the charisma as well. He was no more intimidated by the press of media after the game than by the Husky line. He talked easily of his day—spent in front of 54,538 strangers and one friendly ghost—and even referred to his offensive line in terms that were less than considerate (the tailback's prerogative). "They made big holes," he admitted, "but, really, I thought they'd be bigger, them being 300 pounds." Freshmen.

Delon Washington was impressive, but it's hard to think of USC football as a complete piece of work, as its Coliseum now is. "We're a million miles away from where we want to be," Robinson said afterward. As far as Washington was concerned, though, Robinson admitted he had almost called him Robert Redford on the sideline because the freshman reminded him of the Roy Hobbs character that Redford portrayed in The Natural. Then again, Robinson cautioned, nobody had seen USC's other freshman. "Sermons will play," he promised. "There's no star of destiny hanging over Delon Washington."

But it isn't hopeless, is it? The rebuilding needn't take so long if everybody is committed. Throw three shifts on the job, sec what happens.

Robinson paused to consider. "Delon Washington," he said finally. "He did look hard to tackle, didn't he?"

PHOTORICHARD MACKSONFreshman Delon Washington may be third on the depth chart, but he was first-rate against the Huskies. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERWalters got clear for two touchdowns, but he could be caught by USC underclassmen. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONEven the USC defense played a ground game, occasionally on Husky quarterback Damon Huard.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)