John Robinson is so thoroughly identified with USC football that
you would think he arrived with Traveler, the Trojan steed that
has been annoying competitors with its touchdown laps for what
seems like a century. Yet in his two tenures at the school,
Robinson has coached USC only three more seasons than Larry
Smith, the man he replaced 2 1/2 years ago. And for that matter,
Robinson has coached as many years in the NFL as in the Pac-10.
So what is it about John Robinson and USC?
Well, the two used to win together--during the first go-round
(1976-82), they averaged nearly 10 victories a season, with a
national championship and three Rose Bowl wins--and apparently
they still can. Since being rehired in '93, after nine years of
coaching the Los Angeles Rams and another season of the coach's
purgatory in the broadcast booth, Robinson has restored
expectations at the formerly middling USC, taking over Smith's
last, 6-5-1 team and leading the Trojans to records of 8-5 in
1993 and 8-3-1 last season, including a tie with Notre Dame and
a 55-14 Cotton Bowl thumping of Texas Tech.
As in the old days, the Trojans seem poised to dominate their
conference, and Robinson, whose enthusiasm makes him the perfect
front man for USC (and a pretty good recruiter, too), is more
than ready to resume his position as caretaker of one of the
great traditions in college football. The 60-year-old Robinson
talked with SI senior writer RICHARD HOFFER about the fun he's
having as a collegian and the fun he didn't have as a pro.
SI: You've had what every college coach thinks he wants, a head
coaching job in the NFL. Now that you're back from the pros, any
warnings for your more ambitious colleagues?
August 4, 1995
JR: It's true--I'm the guy everybody calls now: "What's it like?"
"What do I do?" It's not for everybody. The money's tempting,
and all those perks. But you've got to figure out all the other
things, the intangibles. I would say the NFL opportunity would
be great for the young college coach, a technically oriented guy
caught up in just football. He can go to the NFL and have a lot
of success. But for coaches involved in the bigger picture,
well, a guy's gotta be careful.
SI: It doesn't sound like the NFL was all that great for you.
JR: Oh, I had some great times. And I think I was great in the
NFL. Well, not great, but we did make six playoffs, and we did
almost get to the Super Bowl twice. But the Rams were never
committed to winning. Not that the Rams weren't successful. They
made money, and that was their goal. But there was never the
commitment to succeed, to compete with every other team in the
SI: Clearly, things are better for you at USC.
JR: This is the right place for me. I'll never coach in the NFL
again, and I'm not going to coach anywhere but USC. Unless I get
SI: What is it about the college experience that seems to suit
JR: You know, the NFL athletes are great. They're dedicated,
they work hard. But the great thing about coaching college kids
is, by the time you can't stand the kid any longer, he's gone.
Of course, in the NFL we could always fire him. Not fast enough?
You're fired. In jail? You're fired. Hard to fire kids in college.
SI: That problem aside, you seem to manage cheerfully enough.
JR: When you recruit a 17-year-old kid, and it's true he might
have some baggage, you have a chance at a success story four or
five years later. I'm not talking about the Pat Hadens or Lynn
Swanns. People say, "Aren't you proud of them?" All we did was
keep out of their way. It's the other guys, the Tony Bosellis,
who come here, and everything good that can happen, does. Or
it's the guy who simply graduates, becomes a man. In the NFL you
don't get the feeling of being a surrogate parent. A year ago we
had a kid here, missed a few classes. The adviser called his
mom. And soon she's sitting in my office, saying, "What the hell
is wrong with you?" I don't remember Dennis Harrah's mom ever
coming into my office. On the other hand, that kid didn't miss
any more classes. And his mom will probably cry when he
graduates. So will I.
SI: But does it always work that way at USC?
JR: A part of anything that's hard is failing. People forget
that. And some of our best efforts result in failure. It's the
guy whose mom doesn't come in. The other guy--that's crushing.
SI: But more and more, don't you have to recruit "the other guy"
to stay competitive at this level?
JR: If we only took the sure bets, I'd worry about education in
America. We need to be risktakers with some of our youth. The
kid with one foot in the gutter--athletics has always gone after
that kid. Athletics has always been about taking kids who have
some clouds in their background, and I approve heartily.
SI: That's a big job you cut out for yourself. Coach players,
mold men, make sure they go to class. Is it harder this time
around than before?
JR: No, it's twice as easy now because we have other people to
do those things. In the old days, coaches were running around
trying to do jobs they weren't competent to do. We had little
expertise, no budget for those things. It's not up to me, thank
goodness, to find a reading specialist for somebody. It used to
be that the players' adviser was some part-time guy working on
his doctorate. Now there are tremendous resources for this kind
SI: What about recruiting? Coaches today complain about the
process, as if it somehow soils them.
JR: This sounds phony as hell, but I enjoy the heck out of it.
The first time around, I'd go into a high school, see what I had
to see and get out of there. But now I kind of hang around. It's
fascinating. You know, the [high school] coach's job is tough. I
went to one place, the coach is waving a spatula around. He's
selling cookies to buy uniforms for the team. Well, I did what I
could for the sake of those uniforms, of course, but I couldn't
help thinking, This is kind of impressive. Also, [I've gone]
into so many homes, seen so many broken families, so many single
mothers, so many kids eliminated so early--trouble right out the
door. We were working to get this one kid, maybe we were the
first to actually offer a scholarship. The mom started bawling.
She had been working two jobs to get this kid to that point.
These stories are there. They're real. The coaches and moms who
deal with these kids, they're the best.
SI: Should these kids get something more than a scholarship for
JR: I'm not for some schedule where if you're All-America you get
$5,000. But I do believe scholarships aren't enough. A lot of
these kids struggle to eat. People scoff and laugh and point at
athletes driving new cars. Those stories exist, I know that, but
that's not the way it is for 99 percent of these kids. So many
of them come here without resources from their families. And we
encroach on their summers and take that income opportunity away.
We should be doing better. These kids shouldn't be living on the
edge of poverty with people telling them to manage their money
better. "Here's five dollars, make it last." I think the
scholarship should just include more.
SI: USC has had the college entrance exam results of three
football recruits--Delon Washington, Kenny Cooper and, most
recently, Ken Haslip--challenged in the past year. Are you
involved or concerned?
JR: We don't have anything to do with [the testing process].
Actually, this is a great example of the system working. As soon
as we heard about it, we stopped playing [Washington]. In the
old days, we'd probably have really looked bad, but now--and I
think this is an example of real progress--[our not playing him]
takes away all the finger-pointing, all the "they're cheating"
SI: Since you've been back among the collegians, you can't help
but have noticed that fewer and fewer of them take advantage of
all four years of their scholarship. Do you object to this
flight to the NFL among sophomores and juniors?
JR: It's a negative for the university, but not necessarily for
the players. They have an opportunity to make a tremendous
amount of money. The thing that goes wrong sometimes, the player
is not ready for it. He's not mature. We have a player, Keyshawn
Johnson, who has decided to stay [for his senior year]. That
gives us a chance to contend for the national championship.
Without him, we wouldn't. But that can't be the basis for his
deciding to stay. The player has to come first. In his case,
with only one year of major-college experience, he has a better
chance to mature, to develop a great off-the-field future. This
kid will be a very successful player, and he could be a media
star. Learning how to be adult should be part of the decision.
My recommendation--this is my solution--is that each NFL team
donate $1 million to the university for every first-round pick.
Not necessarily to the athletic department, just to the
university. I guess, knowing the NFL, I'm not being very serious.
SI: Another issue that comes up, with even greater
inevitability, is the move to a playoff system to determine the
national champion. Does what works in the NFL work at the
JR: I would have loved to have seen a playoff last year, one
game after the Rose Bowl, Penn State versus Nebraska. It would
have been absolutely sensational. In last year's case, we'd have
had a national champion, and not one negative aspect for either
school. Think of it: two of the greatest coaches of all time,
great players. Maybe it wouldn't have been as big as the Super
Bowl, but it would have been fabulous. However, to go to some
four-game playoff schedule, I don't think anybody quite
understands the pressure of that. As it is, we complain that the
NFL demands so much of the seniors in the way of scouting
combines. They would struggle hard through a playoff system.
SI: You've got USC on the upswing again, and--except for not
beating Notre Dame again--you've made it look easy. What's your
JR: It's no secret. I told my coaches, first year, if we're not
in the top five in recruiting, we're fired. It might take a
while for them to fire us, but it would be written in stone.
When we came in, we looked at the talent and we realized we had
problems. We couldn't do it. We had a good quarterback in Rob
Johnson, but one of the biggest mistakes is to ask too much of a
quarterback. We tried to get the best out of what we had.
SI: So USC is a contender again?
JR: We are. That comes from, more than anything, the overall
quality of player. When you look at teams that contend, you look
at the entire squad, best player to least talented. Some years
you have a team like Penn State, with three outstanding players,
and you ride on those shoulders. But everybody else on that team
was good too. Two years ago we didn't have that. Now we do.
We're still young. And we'll play 25 sophomores--a lot. Not start
them, but play. Sometimes I worry they'll play like sophomores,
but then I remember that our '78 national championship team was
that kind of team. There weren't any stars. Everybody said,
"Next year." And we won the national championship. For a team to
win, something's got to happen to it, it's got to become a team.
And it has a better chance to happen on a team without stars.
SI: How do you evaluate the Pac-10 race?
JR: We'll have to beat UCLA and Arizona. And I think you've got
to put Oregon in there. A lot of people want to underrate Oregon
and say that last year was a once-in-a-lifetime season,
especially with their quarterback [Danny O'Neil] and coach [Rich
Brooks] gone. But they've got a good team. Arizona has been and
will be good. UCLA had difficulty with injuries last year. When
they were healthy, they were good. They're also a little bit
like us--they've got to solve the quarterback problem. But a lot
of times, that's not as big a problem as it seems.
SI: This is your third year back. Why isn't that old student
body right working?
JR: When I came back, I called Bill Walsh at Stanford, who'd
gone through the same thing. I wanted to know what was
different. He said, "You know, the coaching is very good on this
level." And some of the best coaches aren't even at the "power"
schools. What Rich Brooks did at Oregon, Bill Snyder at Kansas
State, those are fabulous coaching jobs. Today you see a lot of
variety. In the old days, all you had to do was run the ball and
play defense, and those were things that SC did dramatically
well. When we lined up against a standard defense and rushed for
400 yards, the defense did nothing but absorb it. Now they bring
10, 11 guys up.
SI: So how are you adapting?
JR: I still believe you must have a dominating defense to be
national champion. The first two years we didn't have the
physical resources to dominate defensively. We're better now. We
have a lot of players who are more aggressive up front. And
we're going back to those 3-4 defenses that everybody
played--like when Lawrence Taylor was with the Giants--where the
defense kicks the hell out of everybody. Those other [attacking]
defenses make statistical records, but defenses that gamble
always lose the big games.
SI: And offensively?
JR: The balance must be perfect, like it is with the Dallas
Cowboys. Emmitt Smith runs, and there's a pass. It should not be
a pure shock that [former USC assistant] Norv Turner created
that offense. You've got to play all phases well to win today.
SI: Finally, do you have any plans to relocate the Trojans to
JR: Well, I am a Bay Area guy, you know. But I like the idea of
us and UCLA being the only game in town. It's a great game, and
we've got it all to ourselves.
"This is the right place for me. I'll never coach in the NFL
again, and I'm not going to coach anywhere but USC."
"These athletes shouldn't be living on the edge of poverty. I
think the scholarship should just include more."