The old coach sits in darkness, his profile illuminated by the
glow of an overhead video projector. Past glories rush forth on
a white screen at the front of the room, a highlight tape of the
coach's previous life. The viewing isn't his idea. "I don't
spend a lot of time reminiscing," says John Robinson, the former
and present coach at Southern California. But once the show
begins, buried memories are brought back to life. The theater is
a meeting room at USC's Heritage Hall, and Robinson strikes a
coach's pose: loafers on the table, remote control resting in
the palm of his right hand with his thumb at the ready.
On the screen there's an image of the late Ricky Bell, the
former USC running back, in 1976. The narrator intones: "One of
the highlights of Robinson's first year in '76 was the play of
senior tailback Ricky Bell...."
"Great player, collision runner like Earl Campbell,'' says
Robinson. His voice cracks slightly. "This guy was a great kid,
a big-time human being. He got that disease [cardiomyopathy] and
Action of the 1980 Rose Bowl, in which No. 3 USC beat No. 1 Ohio
State, 17-16. Narrator: "USC trailed undefeated Ohio State in
the final minutes and then began one of the most devastating
victory drives in the history of the Rose Bowl...."
"I told Paul Hackett, our offensive coordinator, 'Give the ball
to Charlie White and run behind Anthony Munoz,'" says Robinson.
"Munoz was a senior, played the first three plays of the first
game of the season and got hurt. He came to me in December and
said, 'Should I play in the Rose Bowl or redshirt?' I told him
he really should play, and if he plays well, he'll get drafted
anyway. Hell, he was the third guy picked in the whole draft.
Charlie White broke his nose in that game, blood all over his
face. Toughest player I've ever been around. His fullback was
Marcus Allen. One-hundred eighty-five pounds."
Highlight films have a way of making the ordinary seem moving.
Blend some forceful music with alliterative words and a video of
Purdue 1994, Nowhere to Go but Up will moisten your eyes. But
the USC production that Robinson is watching is a cavalcade of
true greatness. Sam Cunningham, Charlie Young, Lynn Swann,
Anthony Davis, Pat Haden, Bell, Marvin Powell, Clay Matthews,
Paul McDonald, Munoz, White, Ronnie Lott, Dennis Smith,
Allen--it's like a football fantasy camp. Robinson coached all of
them, either as an assistant (1972-74) or head coach (1976-82)
before moving to the NFL for nine years.
The flow of talent running through USC during the Robinson
years--before scholarship reductions and recruiting
restrictions--was unprecedented. "Big man on big man," is what
former USC assistant coach Marv Goux would call the Trojan
practices. "Much tougher than games," says Young, an All-America
tight end in 1972.
Footage of USC's 24-14 win at Alabama on Sept. 23, 1978:
"Robinson's 1978 team was extraordinarily talented and went on
to win USC's fifth national championship in 17 years."
Robinson, who turned 60 the last week of July, points his
clicker at the screen and hits the pause button. "That was a
very young team, with a lot of talented players who hadn't
proved themselves. I thought we were a year away,'' he says of
the '78 squad. "This year's team, right now, has some real
similarities to that team. Eventually, we'll be able to make a
highlight film like the one you just watched."
College football has taken the concept of tradition and
bludgeoned it. These days tradition is two winning seasons and
having a catchy nickname for your defense. The new tradition
gets you five minutes on ESPN some Saturday morning, then you
lose to Michigan and you're gone.
At USC, tradition is real, but it has also decayed. The Trojans
haven't won a national championship since '78, and they bottomed
out during a 9-15-1 stretch that began with a 10-6 loss to Notre
Dame late in the 1990 season and concluded with a 24-7 loss to
Fresno State in the Freedom Bowl on Dec. 29, 1992. After that
defeat, coach Larry Smith attempted to explain parity in college
football by saying, "Big names and logos don't mean anything
anymore." Instead, he succeeded in insulting the entire USC
alumni body. "A watershed game," says Haden, a member of the USC
board of trustees. Smith was forced to resign three days later,
and Robinson was brought back. It was a move that smacked of
grasping at the past, but it was more than that. Robinson
understood that tradition isn't a weepy recollection of the
past. "Tradition is a level of expectation, nothing more," says
Robinson. "Don't come to USC saying you're going to be almost
As Robinson II, Season III begins, USC has wriggled back to
life. The Trojans were a surprise 8-5 in '93 and a solid 8-3-1
last year, including late-season demolitions of Arizona (45-28)
and Texas Tech (55-14), the latter in the Cotton Bowl.
Recruiting at USC has returned to elite status, and in '94
Robinson brought in outstanding talents like linebacker Errick
Herrin, defensive linemen Israel Ifeanyi and Darrell Russell,
and cornerback Brian Kelly. This year's incoming freshman class
includes Daylon McCutcheon, a 5'11", 175-pound cornerback, the
son of former All-Pro running back Lawrence McCutcheon and one
of the most sought-after recruits in the country. The only
serious issue for the '95 team is resolving a quarterback battle
between fifth-year senior Kyle Wachholtz and junior Brad Otton.
Yes, tradition is alive again, carried into the present by a
willowy 23-year-old wide receiver named Keyshawn Johnson, who
has USC in his blood and a national championship in his sights.
Robinson believes there is a profile of the ideal USC player,
who both builds and carries tradition. It is a profile in four
parts. Johnson is the model for that player, the link to the
past and the foundation for the present: the player to carry USC
back to glory.
Part 1: We like gym rats here, kids who want to be around
Spring 1980. Trojan star Ronnie Lott orders a pizza for himself
and teammate George Achica in a joint on Jefferson Boulevard in
Los Angeles, next to the USC campus. The players are hounded by
a cluster of kids with names like WaWa, Kippie, Tutu and Little
Ron. The skinniest and most persistent of them all is
seven-year-old Keyshawn Johnson. Lott buys the children a pizza
of their own and gives them directions to USC's practice field.
The next day the kids are at practice, en masse--Robinson never
locked the gate. They subsequently become surrogate children of
the football program, tromping each afternoon from their homes
in South Central L.A. to the USC entrance at 36th Street and
Vermont Avenue, just for the privilege of chasing errant
footballs. None of the kids took to the place quite like
Keyshawn, who soon became part of the USC family, stuffing
envelopes in the sports information office and selling programs
at baseball games. "He would carry my bags to the car, and the
bags were bigger than he was," says former assistant football
coach Artie Gigantino, now the defensive coordinator at
California. Another assistant football coach, Nate Shaw, brought
Keyshawn to the training table and passed him off as his son so
that Keyshawn could eat with the team. Many nights Keyshawn
slept in an off-campus apartment shared by quarterback Scott
Tinsley ('80-82) and defensive back Tim Shannon. "I worried, but
at least I always knew where he was,'' says Keyshawn's mother,
Vivian Jessie, a single parent. "The city was going bad back
then. Kids were getting into terrible things."
Gigantino also brought him home sometimes. Keith and Joey
Browner brought him home. Marcus Allen brought him home.
Assistant sports information director Nancy Mazmanian brought
him home dozens of times.
For Keyshawn, the campus was another home. "A whole bunch of us
used to go there," he says. "I just happened to be the one that
fell in love with the place."
Part 2: Our kids have to be comfortable in an urban setting.
The '89 Honda slows to a stop outside 3756 S. Raymond Street, a
gray two-story apartment building, one of Johnson's boyhood
homes. "This is the neighborhood," he announces from behind the
wheel. Urban, indeed. He grew up in South Central L.A. in the
1970s and '80s, at the apex of a bloody gang explosion. "I've
seen many people come and go," says Johnson. That would mean
killed or sent to prison. As he speaks, a small boy wanders
past, his sneakers strung with bright red laces. "Look at his
shoes," Johnson says. "Red laces. He's a little Blood. Doesn't
even know what he's doing yet."
The neighborhood was predominantly Blood territory, and
Johnson's brothers Dennis, 29, and Michael, 26, were in the
middle of the war. (Johnson's sisters, Sandra Thomas, 31,
Kimberly Thomas, 30, and Denise Thomas, 29, were not involved
with gangs.) As a kid, Keyshawn straddled the fence between
joining a gang and abstaining. "I wasn't in a gang, but I was
affiliated," he says. "They all knew me. They accepted me. I
associated with them, but I didn't do drive-bys, because I
didn't want to kill anybody."
By 1987, Johnson had stopped spending time at USC, in part
because Smith, who took over that year, rarely opened practices
and in part because Johnson began to embrace some of the
temptations that surrounded him. He sold drugs for at least
three years, wearing a pager and dispensing marijuana and,
briefly, crack, clearing up to $300 a day from the age of 13 to
15. In the eighth grade he was arrested for possession of a
concealed weapon (a handgun) and possession of marijuana and
cocaine, and served nine months in a California youth facility.
He makes no apologies for this period in his life. "The reason I
sold drugs is that everybody I knew was doing it,'' says
Johnson. "Everybody. I know lots of kids who were robbing people
and doing drive-bys."
"What Keyshawn was doing back then was normal for the area,"
says Darryl Holmes, a 35-year-old L.A. native who was an
assistant when Johnson played at Dorsey High School and later at
West Los Angeles (junior) College, in Culver City. "If there was
a way to make money, selling drugs or stealing, Keyshawn was not
above it. That's just the way it was. But what he's done since
then, that's not normal at all."
Part 3: They have to be ambitious, see themselves as successful.
Johnson was a star receiver at Dorsey High, recruited by all the
major powers and offered a scholarship by Miami in the winter of
1991. But he failed to reach the minimum SAT score for freshman
eligibility, and Miami lost interest. "Deep down, I knew I
wanted to go to college and be a superstar and all that," says
Johnson. "But there was too much catching up to do in school. I
didn't prepare myself."
Johnson went instead to West Los Angeles College. He lasted
eight games. "He was extremely talented, extremely gifted, but
not mature at all," says West L.A. coach Rob Hager. "One day he
just didn't show up." Johnson returned the following spring, but
Hager and Holmes told him to sit out the 1992 football season
and prove himself by going to school and returning in the spring
of '93. "All these colleges wanted you out of high school,"
Johnson's mother told him, "and now look at you."
Johnson righted himself and returned to West L.A. in the fall of
'93 with an associate degree in hand and a fresh attitude. There
was no secret to the transformation. "All I had to do was step
back and look at where I was going," says Johnson.
Says Hager, "He came back strong, mature, focused, tremendous in
a variety of ways." Johnson caught 55 passes that year and
became one of the best junior college players in the country,
and schools began recruiting him all over again. And his
drive--did somebody say ambition?--became relentless. On an
early-season bus trip home to West L.A. following a loss at
lowly Compton Community College, Johnson stood up and berated
his team. "Look at yourselves," he shouted. He saw quarterback
Damon Williams, a former high school teammate, eating potato
chips and smashed the bag in Williams's face. "Is this what you
are, a waste?" Johnson screamed. "I'm not gonna let you guys
ruin me getting to the next level, so wake up and smell it."
Shaken and drained, Johnson sat down. The bus was silent. At the
end of the season he accepted a scholarship to USC.
Part 4: It has to be fun. Never lose the sense of joy in what
Johnson could major in fun. He carries himself as if he knows
things the rest of the world does not. Funny things. When he
isn't smiling, he's laughing. This joy spills over to the
football field in the most spontaneous ways.
For instance: In a 1993 junior college victory over Santa
Barbara City College, Johnson caught a short slant and took it
91 yards for a touchdown--and then kept running, out of the
stadium all the way to the top of a hill that overlooks the
ocean, where he stood, with his left hand on his forehead, like
Balboa discovering the Pacific. "I was just admiring the view,"
he says. That same fall he returned a kickoff 90 yards for a
touchdown against L.A. Pierce Junior College, ran through the
end zone and up a ramp to a refreshment stand, reached into a
bucket of ice filled with soda cans and pulled out a cold drink
At USC last year, not only did the 6'4", 210-pound Johnson catch
66 passes for 1,362 yards and nine touchdowns, but he also
reminded his opponents of every catch and every yard. "In the
Washington State game [a 23-10 USC victory in which Johnson
caught three TD passes], he had their guys completely spooked,"
says USC senior center Jeremy Hogue. "We're calling a play and
he's 10 yards away, talking to their defensive backs, saying,
'You're too short to cover me, I'm coming back.' You looked at
their faces, and you knew they just wanted the game to be over."
Johnson seems to know everybody, everywhere. According to Hogue,
when Johnson appeared for the Playboy preseason All-America
photo shoot last May in Phoenix, "Keyshawn knew at least 10 guys
from other teams." Johnson is as likely to pop up at a West L.A.
nightclub as he is at an L.A. Clipper game. "He will be the
mayor someday,'' Robinson says. "And I'm going to get free
The USC that Robinson returned to in 1993 was much different
from the one that he had left 10 years earlier. Among those who
instantly noticed the difference was athletic director Mike
Garrett, the 1965 Heisman Trophy winner, who succeeded Mike
McGee just weeks after Robinson was hired. "Educate young people
and win national championships, that's what we do here," Garrett
says. But of USC's 76 national titles, only 13 have been won
since 1978, and none in football, baseball or men's track and
field, sports in which the Trojans won 22 titles from 1961 to '78.
Garrett has nudged the USC administration toward reacceptance of
the importance of athletic success. And Robinson has rebuilt the
football program in less than three years. How low had the
Trojans fallen? In the first game of 1991 they lost to Memphis
State, 24-10, in the L.A. Coliseum. "Great introduction as a
Trojan," says Hogue. "First game of my career, I finally made
it. Go running down the tunnel and lose to Memphis State.
Welcome to college football."
By the time of the Freedom Bowl loss, the program had lost its
vitality. "No one wanted to practice, the whole attitude of the
team just stunk," says fifth-year senior tight end Tyler Cashman
whose father, Pat, played for USC in 1966 and '67 and whose best
man was O.J. Simpson. Under Smith there were strict team rules
and dress codes (no earrings, no hats in meetings, no beepers).
Robinson's style is different.
Says Cashman, "Robinson has one rule: You guys are grown men,
don't embarrass me.'' More substantively, Robinson started
filling the talent gaps. "He brought in a whole bunch of new
kids,'' says Cashman. "Right away it was like, Hello. So this
is college football."
The gate to the practice field is open, the way it used to be.
Keyshawn Johnson steps from a USC campus sidewalk onto the deep,
natural green of the football field. It is early evening, a soft
breeze rustling the grass. "This is it,'' he says. "We used to
come right through this gate. My first practice out here in '94,
I dropped everything, just looking around. Of course, I also
showed my ID to everybody I ran into on campus.
"This is a miracle that I'm here,'' he continues. "Talk about
your damn Rudy stories. Give me another story like mine." He
spurned the NFL draft last April, though he was a certain
first-round pick, and now he carries an insurance policy worth
more than $1 million against injury. He turned down the big
money to play another year in college, to win a national title.
"To help bring USC back," he says.
The tour resumes. Johnson points to the west. "Right over those
trees,'' he says, "is the neighborhood." A kid's dream in
cardinal and gold, never out of reach. With it, a school's
football tradition, brought back to life.