Can John Robinson rebuild football's turbulent Rams?
Los Angeles — The next time someone tries to tell you that the Los Angeles Rams are a reasonable facsimile of a professional football franchise, look him straight in the eye and say: ''Yeah, and that picture hanging in my den is a Rembrandt.
Listen, Norman Lear couldn't keep up with the Rams. They are even owned by a woman (Georgia Frontiere), who club officials could only reach during last year's training camp period by transatlantic telephone.
The Rams, whose Anaheim home base is not far from Mickey Mouse and Disneyland , hadn't had a head coach for six weeks.
Well, they've got one now. John Robinson of the University of Southern California qualified for the position in late November by announcing his resignation with one game still remaining on the Trojans' schedule.
Of course nobody knew what Robinson really meant by that move at the time, including John. Robinson just said he had grown tired of the major college coaching grind and would become a member of the school's administrative staff instead. His main job would be that of a fund-raiser.
Hey, I believed Robinson and so did a lot of other people. At that time I might have even bought a used car from him. Only a year before, remember, John had shown his USC loyalties by turning down a multi-year contract estimated at $ 2.5 million to become head coach of the New England Patriots.
Robinson also has a history of being wonderfully candid in media conferences, generally disarming the hostile arm of the nation's press in a way that most politicians wish they could. While he might not have answered your questions directly, he always left you with something rich and crunchy and delightfully quotable that you could chew on.
Did the Rams make the right decision in hiring Robinson? Of course they did. John knows people and he also knows the intricacies of the National Football League, having once been an assistant coach with the Oakland Raiders under his old friend John Madden. In fact, Robinson was the best man at Madden's wedding.
I hate to resort to anything so mundane as the phrase ''tremendous organizer'' in describing one of the things he does best, but John seldom leaves anything to chance. In seven years with the Trojans, he compiled a regular-season record of 67-14-2. His team was also the victor in four of five post-season bowl games.
Even allowing for the fact that Robinson recruited well and always had excellent material, he was smart enough to make the most of what he had. And he coached two Heisman Trophy winners in Charles White and Marcus Allen.
Robinson's transition from the college game to the professional level should not be difficult per se. He has seen it all before with the Raiders. And Madden , who's now a TV commentator, can fill him in on the rest.
What John hasn't had to deal with before is the mental condition of most Ram players. Under the recently fired Ray Malavasi, they often showed up for games with their bodies intact but their minds still somewhere out on the freeway. No wonder LA has posted only eight victories in its last two seasons.
Players know when a coach is being forced to take too many orders from the front office and stops being his own man. The fact that Malavasi had gotten himself trapped into a situation like that did two things. It eroded his authority with his players and hastened his departure.
Ray may even have wanted to start Vince Ferragamo, who'd returned from Canada , at quarterback at the beginning of last season. But once the owner of the Rams had personally engineered a trade for Baltimore's Bert Jones, the head coach knew he either had to warm to the new man or risk losing his job.
How bad are the Rams? Well, I'm not sure that anyone really knows at this point. How do you look at a jellyfish and tell for sure which is the front side?
Certainly LA doesn't have nearly the defense or depth that it showed in reaching the Super Bowl in 1980. However, it does have perhaps 15 to 20 players good enough to win a spot on most NFL contenders.
Robinson, if you analyze him carefully, comes across as a very aware person, who's quick to uncover team weaknesses as a coach and even quicker to correct them.
What John has to do in training camp is get the Rams interested in playing tough defense again; find a breakaway runner who doesn't fumble; and rebuild his special teams to the point where they can contain the opposition on punt and kickoff returns.
For those who expect Robinson to turn the Rams around overnight (meaning more wins than losses next season), forget it. John DeLorean will have his automobile factory operating in Ireland again before that happens.
The thing you have to remember about Robinson is that he insisted on a five-year contract - not so much because he doesn't think he can have a winner with the Rams in four years or even three, but because it's important his players know he's not being brought in as some kind of grand experiment.