Ex-Rams' Coach Robinson Relishes College Football
LOS ANGELES — JOHN ROBINSON is a firm believer in himself - in his turn-around football program and in the multiple virtues of the college game. Pride, discipline, and mutual esteem are all part of his philosophy.
Now back as head coach of the University of Southern California, after one year as a fund-raiser for USC and nine years as field marshall of the National Football League's Los Angeles Rams, Robinson has cast himself as someone who restores old masters. Only Robinson is so impatient that he can't wait for the lacquer to dry.
Robinson's USC project so far has been a rush job. It includes a 31-9 defeat by North Carolina in the team's season opener, then a 49-7 win against Houston, followed by a 21-20 loss at Penn State.
The Trojans probably could have escaped with a tie in the last game if Robinson had allowed his team to kick the extra point after its last touchdown instead of trying a two-point pass play, which failed. The Trojans, off this weekend, begin Pacific-10 Conference play at home on Sept. 25 against Washington State.
Nobody doubts that USC has talent, but until the clock strikes October, Robinson's new system will likely continue to resemble the instrument panel of a Boeing 747 to his players.
Yet Robinson, instead of counting his problems, sees only opportunities. ``Most of what we did wrong against the Tar Heels can be corrected,'' he says. ``We can still get it done. We can still be a winner.''
History reminds Robinson that the first time he became head coach at USC (in 1976), the Trojans were upset by Missouri, 46-25, then came back to win their next 11 games in a row.
Asked about some of the major differences that separate college and pro football, Robinson says:
``The biggest difference is that in college football, you assume the responsibility for the overall development of the individual players. You take a role as a surrogate parent, and you're responsible for the player's progress as a student and a person. The point is, you deal with that player for four or five years very much on an emotional basis.
``That's a significantly different responsibility than what happens in the National Football League. There, it's more like an employer-employee relationship. While there is a camaraderie, it's based on business. The college coach, though, is more like a mentor.
``Another difference is that the number of players on a college team is usually more than double that on a pro squad. Here, you have upwards of 100 players in various stages of athletic development.
``In the NFL, there are not only fewer players, but everyone is ready to play. As far as learning is concerned, everybody except rookies has already paid his dues.
``On the field, college football is a more varied game than in the pros, because there are so many styles on offense and defense. In the NFL, there are only 28 teams, so there are more similarities in styles. Also in the NFL, the margin for error in execution is so small. Yet often the excitement is the same.''
During his previous seven-year residence at USC (1976-82), Robinson won 81.9 percent of his games - including a national championship in 1978. He was also 6-1 against Notre Dame, 5-2 against crosstown rival UCLA, and made college football's postseason bowl picture five times. In fact, all three of his Rose Bowl appearances ended in Trojan victories.
According to Robinson, the player who more than any other must become an extension of the coach's thinking is the quarterback. And USC seems to have the makings of an outstanding field general in Rob Johnson, a 6 ft., 4 in., 200-pound junior with a small cannon for a throwing arm.
``Aside from talent and good mechanics, the big thing your quarterback has to understand is what it takes to win,'' Robinson explains. ``So you spend extra time with him. You watch and go over films together. You talk about how to avoid the big mistake. And you learn the importance of patience.''
So far, the Trojan offense has borrowed repeatedly from that of the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys, who regularly throw to their runners coming out of the backfield and to their tight ends. USC also employs the five-step drop in passing situations that Dallas used last year with Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman.
Although Robinson coached the Rams for nine years and remains the team's all-time ``winningest'' coach with 79 victories, his college roots were never disturbed during that period.
``Even after I joined the Rams, I don't think I ever completely cut my emotional ties to the Trojans,'' Robinson says.
``The truth is, I spent seven of the best years of my life at USC. I made a lot of friends there. I liked college football. I liked the tradition. I liked the enthusiasm of the crowd. Man, I even liked the horse.''
Robinson, fired last year after three losing seasons with the Rams, left with a record that includes two appearances in the National Football Conference's championship game.