He won a national title at USC and had many great years with the L.A. Rams. In this two-part interview, John Robinson opens up about football legends John Madden, Paul “Bear” Bryant, John McKay, Kenny Stabler, Eric Dickerson, and O.J. Simpson.
Rarely does a coach succeed in both the professional ranks and in college, but John Robinson of the University of Southern California (USC) and the Los Angeles Rams is such a rarity. Robinson, who was the head coach at USC from 1976 to 1982 and again from 1992 to 1997, holds a career record there of 104-35-4. Sandwiched in between his college career was a nine-year stint with the NFL’s Rams. In six of those seasons he ushered the Rams to the playoffs and on two occasions made the NFC Championship Game. Although a Super Bowl eluded Robinson, he did win a national championship in his third year at USC. Hall & Arena recently caught up with Robinson, who is retired from football but is the color commentator for Sports USA Radio Network.
H&A: Coach, you grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and were friends with fellow NFL legend John Madden. You two guys and some others played a game called “Bites or No Bites.” Tell us about that.
CJR: We all had an agreement, between about four or five of us that ran together. We were kind of like a pack, and if you had an ice cream or candy bar, you had to give everybody a bite. And if you yelled “no bites” when you got it, then nobody could get a bite. But the other guy could yell “bites.” Well, John being John had figured out a way that he would spit on the ice cream cone. Then you wouldn’t want bites, and I thought that was terrible for him to do something like that. So we had to fight back…if he spit on it, I still would take a bite out of the cone and try to avoid the spit. But that was the joke and that became really overblown. It was funny.
H&A: It’s been said that you used to jump on moving freight trains to go to San Francisco 49ers games and other games in the Bay Area. Is that true?
CJR: I never heard that before. We would hitchhike. You could get a ride. Sort of pre-Uber. There would be probably 30 miles to the 49er training camp, and we would hitchhike down and hitchhike back.
H&A: Who were some of the sports stars—and you don’t necessarily have to limit that to football—whom you idolized in your youth?
CJR: For the 49ers, I loved a guy by the name of Billy Wilson, who was a wide receiver, a good one but he wasn’t quite as famous as some. He was tall and skinny and slow. I was pretty tall…and slow. Hugh McElhenny, Bob Toneff, who was a Notre Dame defensive tackle. He was really famous then.
H&A: It was said that you wanted to play for the Yankees in the summer and the 49ers in the fall. Did sports just saturate your life as a young person?
CJR: You know, when we were kids you played football and you put your cleats away in the last football game and pulled out the basketball. And when that was over you got your glove and your bat. You just played year round, whatever sport was going. It’s just the way you did it. We never had workouts or anything, but we just played games or did whatever we could. So that was our youth league. Basically when we got in high school you had to have a summer job of some kind or other. That got in the way. But by the time we got in high school, we were all on high school teams.
H&A: You played college ball at Oregon. How did you get recruited by the Ducks?
CJR: Recruiting wasn’t a high-powered thing then. They did it a lot by mail. My high school coach, guy by the name of Jess Fratus, played at Santa Clara, and he played for Len Casanova, who was the coach at Oregon. Jess Fratus called him and told him about me. I was no hotshot or anything. We had some film. Film was an iffy thing for most schools, maybe you film two or three games per year. I never got a visit. They wrote me a letter on nice stationery and said, “we have a scholarship for you.” And I said, “yes sir!”
H&A: What was it like playing for coach Len Casanova?
CJR: He was like my father. He is in the College Football Hall of Fame. He would get on my ass. My dad died my freshman year in college. He would watch out after me, just ream me out if I didn’t go to church on Sundays. One of those family things. He would check my grades. He was like my dad.
H&A: You started to develop a relationship with coach John McKay at that time.
CJR: Yeah. He was the backfield coach. And I loved the game, and I would ask him to teach me things about football in the offseason. Whenever he had time he would spend a couple of hours with me. I think he enjoyed just talking about football. When I was 38 or 39 years old working for him at USC, I think we had a lot of fun just sitting and talking about football. That was a very good thing to happen to me. The defensive coach was a guy by the name of Jack Roach and Jack had gone to Santa Clara and been a really great player there, and had been on Len Casanova’s staff forever. Between those two, they kind of taught me about the game.
H&A: Was coach McKay as quick witted as people say and what was he like in his private life? What was your relationship like with him?
CJR: Yeah, I think he was very quick witted and could be really, really friendly and caring about everybody…I think every coach and every player was afraid of him. He had a great mind and was really fun to be around, but it wasn’t equal. He was the boss, and it was really a treat to be around him. He thought about football all the time. We used to have a watering hole right by the campus, a place called Julie’s, and he would go there and sit and talk football for hours. It was great.
H&A: After some pretty lean years at Oregon, you came to USC and eventually overcame some self-doubt. How important was that for you as a coach?
CJR: I was a freshman coach when I got out of college. Then I was a defensive backs coach, and then I was a defensive coordinator, then I went over to offense. Coached the running backs, and then I coached the quarterbacks and receivers. So I had a great education, but we didn’t win big. We were good, and people thought we were good, but we were always 7-3 or 6-4, something like that. So coming to USC was like being sent to heaven. I came in there on the ‘72 team, which was about to become the unanimous national champion. You begin to think you fit in. I think you adopt a philosophy that you begin to stick with. With McKay, it was, “we are going to run the ball, we are going to overpower you. We are going to pass.” We were big on the play-action pass. What was en vogue then was the dominant run game, so at USC we recruited dominant offensive linemen. The amount of linemen that were first-round or high draft choices in that era… McKay’s last part of his time and all my time, there were a hell of a lot of big-time linemen that went into the NFL.
H&A: You had great running backs while you were at USC and with the L.A. Rams. You recruited Charles White and Marcus Allen at USC, but then you had Dickerson in the NFL. What was special about each of them individually?
CJR: Charlie was a star in southern California. He was a wishbone fullback. He wasn’t real big. Charlie was 185 pounds at the biggest in his life. Give it to him on those dives, and nobody could catch him. He was really something special. We, of course, had him as the No. 1 guy, and we had a backfield coach by the name of John Jackson who really was the key in recruiting him. He went out and kind of treated Charlie like Charlie was lucky USC recruited him. “Charlie you’re lucky we’re even here.” That worked with Charlie, and he was easy to recruit. Said “yeah, I’m comin.” We had two other guys on his team at San Fernando High School. They had the best team in the south.
Marcus loved to play with you, loved the recruiting process, had fun. He used to come up and visit on his own all the time, but would never tell us he was coming. Fairly late in the thing he said, “Hey coach, I was always coming to USC from the third grade.” We kinda knew that. We tried to recruit Dickerson but we lost that battle to SMU.
H&A: Did you want to brand yourself as a guy who brought in and developed great running backs?
CJR: Oh yeah, sure. I can remember standing on the sideline in the Rose Bowl with Charles and Marcus was running up and down the field. And I walked out to where he was standing and said—you could have them on the sideline then, you can’t now—but I said, “that’s you in two years.” And offensive linemen, we talked about this is how we do it, this is our way and you fit our way. We had a great O-line coach by the name of Hudson Houk, who is still working for the Cowboys…He was a draw because he had great, great relationships with the kids. The head coach kind of closes it, but it’s the assistant coach that really recruits the kids. H&A
Cover photo courtesy USC Athletics
Look for Part 2 of our interview with Coach John Robinson at www.hallandarena.com
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