Catching up with John Robinson (Part 2)

In this second installment of our interview with former USC and Los Angeles Rams head coach John Robinson, he talks about his friendships with Bo Schembechler and Bill Walsh, about his experience with the Oakland Raiders, about playing Alabama at Legion Field, and competing with the San Francisco 49ers for the NFC crown.

 

H&A: You’ve had an opportunity to meet some interesting characters along the way. Who are some of the most intriguing people you’ve met in the world of sport?

CJR: “Bear” Bryant was, and I didn’t have any relationship with him, but John McKay did, and they were really good friends. I can remember going over to the booth at Julie’s Restaurant and sitting there and listening to them, and you didn’t dare say anything. You’d just sit there and listen to the two of them talk. That was great. They’d talk about everything. I don’t remember anything other than I just sat there and took it all in. Shut up and drank my vodka. Vodka was the drink, and you just didn’t talk. “Bear,” you could hardly understand what he was saying, and McKay talked so fast you could hardly understand him, but it was great.

Bo Schembechler was a really good friend of mine. My first Rose Bowl was against [Michigan]. They were ranked No. 1 and we were 2 or 3. You do press conferences and appearances, and we got to be friends. I started going back to Michigan every spring, and he would come out to our practices. And we had similar ideas about offense. Bo and I went on a couple of vacations together, and I thought he was the ultimate. I would have liked my son, if my son were good enough, to play for him. I thought he was really good.

I didn’t know Joe Paterno the same, but we were pretty good friends. I always thought he was really special.

The other guy was Bill Walsh. Bill Walsh and I were contemporaries. He was at San Jose State and Stanford. When I was at SC, he was at Stanford, and we competed against each other. When he was with the 49ers and I was with the Rams, we had eight or nine years of going against each other. And I thought he was a great coach. Those guys were all big-time coaches.

Another good guy was Tom Flores, who was the Raider offensive coach when I was an assistant there with John Madden. Tom was a real good friend.

H&A: John Madden said he didn’t like to go out and eat at these fancy restaurants but that’s what you liked. That you were a man of great culture. You liked the philharmonic, you liked Beethoven. Is that true?

CJR: [John] would want to go to kind of a family-type restaurant. He didn’t care about the ambiance. If he had something to drink, he was probably going to drink beer. I would always want to choose a better restaurant. He would always get on my ass and say, “Robinson, you’re just a slob like me! Why do you want to go to a nice place?” That’s how we teased each other, those kind of things.

H&A: Are you a classical music listener still?

CJR; Yes. I still do. I don’t like popular music. I lost track of what’s going on now. Back then, I listened to pop music all the time. But John didn’t care about that all that much. He liked music, but he didn’t know who this guy was and that guy was. He was a little more casual about that.

Courtesy USC Athletics

H&A: When you got to the Raiders in ’75, what was it like to walk into that culture?

CJR: It was great, and they had a great team. I was just there one year. They and the Pittsburgh Steelers with Terry Bradshaw…were bitter enemies, and Kansas City and the Raiders were bitter enemies. I learned a great deal. John had an ability to command a group of wild animals. The Raiders were like a movie of wild-ass people. And they were good guys. You know, they didn’t make a lot of money then. Most of the team had pickup trucks and motorcycles and just wore grubby clothes. And loved having fun. Stabler and Biletnikoff, all those guys were fun people. And damn good football players. John knew how to handle them. They could have run over a guy that wasn’t quite like John. John was unique in that most coaches, when you walked out on the practice field, you go through warm-ups and they go stand there next to the quarterback or wide receiver. They’re not down there with the defensive lineman or offensive lineman. But John was. Those are the people he really identified with. I learned that from him, too. McKay believed it, but John really believed it and the Raiders typified that kind of behavior.

H&A: How was your relationship with Stabler on the field?

CJR: I was coaching the running game primarily, and he and Tom Flores were the close ones. I loved him and thought he was the greatest. If you could ask me to pick my team of player I would want Kenny Stabler to be right there. He was a great leader. He was special. Between Stabler and [Dan] Fouts, I thought those were the greatest quarterbacks who ever lived, but that was my prejudice. I just loved being around him. I was just there one year so it was short. Of course, I would go up there a lot when I was the head coach at SC and spend as much time with him as I could, just watching.

H&A: McKay tried to get you to come to the Tampa Bay Bucs after he went there, but you ended up replacing him at USC. Did you have any mixed feelings about that?

CJR: McKay was leaving and going to Tampa. They said, “do you want the USC job?” and it took me about 4 seconds to say, “oh hell yes.” And had they told me they weren’t going to give me any money, I would have still gone. The head coach at USC, that was big…I always treated McKay and talked about him and thought of him like “Bear” Bryant. They were godlike to me.

H&A: USC President John Hubbard brought you back. He must have had a lot of confidence in you to bring in a guy who didn’t have head coaching experience.

CJR: He was a Texas guy, so he loved football,  and that’s all he was willing to talk about. He phoned me. He was in a hotel in Washington D.C., called me and said, “hey you want to be the coach?” and I said, “yep, I sure do!” And nobody knew who I was, and of course, SC people thought that “Bear” Bryant would want their job. Thought, “How do we get Bo Schembechler?” And then they hire an anonymous guy. I wasn’t well known at all. That shocked everybody. Then I lost the first game badly. Missouri beat us in a one-sided game. The headline in the L.A. Times was “How could one man ruin a great program so fast?” And that was big. There was pressure on [President Hubbard] early. He said, “Hey, the dean of the Engineering School can screw up, and they won’t talk about me, but if I have to fire the head coach, I will probably get fired, too.’ We won all the rest of the games, so he was pretty cocky about his decision.

H&A: Your coaching philosophy was to be positive. You were very passionate, but tried to be an encourager.

CJR: I was not a “disciplinarian” but we were clear about our way of doing things. If you came to school here, this is how we were going to do it. It was obvious—and I don’t think anyone was confused about how we were going to behave. My time communicating with the players was saying “you can do this. If you will just do A, B, C you can become a great player.” That was a basic theme of mine. So I was detailed in coaching in terms of skill development but also detailed in behavior development.

H&A: Ahmad Rashad, formerly Bobby Moore, said that out of everybody he’s come across, you were the type coach who let him know how good he could be.

CJR: Yep. That was my thing. Bobby Moore and Dan Fouts were on our team [at Oregon] together. And we had a ball. Ahmad was one of the funniest and most engaging people I ever knew. We were close. And Dan was close. They used to eat at my house a lot. There were spaghetti nights quite a bit.

H&A: When you think about big wins at USC, is beating Alabama at Legion Field in ’78 one of the games that comes to mind?

CJR: We thought we could win the game, but we knew how good Alabama was. We weren’t kidding ourselves, and we were a young football team. We were not expected to be at the top of the heap at that point. But we had confidence in ourselves, and maybe we were too dumb to know exactly what was going on. We went down there and dominated the game, there’s no question about it. Charlie White, I think, rushed for 240 yards.

John McKay taught that you loved the bigger games. John McKay coached 20 percent better in big games than he did in the games where we were 20-point favorites going in. If we were 20-point favorites, he would get cranky and indifferent and bored. When you are playing Notre Dame or playing in the Rose Bowl or UCLA, you saw the very best in him. We tried to sell that about USC. When you play the best, you are the best. You do the best. And that was how our kids were taught.

H&A: What ultimately led you to leave USC and coach the Los Angeles Rams?

CJR: Well, I don’t know. Coaching is repetitive. You do the same thing year after year, and I think you can get antsy. That’s probably not a good word, but you get to the point of “well, what else is there?” And I had had somewhat of an exposure to the NFL, and I had thought about doing a couple of different things. That was in the back of my mind. When I look back on my career, I probably should have stayed at USC. But I don’t know that I was one of those guys that was going to stay at any place for 25 years.

H&A: Where did you feel most comfortable, in college or the NFL? Were you one of those rarities that could function in college as well as you could the pros?

CJR: I thought I functioned in college better than the pros. My environment was so much better. USC was one of those elite (programs) like Michigan or Notre Dame or Alabama. If you are in that, you are pretty lucky. The NFL is dependent on the management and the ownership. If you don’t get good ownership, you’ve got no chance. Now, if you are in Corvallis or Vanderbilt, you’ve got no chance, either. So you’ve got to be lucky enough to get on one of those teams in college football that have the environment that you can win…those were kind of the give-and-takes. When I went to the Rams, they didn’t understand anything about winning. It was a lady by the name of Georgia Frontiere that owned the team. It was not easy. But if you were one of those teams that has great leadership and ownership then it’s a pretty good environment.

H&A: Was Dickerson the catalyst for change?

CJR: I drafted him a month after I took the job. I knew that the Rams had a pretty good offensive line. It was just emerging, but it had some good talent. And we didn’t have a quarterback. We had a guy named Vince Ferragamo who had hurt his hand… and it was going south on him because of his hand. I wanted to run the ball. I believed in that. I thought Dickerson was fabulous as a college player. And he never got hurt. Hell, he never got hurt in the NFL! I mean, he was something. So when the draft came, Elway was first and Dickerson was second. In the wild card game his third year we played Dallas. He rushed for 240 yards against them. It was one of his big moments. Our offensive line, Jackie Slater and a couple of other people, really became superstars.

Courtesy USC Athletics

H&A: You guys had the unfortunate distinction of being in the same conference as the 49ers, one of the greatest teams of all-time. Is your legacy different if you are in a different conference?

CJR: I think so, sure…I was there nine years and we were the champion of the division one time and the wild card team five or six times. It was great. I loved playing them. Joe Montana is one of my favorite people and players. You got Kenny Stabler and Joe Montana or Dan Fouts. Those three, to me, were great. We had great games with them. The 49ers were the “hated SOBs from the north.” [Laughs] We had a lot of respect for them, too. I thought they played the game great. Ronnie Lott, who was one of my favorite players ever, one of the best football players I’ve ever known, was their safety and leader. He was big.

H&A: Bill Walsh was one of those guys who just seems like a gentlemen. What was he like as a person?

CJR: Bill and I were good friends. I liked him. I thought he was the ultimate football coach. If he would have been born in an environment where football wasn’t big, he would have been an engineer or mathematician. He had that kind of a precision brain. Loved exactness; I think that was one of his strengths. He was big time and one of the great coaches.

H&A: Ultimately you went back to USC. Did you feel like you had some unfinished business there?

CJR: No, not really. I went back because I retired, and I didn’t have anything to do. When I went from the Rams to the USC job, that was fortuitous.

H&A: You were the head coach at USC when the world saw the O.J. Simpson saga unfold. How did that affect the program? What was your perspective at that time as the head coach?

CJR: I tried to recruit O.J. at the University of Oregon. When I was an assistant, he was one of the guys I was after. He was retired when I was coaching at SC, and he would help us out in any way he could. He would come around, and he’d help recruit. I thought O.J.—and just about everybody that knew O.J.— thought he was great. Now there was a Jekyll and Hyde in there and a tragic thing, but for people that knew him in the sports world, he was a great guy and treated SC and all of us really well.

I think we wanted to separate ourselves from (the saga). And obviously we were shocked like everybody. But didn’t want to be identified with his behavior 20 years after he was out of SC. So we just kind of stood there and watched it like everyone else. I was there watching it on TV like everybody else, thinking, “what the hell is going on here?”

H&A: Did it cause problems for you in recruiting?

CJR: Oh, I don’t think so. Maybe we lost some kids, but I don’t ever remember going to a family and them saying, “oh, O.J. Simpson went to you school, therefore we are not.” I never remember that.

H&A: Charles White ended up having some drug issues that became public, but you seemed to be the kind of person who really invested in him in different points in his life. You bailed him out of jail once. He had some problems, but you didn’t give up on him. Why did you decide to take a chance on him, and what’s your relationship like with him now?

CJR: I’ve talked to him some, but I don’t visit with him much anymore. Our paths don’t cross. He had problems. He was homeless for a while as a kid. For the most part at USC, he behaved well. With the Rams, we got him after he was cut by the Cleveland Browns. He had fallen into some pretty heavy use. I took him as a backup to Eric [Dickerson]. Charlie was a challenge, but gosh, he was a tough guy. He would have been the ultimate S.E.A.L. team member. I don’t know that he had any fear in him at all…he was fearless as a football player.

H&A: You’ve been doing a radio gig for a while now. What is that job like?

CJR: I’m with the same company, Sports USA. Larry Kahn is the guy who is the main announcer. It’s his business. I’ve really enjoyed it. Radio is great. You don’t have rehearsals. You just go to the game. You get a field pass and a press box pass, and you dress like a bum, and you go do the game. I thoroughly enjoy just talking about the game while it’s going on. I’m probably not the best at saying, “well this guy’s from Kansas City and his mom was a hairdresser” or whatever the backline stories are. I don’t do that. But I love to talk about the game itself while it’s going on.

Probably in a 16-week schedule, I probably do 12 to 14 (weeks). We fly on Saturday and try to come home on Sunday night. I did some college games this year. I went to LSU. I went to Alabama. Did the Saints. So I bounced around. I’ve been to Bryant-Denny Stadium about five times. It’s like all of those Southeast stadiums. They are fabulous. LSU’s stadium is fabulous. We did a game at Texas this year. They are all great and they are full of people. That’s what’s so great about it…they are passionate fans. H&A

Al Blanton

Al Blanton

Born in Jasper, Alabama, Al is the owner and publisher of Blanton Media Group.
Al Blanton

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