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Cheers All Around : Enthusiasm Returns to USC With Second Coming of John Robinson

August 22, 1993|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was almost as if they were bringing back John McKay. Or Howard Jones.

About 350 USC football fans have turned out at Pasadena's Brookside Golf Club to celebrate the second coming of John Robinson.

The Trojan pep band is there, cardinal and gold pennants and balloons decorate the banquet room, and San Gabriel Valley Trojan Club members mill about, awaiting the man who has been brought back to restore Trojan football prominence.

Finally, Robinson and his wife, Linda, arrive. He walks into the room looking like a guy from Duke--blue blazer, white pants and black-and-white shoes.

But Robinson moves comfortably, working the entire room, going from table to table, shaking every hand. When the brunch line forms, he takes his place in line just as the band strikes up "Fight On."

Robinson seems not to notice. He's heard the song before.

But as the band appears to be packing up, Robinson leaves his table, walks to the microphone and says, "This is my 6,000th speech since I've been back (actually, it's his 51st), and these people have been to every one of them."

The coach then asks the musicians to step to the microphone, introduce themselves and give their majors.

When Robinson begins his talk, he plays against a theme Larry Smith sounded when he left USC after last season. Smith spoke of USC people needing "realistic expectations" for the football program. USC folks didn't like that much.

"Linda and I have leased a condo on Orange Grove (in Pasadena) during the season, and so I consider this my neighborhood here," Robinson says. "And I want you all to know we're going to finish our season right over there."

He points to the Rose Bowl, a few hundred yards away.

Cheers all around.

"We will wear the uniform the way so many have through the years, with pride and dignity. And we will perform."

Cheers all around.

"Putting SC back on top is going to be a joyous experience. It will be fun. In fact, I tell our players it's going to be fun to play at places like Penn State, Notre Dame, to play in the rain in Seattle. (Pause) OK, so our players are a little dumb."

Laughs all around.

"What is USC and what makes it go?

"It's your passion and your love for USC. It's what separates USC from most universities. Add up all the physical assets of USC. The campus is nice, but there are nicer. The buildings are big, but others have bigger.

"The difference is you, and it will always be you."

Then, with everyone in the room revved up, a mild scolding.

"It's true Larry Smith and his team had a bad year last year. But so did you," he tells his audience, wagging a scolding finger.

"When the team lost to Fresno State in Anaheim last December, there were only 6,000 of you there."

His message is clear: If he is to lead USC football back to the top, it will take more than the players and the coaching staff to get it done.

*

On the practice field at USC's preseason training camp, Robinson is working with the running backs, walking them through the plays that Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White and Marcus Allen ran to Heisman trophies.

The tempo picks up and now defensive players are taking whacks at the runners with bags as they race by.

Suddenly, Robinson erupts. Practice stops. The coach speaks. A 230-pound ballcarrier, he rails, is running with too much finesse.

"If you want to run like that, then you lose 30 or 35 pounds and get down to 185 or 190 and get fast," he tells him.

Then, his voice rising, he says, "But if you want to run like a big fella, then I want you foaming at the mouth and knocking these guys on their . . . !"

*

It's Pac-10 media day at a Los Angeles Airport hotel. Each coach has brought one player to the session. Robinson is with defensive end Willie McGinest.

The two of them are sitting in front of several dozen journalists as McGinest speaks.

"We watched Coach Robinson go down the chute with the Rams," he says. "And we want to help him put USC football back on top again."

Laughs all around. And then more laughs during question time when a voice in the back of the room asks, "At your age, how do you expect to be able to recruit?"

It's Bill Walsh, the Stanford coach, who is 61.

Robinson, 58, breaks up, but he retorts: "Hey, I'll run into you in some strange towns and some strange motels."

Later, Walsh needles Robinson about his weight, which tends to rise markedly during the season.

"I'm delighted to welcome John back to college football, but I'm worried about his diet," Walsh says. "I hope USC assigns someone to go on the road trips with him, to supervise his diet."

*

After 32 consecutive years of coaching football, Robinson took 1992 off. He had coached the Rams for nine seasons, but left after 5-11 and 3-13 seasons in 1990 and '91.

"I was physically worn down," Robinson said.

"When you go through a long stretch of work like that without a break, it's physically hard on you even if you're enjoying it. Even if you're winning. But the worst thing is when you're not enjoying it.

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