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Big A Is Awful for Robinson

August 30, 1993|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Simultaneously caught looking ahead (Notre Dame--a sure Trojan victory) and behind (1978--awaken the echoes of a national championship), John Robinson stood on the Anaheim Stadium sideline Sunday night unsure if he was coming or going.

Wasn't this merely a replay of the last game he coached here, some 20 months ago, simply colorized in new tints of cardinal and gold?

Running back fumbles and opposition promptly turns it into six points.

Quarterback, numbered 11, can't muster a touchdown until the cause is rendered hopeless.

Defensive line is bullied, secondary is scorched, entire team is in disarray and the box seats are empty by the middle of the fourth quarter.

Then, the final score was Atlanta 31, Rams 14.

Now, it was North Carolina 31, USC 9.

Only the site and coach remained the same, and if this was anyone's idea of a proper homecoming, Robinson might want to consider enlisting a real estate agent.

Anaheim Stadium has become the official burial ground of USC football coaches. Look what it did for Larry Smith's career--and Smith at least was able to hold Fresno State under 30.

"It was fun . . . for a while," Robinson noted, trying for a laugh that might ease the hurt.

No go.

"It got less fun," he added, "as the game wore on."

Robinson II had promised so much, virtually all of it by Robinson himself. Realizing the fatal mistake made by Smith by choosing to ignore the past, Robinson leaped to the pulpit at every Trojan booster luncheon across Southern California and swore a swift and mighty return.

Return to power football.

Return to Student Body Right.

Return to dominance of the line of scrimmage.

Return to the Rose Bowl.

If Sunday's Disneyland Pigskin Classic was a portent, USC can't get there from here. North Carolina came in an 8 1/2-point underdog, an afterthought on its own campus, where football is simply a way to pass the time before Dean Smith rolls out the basketballs. North Carolina came in when so many other schools turned the game's organizers down, still scared of the initials U, S and C, proving that college football coaches, if nothing else, have good memories.

North Carolina came in because, in the words of Coach Mack Brown, "In the South, where's there's so much football tradition, we have trouble getting mentioned in that group. We wanted to get some national coverage, playing a school of USC's stature.

"Ten to 12 years down the road, we hope to be mentioned along with those other powers. If we are, we'll look at this game as a big step forward."

And how will USC view this one, 10 years down the line? When Smith lost to Fresno here, in the 1992 Freedom Bowl, it was ravaged by red-faced alumni as a disgrace, the "greatest embarrassment in Trojan football history." It cost Smith his job, paving the way for Robinson, but Smith lost that one only 24-7.

Robinson can only hope that history cuts him a break and decides to repeat. Robinson also lost the first game he coached at USC--46-25 at home to Missouri in 1976--before settling in and winning the next 11 games, including the Rose Bowl.

This time, however, the deck appears stacked against Robinson. He lost his tailback, Dwight McFadden, to a broken ankle in the first half, wiping out his go-to runner for the remainder of the season.

"Obviously, it was a tough night for us," Robinson said, his face drained of color. "The loss of Dwight McFadden was a big blow, a tough blow for us. We really didn't recover after that.

"We had things going early on, then that happens and things began to overwhelm us."

He was asked if he had raised expectations to too high a mark, considering that these Trojans are essentially scrawny leftovers from Smith's 6-5-1 team.

"No, not really," Robinson replied. "We still hold the same expectations. We expect to bring the program back to the top and we can.

"Obviously, we have some problems, but a lot of them are solve-able. We frankly worried about them during two-a-days, but they're nothing we can't correct."

Remember the spirit of '76, Robinson was saying. At the moment, it's all he and the Trojans have to go on.

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