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2-10 Season Could Be Good If It's Right Two

August 10, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE

"We will beat Notre Dame."

--John Robinson, 1993

"If we don't beat UCLA, it will not be a successful season."

--John Robinson, 1993

John Robinson let his weight get away from him this summer, didn't account for being 61, and now his body is sending him cancellation notices.

His back aches. His knee barks. Just the other day he drove a golf cart from the practice field to Heritage Hall, an oddity for a man who takes his life from the touch of his students.

He shuffled into his office, sat carefully, rubbed his sizable face in his sweaty palms.

Looked up and smiled.

"I'm a young kid," he said. "Send me down on a kickoff!"

Fifteen days from the start of another USC season, and the guy has broken six promises in three years, won 25 games but not once when people were dying for it, yet give him this:

John Robinson backs down from nothing.

He again thinks he's going to beat Notre Dame and UCLA.

And if he does, he's not going to listen to the cheers of those who have tried to run him down because of his 0-5-1 record against the only two teams that matter.

"I don't mean to be disrespectful, but the hell with them," Robinson said. "I don't want to beat Notre Dame and UCLA for them. I want to do it for us."

This can be his town this fall, and there's a sense that John Robinson knows it.

Tom Lasorda is gone. Terry Donahue is gone. Pro football is long gone.

His team finally has a defense that can stop the run. The Trojans finally have one quarterback, one leader. They have half a dozen good running backs, a couple of potential Keyshawn Johnsons.

They don't have an offensive line, but a guy named Mike Barry is considered by NFL scouts to be the best offensive line coach in the country, so he'll figure out something.

Bringing it all back to J.R., as he is known around football circles, and to the mystery that won't be answered until late on Nov. 30.

Who did J.R. shoot?

UCLA and Notre Dame better be among them.

And he knows it.

Excuses by those around him will no longer be accepted. Inexperience, bad luck, bad officials' calls? Not now, with a legacy clearly on the line.

"We have got to beat those teams," he said. "I'm not shying away from that."

And it is not shying away from him.

A Rose Bowl victory against Northwestern? All that did was spoil the best story of the year.

Two Pac-10 championships? Co-championships, you mean.

Three losses to UCLA by a total of 22 points. Two losses and a tie against Notre Dame while being outscored, 86-40. Those are the only numbers that matter.

Those numbers are even more important than 2001, which is the date Robinson's contract expires after he was given a five-year extension last spring.

Think he'll last that long if he doesn't start beating UCLA and Notre Dame? How long will he last if he doesn't beat at least one of them this year?

You want to cheer for John Robinson, because he accepts this.

Sore or not, he has been stalking around the practice field this month like a graduate assistant.

He began camp with three-a-day workouts, the sound of which undoubtedly scared the heck out of future opponents. (We won't tell anybody that the early-morning session was only a walk-through.)

Robinson is all shouting and cheering and chiding, daring his team to catch the moment, take the town with him.

"We want that role like the New York Yankees, the Lakers, UCLA basketball," he said. "Some teams are supposed to win. We want to be one of those teams."

Remember those embarrassing billboards that hung over Southland highways during his first season of his second stint? The ones featuring his mug and these words, "Be a Trojan: Beat Notre Dame. Buy Season Tickets."?

"I regret that," he said. "It was a marketing decision, and I regret that."

But he does not regret the message.

"At that point, USC football was no longer representative of the best," he said. "I wanted people to know that we will be the best again. Some may find that impudent, some may find it irritating, but that's the way we feel."

That is why Robinson admits that his coaches have studied UCLA and Notre Dame tapes this summer, perhaps even in that order. They visit UCLA one week, and play host to Notre Dame the next.

"We do it privately," he said. "That's not something I talk about."

And he admits that he did not run into a fan this off-season who didn't comment on the same thing.

"They all said, 'I was so upset about that loss to Notre Dame!' " he said. "I told them, 'So was I! So was I!' "

Spend a couple of hours around Robinson, and it seems unfortunate that one man should be judged by two games.

Unlike coaches of some other top-10 programs, he opens his practices to the public. There is a white message board with a scrawled welcome at the field entrance.

From parents to street kids fill the sidelines. Afterward the players eat lunch with the rest of the students in a general cafeteria. Some of their parents eat with them.

On a recent day, Robinson strolled around, talking to players, then found a seat next to his stepdaughter.

This is not the NFL. This is not even Penn State, the team that will play USC in the Kickoff Classic Aug. 25 at Giants Stadium in New Jersey.

This is a a big-time program with an intramural accent, a bunch of college kids tossing around a football in somebody's backyard.

But with Nov. 23 and Nov. 30 written in the dirt.

And John Robinson on the grill.

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