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USC Fires Robinson--Without Quite Saying So

December 18, 1997|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The storied USC football program endured one of the most bizarre days in its history Wednesday when the Trojans fired Coach John Robinson without speaking to him, hired Kansas City Chiefs assistant coach Paul Hackett without producing him at a news conference, then wondered why Robinson hadn't accepted an invitation to attend the announcement.

An hour and a half after USC's news conference and a couple of miles up Figueroa Street, Robinson held his own media session, going out with emotion and a measure of grace after being left dangling for 3 1/2 weeks as USC searched for a successor--even courting old USC nemesis Lou Holtz, the former coach at Notre Dame.

It was a hiring-firing saga born of the strained relationship between Athletic Director Mike Garrett--the Heisman Trophy winner at USC in 1965--and Robinson, 62, who over 12 seasons in two stints as coach guided USC to four Rose Bowl victories and the 1978 national championship but was 12-11 the last two seasons.

USC fired an aging icon--not entirely without cause--and could hardly bring itself to admit what it had done.

"I don't think Mike used that word," USC President Steven B. Sample said. "From my perspective, to say John Robinson has been fired, I wouldn't use that word. . . . I personally hope very much John will continue on our staff."

Pressed about what had in fact happened if Robinson hadn't been fired, Sample said: "I think John stepped down. Gave up his duties as head coach."

The day grew more absurd at that point, since neither Sample nor Garrett had spoken to Robinson.

USC envisioned Robinson--whose contract runs through the 2001 season but includes a reported $600,000 buyout clause--remaining in some sort of fund-raising/goodwill role, the better to capitalize on his considerable personal magnetism.

But after waiting by the phone all day Tuesday and sending his staff home when news reports of the Hackett negotiations and imminent hiring broke, Robinson left home and was seen with his wife strolling and Christmas shopping in Pasadena on Tuesday evening.

Garrett said he left messages asking Robinson to call; Robinson said he received a late-evening message "saying I had in fact been replaced." Garrett said he reached Robinson's wife, Linda, by phone Wednesday morning but was told Robinson was unavailable.

In any case, they never spoke, and it is still unclear whether Robinson has terminated his relationship with USC altogether.

Robinson met reporters Wednesday at a 1 p.m. news conference he arranged at the downtown hotel where USC's team stays before home games, making a dramatic entrance and speaking for 15 minutes but taking no questions in front of a host of cameras and a contingent of players, coaches and loyal USC staff.

"I always considered USC a special place and always considered it a privilege to be there. I've conducted myself with dignity and have given my best at USC," Robinson said, his eyes teary when he spoke of his players and assistant coaches. "Ten years we won eight games or more. The last two years we won six games, and therefore we were fired.

"As I say, I think dignity was in the forefront of our behavior. Unfortunately, that dignity was not shown us the last three weeks. We were treated in a manner we did not deserve. . . . Unfortunately, the last three weeks our coaching staff was hung out to dry."

With that, Robinson thoroughly upstaged his replacement, a 50-year-old former assistant to Robinson at USC who did not even make a media conference call from Kansas City, where he is continuing his work as the Chiefs' offensive coordinator as they prepare for the NFL playoffs.

Hackett signed a five-year contract Wednesday only after the USC news conference in Los Angeles. Financial terms were unavailable. He had consummated the deal in the last three days--talking with agent Leigh Steinberg by cellular phone from the Chiefs' weight room and practice facility and a special phone in the film room--then nearly misplacing his faxed contract among the pages of his game plan.

Hackett remained quiet Wednesday despite a barrage of requests for interviews in the last two days. Indications were that he had received permission from the Chiefs to come to Los Angeles for a Thursday news conference. USC had considered firing Robinson on Wednesday and hiring Hackett Thursday, but with the story out, it made the move in one fell swoop and produced neither coach. Hackett is scheduled for a media conference call today.

But in the world of public opinion--and the much-touted Trojan family--he is already facing third and long, not for who he is, but for how Robinson was left to find the door himself.

"Maybe it's not a surprise it went down, but the way it was handled was not necessary," said Brian Kelly, a senior cornerback projected to be a first-round NFL draft choice. "To me, John Robinson is bigger than Mike Garrett as far as USC football. If anyone was making decisions, it should have been him."

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