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REACTION

Firing Is Difficult for Some to Handle

December 18, 1997|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The handling of John Robinson's firing had such prominent USC players as linebacker Chris Claiborne and offensive lineman Travis Claridge uttering the word transfer Wednesday, and it left people who have been close to the program for decades distraught.

"I'm embarrassed for John Robinson and the university in the way it was handled," said Paul Salata, a letterman at end in the 1940s and a substantial donor to USC.

From Boston, former starting center Jeremy Hogue--now a student at Harvard Law--sent word of his disapproval.

But perhaps the loudest salvo came from across town.

"I think it's disgusting what they did to that man," UCLA Coach Bob Toledo said. "He's done a lot for that university and to treat him like that, with disrespect, doesn't say much for them."

Like everyone else, Toledo watched as USC searched for its next coach and left Robinson to await his fate.

"That's terrible," Toledo said. "You don't put people through that. I try to teach our players and my coaches that you respect others and they'll respect you. To treat somebody like that, that's not right.

"I just can't believe what went on over there went on."

There weren't many players on campus Wednesday, the day after final exams ended, but one thing was starkly clear:

* There were more than a half dozen at Robinson's unofficial news conference at a downtown hotel.

* And precisely none in the room at Heritage Hall as Paul Hackett was named coach by Athletic Director Mike Garrett and President Steven Sample.

"The way they handled the situation was not good," Claiborne said. "It got in the media before it got to him. I think he's been disrespected."

Claiborne, a sophomore who is the brightest young star of USC's defense, said he will consider leaving.

"I've got to do what's best for my interests. [Hackett] is the coach. I'll go talk to him. But that's definitely in question right now," he said.

As for Robinson: "He's the reason I came here. Otherwise, I'd have been across town."

Claiborne, Claridge, Brian Kelly, Billy Miller, Rodney Sermons, Larry Parker and Rashard Cook were among the players in the crowd that gathered almost spontaneously on short notice for Robinson's news conference, as did assistant coaches Dennis Thurman and Doug Smith.

"The only thing I look at is how Coach handled himself," Thurman said. "He came in and went out with class."

Thurman, like the rest of the staff, has been asked to continue recruiting as Hackett finishes his tenure with the Kansas City Chiefs, though Hackett is expected to visit his office at Heritage Hall for the first time Monday. Some assistants are pursuing other jobs, and defensive coordinator Keith Burns might soon be named an assistant at Arkansas, his alma mater.

For the ones who remain, it isn't only recruiting; it's retaining.

After the news broke, Thurman, who coaches the secondary, spoke with junior cornerback Daylon McCutcheon, who is deciding whether to declare himself eligible for the NFL draft or return for his senior year. "The last time I talked to him today, he had no idea what he was doing. I don't think it'll be a hasty decision. I think he'll weigh everything and see how it impacts him," Thurman said.

"We did talk. He said he was going to try to make Coach's press conference. I asked him how he was feeling and he said it's up in the air right now. He doesn't know which way to go. He'll let it play itself out and hope to meet the new coach and see what his thoughts are."

Not every player is so concerned.

"I mean, I wasn't too worried about it," said sophomore R. Jay Soward, USC's star receiver. "I knew something was going to happen. All I can do is play.

"It's not really embarrassing to me. I love playing the game of football. I just want to win. Whoever will do the best job--if J. Rob would help us get to the Rose Bowl next year or another coach."

He, for one, isn't thinking of leaving.

"I have my share of the limelight at SC. I don't think I'm going anywhere," Soward said.

Typically, it is the younger players who will mull over leaving.

"If I was a sophomore, I'd be gone," said senior cornerback Kelly, who is awaiting the NFL draft. "Guys going into their senior year have to think differently because of their futures. But if I was a sophomore, I'd be gone. I wouldn't stick around. I'm not trying to encourage anyone to leave, but I wouldn't stick around."

Receiver Miller will be a senior.

"I've got to just go play," he said. "It hurts a lot to see him [Robinson] go. . . . It was very sad. It was very emotional to see him up there talking. I think that's what got to me, when he said he was good for the university. I think that's true.

"As a senior, I think it's important for the team to stay together. If anybody is thinking about leaving, I think the team should meet. . . . I know it's going to hurt recruiting. It might kill recruiting this year. If I was a freshman or coming into the university, I definitely would think about transferring or not coming."

Some of the transfer talk may be only emotion. Only time will tell.

"The people I talked to are depressed," Claridge said. "A lot of people, their first reaction is they'll transfer.

"I don't know about this guy [Hackett]. I'm sure he's a good guy. I've never even heard of him, but that doesn't mean anything. A long time ago, nobody had heard of John Robinson. He must be good. If you're going to fire John Robinson and hire somebody else, he better be damn good."

Staff writers Jim Hodges and Mal Florence contributed to this story.

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