The NFL, he lets you know, was not. "In the pros you walk on eggs, worried about upsetting high-priced players," says Henning. "If push comes to shove you get shoved. It's all because of free agency and incentive clauses—players on individual agendas. That's not what I thought football was about. Do you know that last year the left tackle for the Lions, Lomas Brown, made enough to pay for all 85 scholarships here at Boston College'? The offensive line itself was making $8,000 a play. A play.
"In the pros I didn't know what to do. The jerk gets all the money and then swells up like a big toad. We used linebacker Chris Spielman as a goal line fullback because he'd do it. I asked him to block, and he said, 'Whatever you want.' I love that. But you'll get a wide receiver and ask him the same thing, and he'll say, 'I'm a pass catcher.' Well, not when Barry Sanders has the ball. So the wide receiver will do that old 'miss him if you can, hit him if you must' routine. What happens is coaches start changing their plays and themselves. The media get involved, and before long you're fragmented, lost."
And you can almost hear the axe, whistling in the breeze.
The Returning Hero
John Robinson, 59, probably never should have left Southern Cal. In his first tenure as coach of the Trojans, from 1976 to '82, he led them to three Rose Bowl wins and the 1978 national championship and won 82% of his games, third highest among currently active Division I coaches. Then he went off to see Paree, spending nine years as coach of the Los Angeles Rams before resigning in 1991. He had a year in the TV football booth before he accepted the reins once more at USC.
Now with one more college season under his belt, an 8-5 autumn. Robinson feels full of spunk. He has promised a national championship within five years. "Yeah, we shot our mouth off," he says with a shrug. "People say it's over at USC. It's going to be exciting to prove them wrong."
Robinson replaced Larry Smith, who in six years at Southern Cal never seemed to fit in with the alums, the boosters or the city itself. Robinson knows USC, and he has been in Los Angeles longer than the freeways. "Being a college coach is somewhat like being a politician on the stump," he says. "I make about 60 speeches a year to alums now. With the Rams I made none. L.A.'s in a slump right now, but we're coming out of it. It's unthinkable that we won't come back."
It is unthinkable, too, that Robinson won't be more fulfilled than he was with the Rams. "Sure, you make more money in the NFL," he says. "But what about your relationships with your players? In the NFL you basically end all your relationships by firing your player or getting fired yourself. In college you remain friends. It is an enduring thing. Even my own coach from back at Oregon, Len Cassanova, he's about 90—he calls me now, and I jump: 'Yes, Coach!' It's just a more emotional, feeling thing."
Behind Robinson on his office wall are photos of some of USC's premier running backs, all friends of his: Marcus Allen, Mike Garrett, Charles White, Ricky Bell and, yes, even O.J. Simpson. It is a strange and unpredictable world out there, but a big-name college coach can pretty much control his destiny. "When you run the program, you do what you want," says Robinson. "Want to run the single wing? Fine, do it. You may get fired if it doesn't work, but you get to do it."
That's not, he adds, how it is in the NFL. He mentions running back Eric Dickerson's conflict with the Rams, how it never should have happened, how Dickerson should have stayed a Ram forever rather than becoming an NFL gypsy. "We would have built our offense around him," says Robinson sadly. "He would have broken Walter Payton's rushing record."