Last January it was little more than a concourse of cracked concrete, a symbol of seismic devastation that jeopardized both the history and the hopes of a community. The Olympic torch had been tipped over. Columns were fractured. In the spring, months after the Northridge earthquake, if you had taken a seat in Row 79 of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, you could have dropped the shells of your peanuts into a fissure that penetrated, according to one witness, "to the center of the earth."
Yet there the Coliseum was last Saturday, not quite spick-and-span, but certainly rescued. The grand peristyle had been rebuilt. Three-story video scoreboards flanked the torch—burning again—and seats were bolted back down. Anchoring piles driven 90 feet into the earth secured the stadium, and arches filled with reinforcing material held everybody at a comfortably constant elevation. It took only $60 million and, in the last three months of an eight-month repair job, 1,300 workers laboring in three shifts a day to restore the stadium in time for the college and NFL seasons. It took only a miracle.
Happily for Los Angeles, one of the Coliseum's principal tenants also seems renewed, entirely reengineered and once again safe to enjoy. Rebuilding Southern Cal football has taken a similarly rushed and committed effort. At this point the team needs more finishing touches than docs the 71-year-old Coliseum, but after a 24-17 victory over Washington, the Trojans at least seem to be on the same sure footing as the stadium.
Working in a facility that some of the Trojans had helped refurbish in their off-season, USC finally recalled some of the glamour that it and the Coliseum once stood for. True, USC wouldn't have won if the Huskies hadn't turned the ball over five times. Also, if you're handicapping the Heisman Trophy race, give Washington's Napoleon Kaufman (152 yards rushing, 244 all-purpose) a leg up over USC quarterback Rob Johnson (18-23-1, 129 yards and a touchdown) after Saturday's game. This little comeback might fall short of a national championship, but the style of this Southern Cal team harks back to another era—preearthquake, premediocrity. Like the Coliseum, it seems reassuringly sturdy, meant for something grander than the Freedom Bowl.
Coach John Robinson, in his second year of his second regime with USC, has been trying to return the Trojans to a glory they last enjoyed under him, from 1976 to 1982, when they won three Rose Bowls and one national title. Now 59, he has gone about it pretty much the way he did the first time. He insists on a running game, the kind that has peopled Heritage Hall with a gallery of Heisman Trophy winners but which now strikes some as impossibly old-fashioned. Even Stanford coach Bill Walsh, a good friend of Robinson's, has called USC "Yesterday U."
But what if Robinson's way still works? Although he has a gifted quarterback in Johnson, who stands to break all USC passing records and go in the first round of the NFL draft, Robinson stubbornly insists that the team will be carried by its running game. To that end he has nourished a massive offensive line that averages 290 pounds a man. He has encouraged the development of offensive muscle, standout tackle Tony Boselli, returning from summer vacation with the ability to lift the Coliseum back onto its moorings. And he has recruited with an eye toward that elusive standard of Trojan excellence—the tailback who routinely gains 100 yards a game in that Neanderthal offensive ploy "student body right."
Certainly the current team is more like a John Robinson team—"Big," he says, laughing—than the squad last year, when Johnson passed for 3,630 yards and only one of the tailbacks gained more than 100 yards in a game. Knowing he needed to back up the serviceable Shawn Walters at that position, Robinson put the rush on two prized high school All-Americas and a junior college star. Robinson realizes the days are long gone when a recruit could be paraded through Heritage Hall and allowed to notice that dust had gathered on the trophies. Four years ago Kaufman was lost to USC on just such a visit when, marched past the Heisman displays, he was forced to consider the recent lack of excellence at his position. Says Kaufman, "It was like the past three or four years they hadn't had one running back who started the whole time who was the Man."
Saturday it was Kaufman who was the Man, albeit for Washington. To build up his senior star's chances in the Heisman race and in the NFL, which looks askance at athletes as small as Kaufman (5'9", 180 pounds), coach Jim Lambright has loyally promised to put the ball into his hands 30 to 35 times a game. Still, with everyone in the Coliseum knowing exactly what was coming, Kaufman gained 152 yards on 26 carries, caught three passes for 34 and ran back two kickoffs for 58 yards.
A perfect reminder of how he might have fit in at Yester...uh...Tailback U, which is precisely what Robinson is rebuilding, and everybody knows it. It was no secret that USC had better receivers than tailbacks last year and that the passing game, however spectacular at times, was strictly a fallback position. "And this year," said Johnson, almost sadly, "the line is so much bigger and stronger."
Boselli, who at 305 pounds is the best on the line, noticed as well. The tailback prospects that Robinson brought in were giving the offense a new look. Without disparaging Walters, who did after all gain 91 yards and score two TDs against the Huskies. Boselli points out that "we've got guys now where, I might miss my block, and they're still by my man. They open your eyes."