At USC, tradition is real, but it has also decayed. The Trojans haven't won a national championship since '78, and they bottomed out during a 9-15-1 stretch that began with a 10-6 loss to Notre Dame late in the 1990 season and concluded with a 24-7 loss to Fresno State in the Freedom Bowl on Dec. 29, 1992. After that defeat, coach Larry Smith attempted to explain parity in college football by saying, "Big names and logos don't mean anything anymore." Instead, he succeeded in insulting the entire USC alumni body. "A watershed game," says Haden, a member of the USC board of trustees. Smith was forced to resign three days later, and Robinson was brought back. It was a move that smacked of grasping at the past, but it was more than that. Robinson understood that tradition isn't a weepy recollection of the past. "Tradition is a level of expectation, nothing more," says Robinson. "Don't come to USC saying you're going to be almost All-Coast."
As Robinson II, Season III begins, USC has wriggled back to life. The Trojans were a surprise 8-5 in '93 and a solid 8-3-1 last year, including late-season demolitions of Arizona (45-28) and Texas Tech (55-14), the latter in the Cotton Bowl. Recruiting at USC has returned to elite status, and in '94 Robinson brought in outstanding talents like linebacker Errick Herrin, defensive linemen Israel Ifeanyi and Darrell Russell, and cornerback Brian Kelly. This year's incoming freshman class includes Daylon McCutcheon, a 5'11", 175-pound cornerback, the son of former All-Pro running back Lawrence McCutcheon and one of the most sought-after recruits in the country. The only serious issue for the '95 team is resolving a quarterback battle between fifth-year senior Kyle Wachholtz and junior Brad Otton.
Yes, tradition is alive again, carried into the present by a willowy 23-year-old wide receiver named Keyshawn Johnson, who has USC in his blood and a national championship in his sights. Robinson believes there is a profile of the ideal USC player, who both builds and carries tradition. It is a profile in four parts. Johnson is the model for that player, the link to the past and the foundation for the present: the player to carry USC back to glory.
•Part 1: We like gym rats here, kids who want to be around football. Spring 1980. Trojan star Ronnie Lott orders a pizza for himself and teammate George Achica in a joint on Jefferson Boulevard in Los Angeles, next to the USC campus. The players are hounded by a cluster of kids with names like WaWa, Kippie, Tutu and Little Ron. The skinniest and most persistent of them all is seven-year-old Keyshawn Johnson. Lott buys the children a pizza of their own and gives them directions to USC's practice field.
The next day the kids are at practice, en masse—Robinson never locked the gate. They subsequently become surrogate children of the football program, tromping each afternoon from their homes in South Central LA. to the USC entrance at 36th Street and Vermont Avenue, just for the privilege of chasing errant footballs. None of the kids took to the place quite like Keyshawn, who soon became part of the USC family, stuffing envelopes in the sports information office and selling programs at baseball games. "He would carry my bags to the car, and the bags were bigger than he was," says former assistant football coach Artie Gigantino, now the defensive coordinator at California. Another assistant football coach, Nate Shaw, brought Keyshawn to the training table and passed him off as his son so that Keyshawn could eat with the team. Many nights Keyshawn slept in an off-campus apartment shared by quarterback Scott Tinsley ('80-82) and defensive back Tim Shannon. "I worried, but at least I always knew where he was," says Keyshawn's mother, Vivian Jessie, a single parent. "The city was going bad back then. Kids were getting into terrible things."
Gigantino also brought him home sometimes. Keith and Joey Browner brought him home. Marcus Allen brought him home. Assistant sports information director Nancy Mazmanian brought him home dozens of times.
For Keyshawn, the campus was another home. "A whole bunch of us used to go there," he says. "I just happened to be the one that fell in love with the place."
•Part 2: Our kids have to be comfortable in an urban setting. The '89 Honda slows to a stop outside 3756 S. Raymond Street, a gray two-story apartment building, one of Johnson's boyhood homes. "This is the neighborhood," he announces from behind the wheel. Urban, indeed. He grew up in South Central L.A. in the 1970s and '80s, at the apex of a bloody gang explosion. "I've seen many people come and go," says Johnson. That would mean killed or sent to prison. As he speaks, a small boy wanders past, his sneakers strung with bright red laces. "Look at his shoes," Johnson says. "Red laces. He's a little Blood. Doesn't even know what he's doing yet."
The neighborhood was predominantly Blood territory, and Johnson's brothers Dennis, 29, and Michael, 26, were in the middle of the war. (Johnson's sisters, Sandra Thomas, 31, Kimberly Thomas, 30, and Denise Thomas, 29, were not involved with gangs.) As a kid, Keyshawn straddled the fence between joining a gang and abstaining. "I wasn't in a gang, but I was affiliated," he says. "They all knew me. They accepted me. I associated with them, but I didn't do drive-bys, because I didn't want to kill anybody."
By 1987, Johnson had stopped spending time at USC, in part because Smith, who took over that year, rarely opened practices and in part because Johnson began to embrace some of the temptations that surrounded him. He sold drugs for at least three years, wearing a pager and dispensing marijuana and, briefly, crack, clearing up to $300 a day from the age of 13 to 15. In the eighth grade he was arrested for possession of a concealed weapon (a handgun) and possession of marijuana and cocaine, and served nine months in a California youth facility. He makes no apologies for this period in his life. "The reason I sold drugs is that everybody I knew was doing it," says Johnson. "Everybody. I know lots of kids who were robbing people and doing drive-bys."