The old coach sits in darkness, his profile illuminated by the glow of an overhead video projector. Past glories rush forth on a white screen at the front of the room, a highlight tape of the coach's previous life. The viewing isn't his idea. "I don't spend a lot of time reminiscing," says John Robinson, the former and present coach at Southern California. But once the show begins, buried memories are brought back to life. The theater is a meeting room at USC's Heritage Hall, and Robinson strikes a coach's pose: loafers on the table, remote control resting in the palm of his right hand with his thumb at the ready.
On the screen there's an image of the late Ricky Bell, the former USC running back, in 1976. The narrator intones; "One of the highlights of Robinson's first year in '76 was the play of senior tailback Ricky Bell...."
"Great player, collision runner like Earl Campbell," says Robinson. His voice cracks slightly. "This guy was a great kid, a big-time human being. He got that disease [cardiomyopathy] and died...."
Action of the 1980 Rose Bowl, in which No. 3 USC beat No. 1 Ohio State, 17-16. Narrator: "USC trailed undefeated Ohio State in the final minutes and then began one of the most devastating victory drives in the history of the Rose Bowl...."
"I told Paul Hackett, our offensive coordinator, 'Give the ball to Charlie White and run behind Anthony Munoz,' " says Robinson. "Munoz was a senior, played the first three plays of the first game of the season and got hurt. He came to me in December and said. "Should I play in the Rose Bowl or redshirt?" I told him he really should play, and if he plays well, he'll get drafted anyway. Hell, he was the third guy picked in the whole draft. Charlie White broke his nose in that game, blood all over his face. Toughest player I've ever been around. His fullback was Marcus Allen. One-hundred eighty-five pounds."
Highlight films have a way of making the ordinary seem moving. Blend some forceful music with alliterative words and a video of Purdue 1994, Nowhere to Go but Up will moisten your eyes. But the USC production that Robinson is watching is a cavalcade of true greatness. Sam Cunningham, Charlie Young, Lynn Swann, Anthony Davis, Pat Haden, Bell, Marvin Powell, Clay Matthews, Paul McDonald, Munoz, White, Ronnie Lott, Dennis Smith, Allen—it's like a football fantasy camp. Robinson coached all of them, either as an assistant (1972-74) or head coach (1976-82) before moving to the NFL for nine years.
The flow of talent running through USC during the Robinson years—before scholarship reductions and recruiting restrictions—was unprecedented. "Big man on big man," is what former USC assistant coach Marv Goux would call the Trojan practices. "Much tougher than games," says Young, an All-America tight end in 1972.
Footage of USC's 24-14 win at Alabama on Sept. 23, 1978: "Robinson's 1978 team was extraordinarily talented and went on to win USC's fifth national championship in 17 years."
Robinson, who turned 60 the last week of July, points his clicker at the screen and hits the pause button. "That was a very young team, with a lot of talented players who hadn't proved themselves. I thought we were a year away," he says of the '78 squad. "This year's team, right now, has some real similarities to that team. Eventually, we'll be able to make a highlight film like the one you just watched."
College football has taken the concept of tradition and bludgeoned it. These days tradition is two winning seasons and having a catchy nickname for your defense. The new tradition gets you five minutes on ESPN some Saturday morning, then you lose to Michigan and you're gone.