"He said, 'You're fired!' " says Robinson, picking up the story. "Anyway, while this was going on, our kicker, Dave Tobey, was trying to get past us to the toilet. Cas was so mad at me that he kicked Tobey in the butt and told him to sit down and listen, and by the time Cas was done talking, we had to rush out for the second half, and Tobey never did get to pee. And he had to kick off.
"Well, he was pretty much incapacitated by then. His kick just—forgive me—dribbled for 10 yards, and we fell on it, and stormed back and won. Afterward Cas was credited with an inspired play, an onside kick, so I wasn't fired after all."
"I didn't ever fire him," says Casanova. "I enjoyed him. But he did take some ribbing. We used to howl at this piece of film of a game that showed Robbie getting into the path of a wedge of single-wing blockers and backtracking before it. He wasn't the bravest guy out there."
"I played not to hit, really," Robinson says later. "I tackled to get the ballcarrier down."
Robinson's joy and technical absorption made him a natural teacher. "Robbie liked doing what he was doing so much that it was infectious," says Bob Newland, who went on to play four years for the New Orleans Saints. "During my senior year he had me so convinced I was the best receiver in America that I was shocked I wasn't drafted in the first round. He made everyone feel that way."
Oregon's football ranks were chronically thin, but rich in individual gifts. In 1970, besides Newland, the Ducks had a backfield of Dan Fouts, Tom Blanchard and Bobby Moore, later to be known as Ahmad Rashad. Robinson, the Duck offensive coordinator, opened up the attack to suit their abilities, and, among other accomplishments, they scored three touchdowns in the last four minutes to beat UCLA 41-40.
To hear Rashad tell it, Robinson, no matter what else he might accomplish in life, can die a fulfilled man. "John Robinson was the single most important person I ever came across," he says flatly. "He was the person who let me know how good I could be. In football, understand, they don't want you to know how good you are. There's a mold they want you to fit. Exploring your talent to the fullest doesn't always conform to the mold. But Robbie told me it was almost a deadly sin not to reach full potential."
Robinson did this by being what Casanova had been for him. "In the beginning you need to find yourself, you need to experiment," says Rashad. "He let me do that, he encouraged me, and when I got too far off the path, he brought me back. He never quit on me. He doesn't deal in negatives. Even after a disaster, he picks out the one thing you did right. I learned that from him. I had a career without accolades at the time, and so did Robbie. It's funny how things have changed. God, I hope Robbie is as proud of me as I am of him."
During that era, Oregon was coached by Frei, whose teams didn't even play .500 football (22-29-2), but Robinson, in his incurable enthusiasm, always promised more than the Ducks could deliver. "I had us going to the Rose Bowl every year," he says. When the hopes he'd raised were annually dashed, Robinson became a target for the scorn of Portland alumni. In 1971 pressure was exerted on Frei to replace his assistants, especially Robinson. In this fevered context, Oregon played Oregon State in the season finale. "With a minute to go, we were down 30-29 and had the ball," says Fouts, "but I turned the wrong way on the hand-off, got tackled, and we lost. I was crushed. I knew Jerry Frei would quit after that. I knew it was my fault. But Jerry and Robbie wouldn't let me shoulder the blame."
Frei was exhausted after a long season and the death of his father. Rather than submitting to the pressure and firing his assistants, he resigned. "Accepting that resignation was the single greatest mistake in the history of Oregon sports," says Rashad. The Ducks went 55-106-4 with three coaches over the next 15 years.