Within days of the loss to Oregon State, McKay, who had been plucked from the Oregon staff to be coach at USC in 1960, called Robinson south to coordinate his offense. "One of my disappointments was never getting over the hump at Oregon," says Robinson. "It always surprised me that we didn't win. We'd go, like, 5-5, 6-4 and we cared about each other, so I'd have these doubts. Are we losers? Are we doing it right, even? Well, I went straight from that to the '72 USC team, the unquestioned, undefeated national champion. All we did was win. And that finally swept away the doubts."
Moreover, McKay grounded Robinson in his dogma. "My concept of the game is physical football," says Robinson with deceptive simplicity. "Play defense well. Run the ball well. You've got to do those things."
That commitment, thinks Snyder, makes for a Robinson paradox. "He loves to be creative, but at the same time, the McKay influence is strong within him.
"When you boil it all down," says Snyder, struggling to encapsulate the McKay-Robinson principles, "you must be more physical than the other side, because a prime alternative is to rely on tricks. To bring up a trick play with him, well, you'd better choose your moment with care. It's not that something wouldn't work, it's that you betray the team if you are going to let it rely on tricks."
Passing the ball, it needs to be said, is not a trick. But, pass or run, there is a code of conduct at work here. "John's players have an advantage," says Snyder. "They know that, in their skills and effort, they have the final responsibility. So their resolve will be greater. There is tremendous pride among the Rams that if a game is close, they're going to win it."
In 1975, honoring an old pledge, Madden brought Robinson to the Raiders as backfield coach. At USC, Robinson had called the plays. In Oakland, quarterback Kenny Stabler did it. That left Robinson free to fold his arms and stare at the game and view things from a new perspective.
"He has great belief that he can see through the b.s. to the core issue, the point the game will turn on," says Snyder. As that belief grew, so did a yearning for responsibility. It helped that Robinson had acquired something of a patron in USC president John Hubbard.
"I was impressed by Robinson's ability to communicate what he wanted, why he wanted it, and how, if you did it differently, you could expect a different result," says Hubbard. "It was some of the best teaching I'd ever seen."
The same year Robinson joined the Raiders' staff, McKay announced his departure from USC to Tampa Bay. Three of his assistants, Craig Fertig, Marv Goux and Dave Levy, were able candidates to replace him. "Naturally, they all wanted it like sin," says Hubbard, "and I knew the longer I took to decide, the harder the dividing lines would grow. My problem was simple. The guy I wanted was John Robinson. He knew the place. He was a great teacher."
Hubbard, with the help of the chairman of the board of trustees, Robert Fluor, rammed Robinson through. At 40, he was a head coach for the first time in his life.