Keep an eye on John Robinson as he walks the sideline. No headset for the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. He'll pace, arms crossed, with little strutty steps, hitching his pants, picking his way over sideline cables. His color will deepen from baby pink to mauve, and when he lowers his jowly head, a ridge will appear over his eyes. Then he will be a ram incarnate, butting along, sniffing the air of combat, looking brutally possessive, comically mean.
This will be the most misleading appearance in sport. For not only does Robinson have a folio of refinements—from a mortal weakness for classical music to a history of executive experience as vice-president of a major university—but he is a good appreciator, a fine forgiver, a great friend. Just look at the guy he grew up with.
"We were degenerately absorbed in sports, only sports," says Robinson, who was born in Chicago, moved with his family to Provo, Utah, at the age of six and then to Daly City, Calif., at nine. There he met another absorbee, John Madden. "Madden and I had it figured," he says. "We'd play for the Yankees in the summer, the 49ers in the fall. Later, we began to see what the chances of doing any of that really were. So the coaching fantasy came fairly early to us both. In part, it was the sublimation of our goals, from doing to teaching."
A nice word, sublimation. At its root is a transmutation, an ascent from the earthly to the sublime. Madden, of course, burst from his sublimation to coach the Raiders to 112 wins and a Super Bowl victory between 1969 and '78, and now jubilantly celebrates the jolts of the game for CBS. Robinson took USC to three Rose Bowl victories and a national championship between '76 and '82, and he has escorted the Rams to the playoffs in each of his four years with the team. Now that he finally has a good quarterback in young Jim Everett, greater things may be in store. Assuming, of course, we get back to playing serious football.
To hear Robinson and Madden recall their childhood, it was the equal of anything that came after. "If you bought an ice-cream cone," says Madden, speaking of the fifth grade, "and a guy said 'Bites' before you said 'No bites,' you'd have to give him bites. So to prevent that, when a guy said 'Bites,' you'd spit on it...."
"Madden was the only guy who'd ever spit on the cone!" cries Robinson, happily indignant at the thought of it.
"And Robinson was the only guy who'd still take bites," says Madden.
"That got him," says Robinson, still smug after all these years. "He couldn't believe I'd dig right in."
"Aw, hell, it got so you stopped bothering with spitting on it," whines Madden.
They were, and are, a pair of big-chested kids, funny, adventuresome, evenly matched. "When he moved to Daly City," says Madden, "we were both catchers. That wasn't going to work. He was good. I thought I was better. My dad was manager of the team. I became the catcher."