It was right after USC lost its opening game to Missouri that John Robinson discovered he was not an anonymous head football coach. His mail the following week was a veritable avalanche of advice, the tone of which was set by a correspondent who characterized Robinson as "a goddamn stupid jerk." The letter writer got personal after that, and Robinson committed his words to memory. The Trojans won their next four games, and one morning Robinson delved into his In box and found an envelope with familiar handwriting on it. Excited, he called in his secretary to "let her share the conversion of one of my critics. I could hardly wait to open it, to read how pleased the guy was that we'd done better. He wrote, 'Don't get cocky, Robinson. You're still a stupid jerk.' "
Robinson loves that letter. As a notably un-cocky first-time head coach in a circumstance that fairly cries for him to fear and tremble, he has attacked the perils of succeeding John (Four-National-Championships-And-Eight-Rose-Bowls) McKay with such immense enthusiasm, such unassuming candor that one gets the impression Robinson is sitting on a block of ice instead of on a hot seat. He fears and trembles not. "What, me worry?" he says. "With at least another week on my contract? I'm too dumb to worry."
What John Robinson is, above all else, is the opposite of dumb. Al Davis, Robinson's boss while on the Oakland Raider staff last year, says that intelligence, in fact, is his most serviceable asset. "Excellent" is a word Davis uses repeatedly to rate Robinson's coaching. McKay himself used similar adjectives when Robinson was coordinating the USC offense as an assistant in 1972-74, years when USC won 31 of 36 games and two national titles and averaged 32 points a game. Obviously, Robinson has not forgotten how to make an offense go. His Trojans have averaged 38.9 points and 473.4 yards, most in the nation, in the first eight games of the season, as they head for Saturday's showdown with Terry Donahue's UCLA Bruins.
But it is as much what Robinson has not done as what he has done that makes the more informed USC watchers believe he was peculiarly suited for McKay-following. An affable 41-year-old Chicagoan with a tendency toward plumpness—like his old school chum John Madden, Robinson has the deceptively soft look of a man who cannot keep his shirt-tail in—he does not have a large ego to serve. He describes his playing days at Oregon—McKay's old school, too, ironically—as so inauspicious that he had to become a coach to make up for it. Energetic and self-motivated, he has not resorted to those ego-serving devices new coaches always seem compelled to have recourse to. He has not ordered new carpets for the office, nor paneled the locker room. He has not changed the uniform colors or the helmet insignia. He did not ask for a new Cadillac (although he gladly accepted the loan of one). He did not fire the secretaries or the P.R. man. He didn't even fire McKay's assistant coaches. Three stayed on—Marv Goux, Skip Husbands and Don Lindsey—happily.
More than anything else, however, Robinson did not box McKay's shadow. Sitting in his borrowed Cadillac outside Julie's Restaurant, McKay's old hangout, one day recently, Robinson said, "First, Coach McKay left me a good team. Most great coaches when they quit don't leave the next guy anything—that's usually why they quit—and suddenly the new guy starts losing, and before you know it he's being followed himself. Coach McKay [ Robinson's respect for McKay is such that he has trouble calling him just 'McKay'] built a tradition of bringing in fine players.
"But even more than that, Coach McKay created the legacy of an offense. I can coach the veer or the pro set. But here it's the I, with its great running attacks, with tailbacks who know they're going to be the center of attention, carrying the ball 35 times a game and wanting to—Garrett, O.J., Anthony Davis and now Ricky Bell.
"We had a great recruiting year, but I should've expected it. We recruited Charles White and didn't have to. He'd gone to the same high school as Anthony Davis in San Fernando. He looks like Davis—he even runs like Davis. He saw a replica of Mike Garrett's Heisman Trophy when he came in. He said, 'Boy, I want one of those.' At USC, he has the chance. That's the kind of tradition you don't get everywhere. That's why it would be crazy to try to make the place over."
Indeed, the USC team under Robinson would seem little changed. Before he was injured, Bell continued to carry the ball as if being tackled were something to look forward to (51 times vs. Washington State). But Robinson has succeeded in augmenting the design. His quarterbacks now average 19 passes a game, "giving us the kind of balance we had here in 1972"—the kind of balance, he hastens to add, that McKay always preached but did not have last year when he doubted the capabilities of his quarterbacks.
So far, no team has found a way to stop the Trojan offense. When Bell was hurt against California, Quarterback Vince Evans led the team with 153 total yards, and White ran for 91. The USC defense, underripe at the beginning of the season, pummeled Cal's All-America candidate. Quarterback Joe Roth. "We're getting there," Robinson said. If it weren't for the mailman, he wouldn't know what a terrible job he is doing.