On August 27, 2012 I got to hear John Robinson speak at the the Little Rock Touchdown Club and he was a great speaker.
8/27/2012 at 1:59pm
College Football Hall of Fame coach John Robinson recalled some highlights of his career for the Little Rock Touchdown Club.
Longtime Arkansas fans no doubt remember when College Football Hall of Famer John Robinson brought his UNLV program to Little Rock and War Memorial Stadium to open the 2001 season. In a game that may have set offensive football back a half-century Arkansas pulled out a 14-10 win on a Thursday night ESPN telecast.
We’ve covered some of the particulars here. Houston Nutt managed to play four quarterbacks, none of whom were named Matt Jones (who sat the entire game on the bench), in the first half. The Hogs barely had 100 yards of offense until the final minute, and it was unlikely they could drive 80 yards in that last minute to pull out the win.
UNLV had to help them out.
“I made one of the biggest coaching blunders of my career that night,” the likeable Robinson recalled for the crowd Monday at the Little Rock Touchdown Club’s weekly meeting at the Embassy Suites ballroom.
Robinson’s regular punter wasn’t having the greatest of nights, but his replacement was a mere kid “who looked about 14,” Robinson said, and the coach was willing to give him a chance to kick the ball away with UNLV at midfield. Even a 30-yard punt would have put the inept Arkansas offense behind the proverbial 8-ball.
Sure enough, the punter let the snap go through his hands and hit him in the helmet, and Arkansas took over in Rebels’ territory. The Hogs managed to cover the short distance with just 18 seconds to spare as Cedric Cobbs ran around right end untouched from one yard.
“If I had had a gun, I’d had committed suicide,” Robinson cracked.
That wasn’t Robinson’s only trip to Little Rock until Monday. He was offensive coordinator for Southern Cal in 1972 when the Trojans ruined a promising Arkansas season from the start, pulling away from a 3-all halftime tie to roll 31-10, the first of 12 straight wins.
“That was maybe the best Southern Cal team they ever had,” sad Robinson, who had the dependable Mike Rae at quarterback and the likes of future NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann at receiver.
Two years later, Southern Cal was expected to contend for a national title, while Arkansas was nowhere to be seen in the national polls, having hit the low ebb of Frank Broyles’ coaching career. But Arkansas had a fanatical defensive effort led by Dennis Winston’s 22 tackles from the linebacker spot and the Hogs shocked the Trojans and head coach John McKay 22-7.
“We came in here ranked and got the hell kicked out of us,” the salty Robinson said. “The entire coaching staff was fired on the way home, three different times.”
But Southern Cal, then led by quarterback Pat Haden and running back/kick returner Anthony Davis, didn’t let the loss destroy its season. The Trojans finished 11-1-1, rallied from a 24-0 deficit against Notre Dame to win 55-24, and claimed another national championship for McKay.
They’d win a share in 1978 for Robinson, who took over as head coach in 1976 after one season as a coordinator in 1975 with his childhood buddy John Madden at Oakland. As USC head coach, Robinson would feature Heisman Trophy winners Charles White and Marcus Allen. Robinson twice reached the NFC championship with the Los Angeles Rams and running back Eric Dickerson.
Robinson remembered recruiting Dickerson out of high school for Southern Cal. The prep star out of Sealy, Texas, had appeared to have a splendid visit in Los Angeles and had met Allen and other Trojan greats. But when Robinson and an assistant coach went to Sealy to visit Dickerson, they pulled up next to a Pontiac Trans-Am and Dickerson’s mother was sitting in the car.
“You think that’s a bad sign?” Robinson recalled telling his assistant. Robinson didn’t land Dickerson out of high school, he made the SMU All-American a first-round draft pick when he took over the Rams.
“He never got hurt,” Robinson said, “and we gave him the ball 30 or 35 times a game. Nowadays, a guy runs for 7 yards and taps his helmet, wanting to come out … I gave Ricky Bell the ball 53 times one game at Southern Cal. The Humane Society called me after that.”
John McKay and Frank Broyles were close friends, hence the three games that Southern Cal and Arkansas played in 1972-74. In fact, it almost seems hard to imagine now that Arkansas was able to lure USC to Little Rock twice vs. only one return game.
Robinson remembered Broyles, the former Hog head coach and athletic director, meeting with McKay and him to show his then cutting-edge slant defense that had troubled USC so much in that 1974 upset.
“It was a wonderful education for a young coach,” said Robinson, who these days spends some Sundays as an NFL analysis on radio. “Coaches back then were just guys. That’s how Bo Schembechler and I were. Joe Paterno was like that. They didn’t have an airplane to take them everywhere. They wore tennis shoes and sweatshirts. Of course, we were making about $10,000 then.”
Robinson ranked his 1978-79 Trojans among the best teams he coached, but for opponents he put the 49ers of the 1980s and the Bears’ 1985 team as the best among the NFL opponents. “Joe Montana [49ers quarterback] was the best player I saw. He was the ultimate competitor,” Robinson said. “Bill Walsh was a great coach. A great player has a to have a great coach or a great system to work in. That’s what ends up making him great.”
Robinson said the Penn State scandal and what it did to Joe Paterno’s legacy “was such a tragedy,” but he assured the Touchdown Club crowd that “a lot of things about college football are better than they’ve ever been. Southern Cal will have 17 seniors this season and will graduate every one of those players.”
After his Club talk, he told the a few media members that he felt the SEC would again have one of the teams in the national title game, with perhaps Southern Cal, Oregon or Oklahoma making it as well. His wife is an LSU graduate and Tiger fan, and she’s made sure Robinson has a healthy dose of what football is like in the South.
In two years, college football is expected to have a four-team playoff. Eight teams would be too many and would “break” some of the fans who would want to travel to the games, Robinson said. A playoff in the 1970s might have given Robinson one ore two more national titles to his credit.
“Well, in 1979 we lost a game, and Alabama didn’t. Really, what was important to us back then was making the Rose Bowl, like for Alabama it was making the Sugar Bowl,” Robinson said. “We didn’t really think as much about winning a national title as much as making the Rose Bowl.”
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