Former college and NFL football coach John Robinson, who turned 75 on Sunday, is embarking on his first year at the high school level as the defensive coordinator at
San Marcos (San Marcos, Calif.)
"They go home and say to their parents, 'Some old guy is helping coach' and their parents remember me," Robinson said.
Though today’s players may not remember Robinson, they only have to check out the internet where they quickly can learn that he compiled a 132-77-4 record at the University of Southern California and UNLV – going 8-1 in bowl games – and a 79-74 record with the NFL Los Angeles Rams.
He won the Rose Bowl four times and his 1978 team was national co-champion. He recently was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
He called the Hall of Fame induction a great honor, joining his college coach at the University of Oregon, Len Casanova, and John McKay, whom he assisted before succeeding him at USC.
Still, he says his greatest thrill was winning the Rose Bowl in his first year as head coach at USC.
"You’re new and you’re not even sure you’re going to survive," he said.
"Every loss you have," he listed as his greatest disappointment. "You walk off the field and say, 'This is the worst thing that could happen.'"
Robinson, who had been out of coaching since 2004, noted that he has two grandsons – rising eighth grader Johnny Jay and fourth grader Tyson McWilliams – growing up and playing football in the San Marcos district.
"I got to feeling a need to contribute something (to the community where he and his grandsons live)," he explained. "I thought this (coaching) would be the best way."
"I’m not too sure parents or grandparents are too good of coaches," he said in discussing his grandsons. "Mostly I root for them. It’s too early to think (about how good they will be). They’re going to have good size, which will give them a chance."
Robinson will continue to do NFL games on radio, but will only travel on Saturday and Sunday, so he will not miss any San Marcos games.
"The players are eager," Robinson said of his early-workout experiences. "The sophomores’ attention span is not too long. Juniors and seniors are pretty good. You have to coach in detail more (than college or pro levels). You have to keep it simple. There’s a lot of repetition.
"You have relationships beyond football," he said of coaching at the college level. "We recruit a kid at 17. It’s the impact and responsibility that you have.
"In the NFL you have more adult relationships. The pro athlete works harder than the college athlete because he is a man. It’s his life’s work."
Head coach Robert Cendro – starting his 32nd year of coaching - is thrilled to have Robinson on his staff.
"It’s hard to put a measuring stick on it (Robinson’s impact on the program)," Cendro said. "He’s forgotten more things than most people know. It’s not a part-time thing. He’s just really getting after it. It’s awesome. He’s come up with some good things."
Robinson thinks highly of Cendro, who is starting his second year at San Marcos. His first-year record of 4-7 matched the total victories that the Knights had attained in the previous four years and they won their first homecoming game in 15 years.
This year’s team will be young, with just five starters returning on defense and two on offense. San Marcos is a Division 3 school with 2,220 students in grades 9-12.
Robinson looks at the challenge as fun.
"Coaching was my life’s work. I’m the beneficiary," he said.
The desire to coach probably started at a very young age, Robinson recalled. He and life-time friend John Madden, who met in third grade and began playing youth basketball, football and baseball together, followed similar paths, although they wound up at different high schools.
"We had career goals when we found out we weren’t great athletes," Robinson said. "We used to go to the 49ers and Stanford and watch practices. We were junkies. We were always interested in the game; it fascinated me."
Madden, who at one time hired Robinson as an assistant while he was head coach of the Oakland Raiders, has many fond memories of their formative days in Daly City, Calif.
"He had an older brother (Jim) and I didn’t have a brother," Madden said. "We were more like brothers than friends."
Two of his favorite stories about Robinson are from baseball.
One time Robinson bought a new bat and, having read that rubbing a bone on the bat would make it strong, he would not let anyone touch it until he rubbed his bat religiously for two weeks. The first day he used it, however, it cracked.
"Today, that’s like buying a brand new car and wrecking it the first day," said Madden, who also was crushed because he thought he was going to be able to use the bat, too.
In high school Robinson was batting against future Major League slugger Jim Gentile, who was practically unhittable as a pitcher. Madden said Robinson struck out every time, but he did hit a foul ball, which, Madden swears, is still his baseball highlight.
Even as youngsters the inseparable duo got to football practices at Cal, Stanford and the 49ers. Sometimes Jim Robinson would take them and other times they would hitchhike.
"My (reason) was to learn how to do it," Madden said. "I wanted to be like them (college and pro players). He may have been thinking more as a coach."
After coaching the Raiders under Madden for one year, Robinson left to take over head duties at USC. He predicted that his Trojans were going to be playing in the Rose Bowl that year in Pasadena and two weeks later the Raiders would be playing in the Super Bowl on the same field.
He was a prophet with honor. Both coaches also emerged victorious and suddenly stood at the top of the football world.
The life-long friends have bonded again this summer, because Madden has hired Robinson to be his personal representative at the brand new IMG Madden Football Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
"Chris Weinke is the director, but I wanted someone who knows exactly what football means to me," Madden explained. "We go back so far that we think the same way. He’ll be the head coach. He’ll kind of coach the coaches."
This summer the academy was launched with a three-day camp. However, the plan is to have year-round camps and eventually field a high school football team, starting with a freshman class and adding a class each succeeding year.
"He’s a great motivator," Madden said of what he expects from Robinson at San Marcos. "I guarantee that he’ll have as much or more enthusiasm as anyone out there.
"He’ll do well and the defense will do well. They’ll take another step in the turnaround. The players and coaches will love him. He’ll make a memory for the players."