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Robby shows his wit, and his love for the Ducks

EUGENE -- Love and respect filled the room as the "Order of the O" paid tribute to John Robinson Saturday night in the stadium club at Autzen Stadium.

There was plenty of "roast" to go with "toast," though, as about 100 Ducks filled the banquet room to talk about and hear from the College Football Hall of Fame coach, who got started on his long coaching career at his alma mater under Len Casanova in 1959.

Such names as Dan Fouts, George Dames, Claxton Welch, Fred Manuel, Denny Schuler and Bob Newland were on hand to fete Robinson, still glib and spry at 77.

"Thank you all for coming. It's great to see most of you," Robinson cracked, to the crowd's delight. "Some of you don't look so good."

Robinson was honorary captain for the Oregon spring game earlier in the day and was asked by UO coach Mark Helfrich to address the players prior to the scrimmage. Robinson provided at least as much wit as wisdom.

"Within two minutes," said Schuler, the longtime coach who played under Robinson at Oregon in the late 1960s, "he had them on the floor laughing."

Robinson made his name nationally during two stints as head coach at Southern California (1976-82 and 1993-97) and during nine seasons as the head man of the NFL's Los Angeles Rams (1983-91).

But it all began in Eugene for the San Francisco native, who arrived at Oregon in 1954 to accept his only scholarship offer out of high school. Robinson's high school coach, Jesse Freitas, had played for Casanova at Santa Clara.

"I was so damn lucky to get here," Robinson said. "Playing for Cas was unique. It was like playing for the pope, your father and a hard-driving guy all at once."

Three teammates of Robinson's on the 1954 UO Frosh team -- Jim Shanley, Norm Chapman and Jerry Kershner -- were on hand Saturday night. Robinson, who lettered only his senior season, was not a great player, but a coach-in-the-making.

"John was a great coach as a player," said Chapman, who later coached with Robinson at Oregon. "He probably knew as much as the other coaches did as a player -- I'm not kidding. John knew what guys were supposed to do at every position."

Robinson was a young coach at 28 during Schuler's recruiting trip to Eugene.

"All I remember about that experience is I laughed the whole evening," Schuler said. "His style of coaching was positive. He'd say, 'This is how we're going to beat Washington." And he could make football fun. He always had that ability."

When he was with the Rams, Robinson hired Schuler as a low-income quality control coach.

"He gave me his white Eldorado Cadillac," Schuler said. "The neighborhood I was living in wasn't the same as his. When I drove that around in my neighborhood, everyone thought I was a pimp."

Robinson started his 12-year coaching stint at Oregon on the defensive side, then switched to offense.

"I had the chance to play for him as a defensive back for two years," said Ken Woody, who, truth be told, was mostly a placekicker. "I wanted to get away from him. I asked to be switched to offense, and the next day, he was switched to offensive coordinator."

Woody told a story of playing tackling dummy for the scout team going up against the first-string defense in preparation for No. 1-ranked Southern Cal and O.J. Simpson. When it was his time to talk, Robinson was ready.

"I thought I used Ken Woody's abilities extremely well," he said. "That's all he could do."

Fouts, the NFL Hall of Famer who spent his entire pro career with the San Diego Chargers, delivered barbs and ad-libs at plenty of targets, including Robinson. Fouts told the crowd how Robinson -- who dealt with a stuttering problem, especially in his earlier years -- would introduce himself as "John R-r-r-r-obinson, with one R."

Former player Jim Franklin had another stutter story.

"Robby was getting us ready for the Oregon State game (in 1967)," he said. The Beavers "had just beaten USC 3-0. He's talking to the team and he says, 'Jimmy Franklin. You know what Jimmy's going to do? Jimmy is going to hit B-b-b-ill Enyart right in the middle of the ch-ch-chest. And you know what's gonna happen? He's going to leave a little green spot."

After Fouts introduced Chapman as "one of Oregon's greatest players ever," Chapman modestly said, "I don't think so." Before Chapman could continue, Fouts cracked, "We don't, either."

Fouts began his sophomore season in 1968 as Tom Blanchard's understudy, but Blanchard had a balky knee. Robinson had promised Fouts that, in the event of a Blanchard injury, he'd insert Fouts and let him throw a bomb. In the Ducks' opener that year against California at Multnomah Stadium, Blanchard was hurt in the first half.

"I was just BSing Dan," Robinson said with a smile. "He puts his helmet on and comes over and says, 'OK coach, you have balls enough to make that call?' That pissed me off a little bit, but we made that call.

"Dan takes a five-step drop and throws a beautiful, long pass, and wide open, five yards behind the secondary, is Bob Newland. Stand up, Bob."

Newland, who would go on to a four-year NFL career, stood, offering, "Remember, it was a baseball field."

"We were playing football," Fouts shouted to a chorus of laughs.

"And Bob looked good dropping that damn ball," Robinson said, finishing the story. "Dan has always been a pain in the ass. He comes over and says, 'Who in the hell is that guy playing end? I'll never throw to him, ever again.' "

When Robinson was coaching at Southern Cal, he invited Casanova -- by that time retired -- on a trip to South Bend, Ind., to watch the Trojans play Notre Dame.

"We just kicked the heck out of those no good, dirty rotten Notre Dame people," Robinson said. "We get on the airplane for the trip home and Cas comes over and sits next to me and goes, 'Robby, you have a tendency to get too cocky. You have a tendency to get over-inflated. And you're too damn fat.' I said, 'Gee thanks, Cas.' "

Robinson's love for Casanova, though, runs deep. In an interview with me several weeks ago for a Civil War book I'm writing (it is scheduled for release this fall), Robinson told a story about his sophomore year at Oregon. His father had died the previous year.

"I went into training camp with two broken ribs, and I was down," he told me. "I came into Cas' office one day to quit. After we talked for awhile, he said, 'Come with me.' We got into his car and, without conversation, drove to his house. He introduced me to his wife and took me to his backyard. She fixed me lunch. He said, 'John, enjoy this lunch. I'll be back in a few hours.' "

The Ducks practiced without Robinson that afternoon.

"There I was, at his house," Robinson said. "I'd had a great sandwich and looked at his swimming pool. He gave me time to think about things. I was so embarrassed, I never mentioned it again.

"He didn't do what he did because I was going to influence the future of the Oregon football team. It was him using his skills to keep a young person going. What would have happened if when I told him I was going to quit, he'd have said, 'OK'? He could have gotten a scholarship back. I might never had gotten into coaching or had the career I was lucky enough to have.

"It was one of those pivotal moves in a young man's life. I owe Cas an awful lot."

On Saturday night, several ex-players spoke about Robinson's influence on their lives and coaching careers. Robinson said the pleasure was his. He loved his time at Oregon, working with such assistants as Chapman, Phil McHugh, George Seifert, Jerry Frei and Bruce Snyder.

"It might have been the most fun I've had as a coach," Robinson said. "I was lucky to have been part of the culture here. It was the way it was if you played for Cas. All those years were really great for me."

Robinson lives in southern California and has strong affinity with the Trojans. But he still carries plenty of Duck with him.

"I'm at the Oregon-USC game last year in the Coliseum," he recalled of the Ducks' 62-51 victory. "I have all my red stuff on, but I have a green hat in my pocket just in case. About the middle of the second quarter, I'm starting to pull that damn hat out."

Robinson said he takes pride in seeing what Oregon has become as a football program and a university.

"You have to believe all of you were the seeds that helped this thing grow," he told the audience. "And it's grown into something to marvel at.

"Thank you for giving me a chance to renew the feeling all you guys gave me in coaching. Dan Fouts is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time -- and one of us. We all need to be reminded of the legacy we helped create."

Robinson, though, couldn't resist a final dig.

"I'm amazed we coached as well as we did," he said, "with the really crappy looking personnel we had."

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