Round one: Pete Carroll vs John Robinson
Where would Pete Carroll appear on a list comprised of USC legends? His name became synonymous to winning and excellence, but monikers as such often struggle to survive the passing years. Carroll’s era of football is most recent and recognized, heralded with glorious achievements, and honored as the decade’s best. These attributes undoubtedly give L.A’s former King an edge, creating a severe disadvantage for all comers.
The success during his tenure managed to cloaked the disaster of Paul Hackett, enabling fans to forgive and forget. But in the midst of all praise, and as the legend continued to build, another was swept into the coliseum crevices, after basking in similar glory nearly thirty years gone.
John Robinson’s legacy was weakened but not crippled by his second tour of duty. And as much as his name is left out of conversations, or contributions appear dwarfed by new century leadership, Robinson’s first go-round* is virtually a mirror image of Carroll’s new era Trojans.
Pete Carroll won two national championships in his nine year stay. This is either a blessing or underachievement, depending on individual opinions. Robinson’s Trojans claimed the crown just once in his first seven years, twice finishing second. The lone championship (’78) was controversially shared, splitting the title with Alabama, a team they defeated on the field earlier that year. Carroll’s 2003 title also arrived with controversy and was shared with a Southeastern program. Louisiana State was equally recognized as champion, after USC, the consensus No. 1, was left out of the BCS championship game. Both coaches used victories over Michigan to secure a place atop college football’s mountain, with Carroll then abusing Oklahoma to stand alone in 2004.
Under Pete Carroll’s watch, Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, and Reggie Bush won the Heisman Trophy. Robinson is also one shy in this category, with award winners Charles White and Marcus Allen. But Robinson did have a third in contention, as Ricky Bell finished second to Tony Dorsett in 1976.
Robinson’s 1981 offense rode Marcus Allen, pushing the tailback to become the NCAA’s all time single-season rushing leader (2,342 yards). Carroll, in the modern game, utilized Reggie Bush, making him the first running back to amass 3000 yards rushing, 1500 yards in kickoff returns, 1000 receiving, and 500 in punts. Bush and Allen would eventually move to the NFL where they would become just two of three players in history to win a collegiate National Championship, Heisman Trophy and Super Bowl.
John Robinson never lost a Rose Bowl game, winning all three of the events. He defeated Bo Schembechler’s Michigan teams twice, and denied Ohio State a national championship in the other. Pete Carroll was 4-1 in the Rose Bowl, also twice beating the Wolverines. The lone defeat came against Texas in the National Championship game. Carroll’s overall bowl record was 7-2. Robinson was 4-1.
Much is made of Pete Carroll’s dominance over the Big 10. He was a perfect 7-0 against Midwestern foes. John Robinson was hardly a slouch. In his seven seasons, his Trojans finished with 10 victories without defeat against Big 10 opponents.
Games against the SEC also contributed to Carroll’s growing adoration. Two victories against Auburn, followed by two more against Arkansas, and he was 4-0 against America’s choice football conference. Robinson wasn’t perfect, 4-2 in his time, but he did something Carroll didn’t, which is play and defeat the best team the SEC had to offer (Alabama ’78). Under Pete Carroll, USC never managed to be matched against an SEC champion.
Of all the achievements under Pete Carroll, the seven consecutive Pac 10 championships are perhaps the most admired. It’s an NCAA record total, and may be the best indicator of dominance throughout the decade. From a frontal view, a Robinson comparison isn’t even close, but it is near equal from an angle. Robinson won the Pac 10 three times, and each was outright. Of the 7 conference titles earned by Carroll, only 4 were not shared with another member. USC shared the league title with Washington State (’02), Cal (’06), and Arizona State (’07).
Each coach also did well against their rivals. Pete Carroll (16-2) lost only once to both UCLA and Notre Dame. He leaves USC on a current streak of 8 consecutive victories against the Irish. John Robinson (11-3) also fared well, singing just one sour note against the Domers and twice falling to UCLA.
When it comes to finishing, Carroll counters Robinson’s jab with a haymaker that floors his opponent. Both coaches never saw their programs finish outside of the top-25. The two men also have undefeated seasons on their resumes, though Robinson’s ’79 team did play one game to a tie. But those Trojans of the mid 70s managed just three top-5 finishes, recording just three seasons with 10 or more victories. This pales in comparison to Carroll’s seven consecutive seasons of 10-wins or more, which allowed USC to notch seven consecutive finishes among the nation’s top-5 programs.
Carroll leaves Southern California with an overall record of 97-19. He was 62-14 against the Pac 10 conference. The majority of his losses were amassed in the both the first (6) and final (4) year. Robinson’s opening tour ended with a record of 67-14-2, finishing 38-9-2 in conference. His teams never lost more than 4 games in a season, and the happening occurred just once.
USC entered the new century maintaining its close relationship with the NFL. The 53 players drafted during Carroll’s nine years gives proof of the preparation received under the guidance of his staff. But though the number is impressive and continues to be a talk topic each April, it’s still two short of the amount Robinson sent through the pipeline. In Robinson’s seven seasons, 55 Trojans were selected by NFL general managers. Of the 55, thirteen were selected in the first round. With this year’s draft still pending, Carroll’s classes have produced 14 first-round selections. Among the opening round selections, each coach delivered hard hitting safeties in Ronnie Lott and Troy Polamalu. Carroll and Robinson also produced first-round linebackers named Clay Matthews, though they were drafted thirty years apart.
Like John Robinson, Carroll left USC for the challenge and riches of the NFL. Ironically, both accepted positions in the NFC west, with Robinson becoming the lead man for the Los Angeles Rams, and Carroll becoming the guide dog for the Seahawks. What both men left behind is a mix of memorable moments and allegations. The NCAA imposed sanctions against the USC football program in 1982, which included a postseason ban and television blackout. The Trojans of 2010 are still awaiting the verdict, with meetings between school representatives and the NCAA just coming to a close.
John Robinson may not be greater than Pete Carroll, therefore he would not appear higher on a list of legends. But his first seven years were admirable, eventually earning him an induction into the college football hall of fame. Pete Carroll was a master of his trade and deserving of praise. But as much as his efforts are shadowed, and contributions often overlooked, John Robinson isn’t very far behind.