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John Robinson, Assistant Coach

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By Jeff Fedotin •

At 75, John Robinson’s coaching career has come full circle – from USC to the NFL to now, the sidelines of San Marcos High School as an assistant coach

Connor Kuehnle’s parents did not believe their son when he told them the identity of his new defensive coordinator. “There’s no way it’s John Robinson from USC and the Rams,” Kathy and Kenzie Kuehnle said. “There’s no way this guy’s gonna come and coach high school football.”

The reaction of the Kuehnles, who grew up in Los Angeles, was understandable. Who would expect Robinson to return to the football field at a San Diego-area high school? Let alone a rebuilding one – and as an assistant.

The pairing seemed incongruous. Robinson, who turned 75 on July 25, led USC to 104 wins and a national championship and the Los Angeles Rams to 75 victories. San Marcos (CA) High has gone 8-43 since 2005.

Robinson, though, is having a blast in his first high school coaching job. “It’s great fun,” Robinson said. “I feel like I’m 35 years-old again.” Although he did some consulting for San Diego Chargers head coach Norv Turner, Robinson had not coached since leaving UNLV in 2004. “When you first retire,” he said, “you think you’re going to enjoy just sitting on your butt, but you don’t.”

Robinson, though, took the San Marcos job for deeper reasons than just to have something to do. Upon learning of his 2010 induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, he reflected on his life. “I owe somebody something for all the good fortune that’s happened to me,” he said. “The best way for me to give back is to do something I had skill in.”

His new job also allows him to help the community, which he viewed as the ideal retirement destination. He lives in San Elijo – just three miles from San Marcos High. Two of his grandsons live with him, and he has spent a lot of time at their basketball games. While watching his grandsons, Johnny Jay (13) and Tyson (9), play in early March, he expressed interest to San Marcos High basketball coach Dante Carey about helping out at the school, which his grandsons eventually will attend.

Carey put Robinson in touch with San Marcos head football coach Robert Cendro (pictured above with Robinson), a 32-year coaching veteran. They quickly hit it off. Cendro said that they share an ‘old school’ approach, and that he is comfortable having a coach with such impressive credentials working under him. “It’s not awkward at all,” Cendro said. “He’s just super supportive and wants to do things exactly the way we want to do them.”

After Cendro welcomed him aboard, Robinson began taking a very active role. The day after he joined the staff, Robinson was in the weight room at 7 a.m. to meet his new players. He quickly went back to his old coaching ways, breaking down game tape the same way he did at USC and with the Rams, correcting mistakes along the way. “He jumped in with both feet,” Cendro said.

The players have already seen that he’s one of the first to arrive and one of the last to leave, putting in more than 20 hours a week.

Robinson said that he has kept his original NCAA and NFL coaching personality despite instructing younger players. “It doesn’t matter what level you’re coaching at,” he said. “It’s all the same. You try to get an individual to improve a skill - to do something that he doesn’t know how to do. And you try and get a group of guys to be a team.”

Sometimes that means Robinson has to show a little fire. During one practice session, Kuehnle, an outside linebacker and running back, stopped following a 10-yard run. Robinson, who also coaches slot backs, chased Kuehnle down, yelling at him to run through the end zone. “He gets after it pretty good,” Cendro said. “He’s fully engaged.”

The energetic coach also has demonstrated his acumen. Because of Robinson’s tutelage, Kuehnle now tackles with more power and can cover ground more easily from sideline to sideline. The rising senior had been using a stance with his feet too far apart. Robinson corrected him, instructing Kuehnle to maintain a shoulder-width base. “That’s helped me out a ton,” Kuehnle said. “I’ve been playing football since like sixth, seventh grade and I had never heard that before.”

Another former NFL coach, Jon Gruden, made headlines this spring when it was announced he was going to be a volunteer assistant for his son’s high school football team in Florida. Gruden, however, is just 47 – and only seven years removed from leading the Bucs to a Super Bowl triumph. And the players certainly had heard of the current announcer for Monday Night Football.

When the San Marcos players learned Robinson was going to be their DC, they were less than star struck. “No one really knew who he was,” Kuehnle said. The teenagers – and perhaps some of their parents – are too young to have known that he coached the likes of Eric Dickerson, Ronnie Lott and Anthony Munoz.

But Kuehnle went online and printed out Robinson’s Wikipedia page and passed it around to his teammates. They saw he led USC to four Rose Bowl titles and the 1978 national title and the Rams to NFC Championship games in 1985 and 1989. His accomplishments wowed the players. The Knights could become even more impressed. Robinson is considering bringing in former players to speak to them. In particular, he mentioned San Diego native Marcus Allen, whose parents still live close to the school.

Robinson continues to stay involved in the NFL by serving as a radio analyst for Sports USA. This year, he plans on coaching San Marcos’ Friday night games before flying to the NFL game site on Saturday. For his new day job, though, Robinson has his work cut out for him.

Cendro, who became the head coach last year, was the school’s fourth head coach in four years. He led San Marcos to a 4-7 record in 2009. Those four wins matched its total from the previous four years. Before Cendro’s tenure, the team had not won a league game in five years and had not won a homecoming game in 15.

Excitement already has enveloped San Marcos. Previously, just parents and a few friends attended the summer 7-on-7 games. Now, up to 100 fans showed up to see Robinson this year. “We haven’t had the most successful years in the past,” Kuehnle said. “But we’re really looking toward him to help us build it up, and he’s bringing a whole new energy to the field and kind of a winning spirit to San Marcos.”


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