Robinson and Donahue address agents
The former USC and UCLA coaches, who had several players named in report, respond
For years, Terry Donahue and John Robinson were rivals. The faces of UCLA and USC football across three decades, in a time when both were proud and prosperous.
The years have softened their rivalry and sharpened their friendship. Old wounds have become old stories to laugh about.
But not all old problems fade with time.
I called the two former coaches Wednesday afternoon to get their thoughts on the explosive allegations leveled by former sports agent Josh Luchs in the latest edition of Sports Illustrated.
Luchs claims to have paid more than 30 players in the early-to-mid 1990s, including USC players Travis Claridge, Phalen Pounds, R. Jay Soward and Delon Washington; and UCLA players Jamir Miller, Chris Alexander, Ryan Fien, Carl Greenwood, Othello Henderson, Vaughn Parker, Matt Soenksen and Bruce Walker.
Luchs said UCLA's Jonathan Ogden rebuffed his offer of cash but admitted to accepting concert tickets. Luchs also noted that USC's Keyshawn Johnson and UCLA's J.J. Stokes would not accept any benefits from him.
Robinson coached all four of those Trojans players listed in his second stint with USC, from 1993 to '97. Donahue coached all 10 of the players mentioned in the report in his 20-season career at UCLA, from 1976 to '95.
Although both men said they hadn't read the Luchs story, they had heard about it on television and radio and through numerous phone calls in the past 48 hours.
I wondered about their thoughts about a system that is clearly broken.
It's at this point that most interviews would go south. The coach might all of a sudden have a call on the other line that he never clicks back over from, or perhaps the volume on his phone might suddenly drop off.
But Robinson and Donahue wanted to talk. Out loud, openly and honestly. About what has gone on, why it has gone on, and whether there is a solution or compromise.
I don't think there's a coach in the country, unless he's a liar, that's going to say, 'It never happened at my school, my kids wouldn't do that.' There's no way.” -- Former USC and Hall of Fame coach John Robinson
"I don't think there's a coach in the country, unless he's a liar, that's going to say, 'It never happened at my school, my kids wouldn't do that,'" Robinson said.
"There's no way."
Robinson said he and his coaching staff were constantly on the lookout for agents' "runners," who would approach players after games and practices and offer them money.
"Agents would give runners $100 [to give to players] so they could take their girl out for dinner that night," he said. "They'd shake hands with them, and there'd be a $100 bill folded up.
"We used to try to try to identify who the runners are and then threaten 'em."
It was, of course, a losing battle. All the warnings could go only so far, Robinson said.
Donahue said UCLA coaches and administrators spoke to players often about agents and what benefits they could not accept under NCAA rules.
"We talked about it all the time," Donahue said. "There wasn't anybody that did anything out of ignorance. Everybody understood what was permitted, what wasn't permitted. No one acted out of ignorance. I can guarantee you that."
For Donahue, it's an issue of personal responsibility. A question of morality for the players and for the agents offering extra benefits.
"I think it's unfortunate because there are certain agents that have been unscrupulous and have violated the universities' and the athletes' policies that have been put in place, and probably in some cases even broke the laws," he said.
"When people are unscrupulous, it's very hard to regulate that. When people don't have a moral code and don't have integrity and don't have ethics, when they violate and perpetrate these kinds of actions, it's very hard to say how exactly you can stop that."
When asked specifically about Luchs targeting UCLA's players, Donahue said:
"I didn't read the article, I don't know what he said. I've only heard about the article. But I think that most good players, at some juncture, are probably faced with a decision as to whether or not to make a right decision or wrong decision. If they came in contact with this particular agent [Luchs], some players obviously made the wrong decision and some made the right decision.
"That's an individual thing that occurs amongst human beings and definitely among athletes that are at a crossroads and this guy's tempting me with this, but I really know I shouldn't.
"Every athlete has obligations and responsibilities. They have rights and privileges, too, but they also have responsibilities. Some athletes live up to those obligations and responsibilities, and some don't. In all aspects, not just involving agents, but in all aspects. Whether it's betraying training rules or academics or whatever."
The complicating issue for both men was the conflict between following the letter of NCAA bylaws and following their hearts when it was obvious a player was in need.
Some of the meetings with players were heartbreaking.
"That was one of the toughest things for me as a head coach, was the kid who was stressed for whatever reason," Robinson said. "His girlfriend was pregnant, his parents were this or that, he had a car and couldn't make the payment.
"He'd come to me and say, 'What do I do, Coach?' You were stuck. The only thing you could do is try to get him a job on the weekends or in the offseason. But then they made it so you couldn't do that.
"Every coach who has ever coached has had a kid in his office that says, 'Coach, I'm dying here,' and you wind up giving him 100 bucks or letting him use your phone.
"I used to have a kid that would come into my office and he was so homesick that he'd start crying. I would dial his mom on the phone and he talked to her for 10 minutes and he'd say, 'Oh, I'm OK now.'
"Well, that was a violation. But hell, I didn't have any other solution."
It was obvious to Robinson that players with those economic circumstances who also had the potential for a professional career were easy marks for sports agents. And that if a coach or university couldn't help them, someone else probably would step in.
Paying those athletes isn't a solution, Robinson said: "If you gave every football player $2,000 for the year, you'd have to give that same amount to every other athlete at the school, and the athletic department would be broke."
“Robinson continued: "There's too many sides to this to find an easy solution."
I always felt that the size of the scholarships should be bigger. That would remove some of the temptations that might be presented because an athlete doesn't have enough money for a social life or doesn't have enough money to take somebody out on a date.” -- Former UCLA coach Terry Donahue
Donahue said he blames the NCAA and college administrators for failing to act proactively to address the problem.
"I always felt that the size of the scholarships should be bigger," he said. "That would remove some of the temptations that might be presented because an athlete doesn't have enough money for a social life or doesn't have enough money to take somebody out on a date.
"I always felt the size of the scholarships that players were receiving, that that was a question that really should've been addressed more aggressively and proactively by the NCAA and by everyone that was involved in football."
What irks Robinson are those who speak about the issue moralistically and judge every offense rigidly.
The former coach feels the controversy is too complicated and too systemic to govern from a moral high ground.
"I've heard from some sanctimonious people, and I've heard from some cynical people," he said. "But I've yet to hear from the person who had some sort of wisdom about the subject.
"I don't know if there's a solution. There's maybe just an uneasy truce.
"Maybe one of the best things you could do is in [a player's] senior year, he could take out a loan [based on his potential future earnings]. That would allow them some money, an opportunity to have some cash or buy a car.
"I mean, that's what our country does. We all have credit cards, right? We hedge on next year's income to buy things now," Robinson said. "But [with the current system], we tell the kids you can't do that because it's immoral. The kids look at you like you're full of s---.
"You can tell them it's against the rules, but the morality of it is difficult to explain to them.
Robinson said the latest wave of scandals regarding sports agents giving money to college players -- Reggie Bush, North Carolina football, Josh Luchs -- has brought to light issues "people in sports have known for a long time."
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"The NCAA has to look at it," he said. "They're the rules people, and rules people have to say you got to obey the rules.
"But the one thing people don't want to do is dig up history and try to find every kid who ever took money. It's best to say, 'It's too bad, let's try and improve it and move on.'"
You could hear the decades of passion and frustration in Robinson's voice as he spoke. His life is simpler now. He calls NFL games for Sports USA Radio Network and volunteers his time as an assistant coach at San Marcos High, north of San Diego.
The team is just 1-5 on the season, but the players work hard and he's having fun doing it.
Just before I called him Wednesday, he had organized a team meeting at lunchtime and ordered in some pizzas.
"If I was still coaching in college, I'd be violating a rule by giving them a slice of pizza, right?"
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.