For an extended Q&A with Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, click here.
Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson has seen it all.
In 34 years of coaching, Robinson has experienced the height of glory with two Super Bowl championships and four Rose Bowl wins as a coordinator. He’s coached from coast to coast and in between, leaving a trail marked by a love for football that has brought together countless teams.
But he has also struggled tremendously, leading Syracuse to its first and second ever 10-loss seasons in his first head-coaching job. He was fired after four years of intense scrutiny, even though he felt the Orange was close to a turn around.
Robinson found another job a few months later as the head of Michigan’s defense. And Robinson now has the tall task of revamping a unit that gave up the most points per game in program history last season.
With Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez’s strong offensive focus, the defense’s fortunes are in the hands of Greg Robinson.
The Height: Winning two Super Bowls
When Greg Robinson was the Denver Broncos’ defensive coordinator, one event that stole the show each season.
Even when Denver won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998.
“Every year, we had a party at his house where he’d bring in a pianist and we’d have a sing-a-long party and it was always a great time,” former Broncos and current Indianapolis Colts defensive line coach John Teerlink said. “One of the highlights of the year.”
They’d sing “all the popular stuff” in duos and trios, and play “name that tune.”
While Robinson had an innate talent to bring together a young staff, his coaching accomplishments in Denver were overshadowed by the offensive accomplishments of John Elway, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
“(We had) just fantastic numbers and fantastic stats that always got lost behind the John Elway, Terrelle Davis numbers, you know,” Teerlink said. “The fact that we had all those sacks, all those turnovers, and played so well on third downs always has kind of been forgotten, and I don’t think Greg ever got the credit for that that he deserved.”
Robinson coached in Denver from 1995 to 2000, leading three top-10 overall defenses. Against the run, the Broncos were especially potent, ranking No. 1 and No. 3 in their Super Bowl years.
Over those same seasons, they forced 61 turnovers and sacked the quarterback 90 times.
“When you win, there’s only so much credit, and it always went to the offense,” Teerlink said. “Greg did a hell of a job.”
When Robinson arrived in Denver, the team had just dabbled in free agency and had many new coaches. What he excelled at was working with new faces.
Robinson’s creativity stretched to everything he did, especially his motivational techniques.
“He’ll bring out boxing highlights, hockey tapes, gun fights, movie clips, things where people are challenged and have to rise to the occasion,” Teerlink said. “I don’t want to take away any of his secrets, but he’ll put stuff on Friday nights that’ll fire the guys up.”
He fit in perfectly there, an ability that he’s brought with him along the many stops in his coaching career, and it translated onto the field and into the team’s chemistry.
“To delegate, to manage and to organize to where all the parts are working together — that’s very hard to do, especially when you’re diverse and from different teams and different places,” Teerlink said. “Everybody kind of wants to do their thing and it was his job to tie it all together and package it and he did.”
The Bottom: Going 10-37
Almost 10 years later, Robinson had his Syracuse coaching staff watch the 1972 John Wayne film, “The Cowboys,” which the coaches referenced back to throughout the year. The movie is associated with words and phrases such as “survival story,” “hardship” and “fighting for what you believe in.”
All of those terms seemed appropriate during Robinson’s time with the Orange, as he went from a nationally celebrated coordinator to a floundering head coach.
It’s truly startling how light-and-day different those closely associated with the program describe Robinson’s career at Syracuse.
There is the obvious reaction. Syracuse was a Big East powerhouse, boasting winning season after winning season for as long as can be remembered. No coach had ever lost 10 games in one season in Orange history. But that was before Robinson did it twice in his first three years at the helm of the program.
“I don’t see the competitive spirit that I’d like to see, I don’t see the hitting that I’d like to see. I don’t see any of the intensity that I’d like to see,” former Syracuse running back and NFL legend Jim Brown said on ESPN’s College GameDay in September last year.
Syracuse Athletic Director Daryl Gross also publicly called Robinson’s performance well below Syracuse standards.
“We’re Syracuse. We should beat Akron. It’s that simple,” he said on GameDay, referencing Syracuse’s 14-point loss to the Zips, a bottom-dwelling Mid-American Conference team.
The days of Syracuse’s 1959 National Championship and Heisman winner Ernie Davis were buried in fans’ memories as they witnessed Robinson’s downfall. The Orange never finished above another team in the Big East in his four years.
But even with the lowly record, Robinson was still well-respected in the locker room.
“He’s very, very, very detailed, a great communicator, great with the kids, a great teacher,” said former Orange secondary coach Jim Salgado, who now coaches at Cornell. “Not only teaching players, but us coaches as well, making sure you got all your i’s dotted and t’s crossed. He wasn’t leaving any stone unturned. He always, always had great game plans.”
Salgado said Robinson excelled at teaching his players how techniques relate across schemes and in tying the playbook together in their minds.
Watching the manner in which Robinson did his job made Salgado realize who he was coaching alongside.
“When I came in the room with him and we started preparing for what we were going to do, I knew I was with somebody,” Salgado said. “I thought this guy, this guy is a good coach. This guy is a hell of a football coach.”
Perhaps it was just an instance of a talented football mind struggling with his first head-coaching job. Robinson’s players were known for always playing hard for him, even when he was fired with two weeks left in the season. Notre Dame was next on the schedule.
The Orange upset the Irish in South Bend that Saturday, 24-23, with the last hopes of turning a program around.
“I don’t think we were far away,” Salgado said. “I really don’t.”
After the season, Robinson, 58, looked back on the lessons of a children’s book at his final Syracuse press conference.
“I’m going to read a little story,” he told the assembled media, still looking determined. “This is a story that I heard when I was young. And I suspect there might be a few of you that have heard this story. It’s called, ‘The Little Engine That Could.’ “
He drew out the main points of the story, explaining each, and emphasized its famous line: “I think I can. I think I can.”
“Well you know what, I still think I can. I do.”