At the time, Petrino said he was an assistant visiting with Seattle Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson. He was there to learn about his offense, of course, but couldn't stop watching the Seahawks secondary coach.
"He was running around, in and out, coaching every play," Petrino said. "It doesn't take long for him to catch your eye. And I remember telling one of the coaches next to me, ‘Now there's a football coach.'"
Petrino hired that "football coach" as Arkansas' defensive coordinator when Ellis Johnson's brief tenure ended last January. In return, Robinson, who spent 12 of the past 13 years in the NFL, has brought what players describe as an "old school" feel to the field this spring.
"He's the kind of coach I was around in high school," safety Dallas Washington said. "I love that."
Everything about Robinson screams "football coach."
His lip is covered by a thick, graying mustache, which seems better suited for the Wild West. He chews tobacco during practices and the black residue in his teeth is visible up close. He growls at players, yells encouragement and screams at mistakes.
Robinson even sports a limp. It's the result of a quadriceps injury he sustained while coaching with the St. Louis Rams last December. The severe injury required extensive surgery and loads of rehab.
But the traits have been a hit with the Hogs.
"We've got a lot of respect for him," safety Matt Harris said. "He's been to the top. He's done it all. He's played it. He's walked the walk. We listen to what he says and if you don't, you pay for it. He's kind of old school."
It makes Robinson sound dated, but he considers it a compliment. He has worked for the rugged persona.
"I've never coached any other way in my life," he said. "That's exactly what I am. That's how I've been raised."
Robinson said he has three mentors: former Fresno State coach Jim Sweeney, former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, and Erickson, who is at Arizona State.
The most important influence was Sweeney, who, according to Robinson, was the definition of an old school coach. Robinson played for Sweeney at Fresno State for two years, then spent 14 of his 15 years in coaching as a member of his staff until 1993.
Robinson had four stops with Erickson with the Miami Hurricanes (1994), Seattle (1995-98), Oregon State (1999) and the San Francisco 49ers (2004).
Robinson also was part of Cowher's staff with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2000-03.
"The background that Willy comes from, you play hard and you do things right and you love the game," Petrino said. "You can see the way he coaches that that's how he is and he expects that from his players."
Petrino said Robinson is doing a great job of retooling an Arkansas defense that was aggressive under Reggie Herring. The new Razorbacks are emphasizing zone defensive schemes under Robinson's command.
The change in philosophy has been challenging, but Washington said the defense trusts what Robinson is teaching them this spring because of his extensive background in the NFL.
"When he talks, you can tell that he knows a lot about what he's talking about," Washington said. "As a player, if you want to get better, it just makes you hungry to sit there and listen to him and want to learn more."
That mentality is what drew Robinson back to the college game in the first place. In fact, the old school coach said college football is injecting him with new life.
Robinson hasn't been at the collegiate level since his stint as Oregon State's defensive coordinator in 1999.
"I missed it a lot," Robinson said. "Just because of the fact you're at a level where you can experience personal contact with the player. You're around them a lot.
"You can see them develop and grow."
The Razorbacks still have a ways to go and Robinson will continue to push them until spring practice ends.
The football coach will be back at it when practice resumes in August, too. He'll still have the mustache, he'll still chew tobacco and he'll still holler at players, demanding intensity and effort in the preseason.
But Robinson is hoping one of his noticeable traits this spring will have worn off by then.
"I don't like limping," Robinson said. "I hope in the fall you get a chance to see me run."
Position: Defensive Coordinator
Hometown: Fort Carson, Colo.
Playing Career: College of the Sequoias (Calif.) — 1975-76; Fresno State — 1977-78
Coaching Career: St. Louis Rams (secondary) — 2006-07; New Orleans Saints (secondary) — 2005; San Francisco 49ers (defensive coordinator) — 2004; Pittsburgh Steelers (defensive backs) — 2000-03; Oregon State (defensive coordinator) — 1999; Seattle Seahawks (secondary) — 1995-98; Univ. of Miami (secondary) — 1994; Fresno State (defensive coordinator) — 1992-93; Fresno State (co-defensive coordinator) — 1988-91; Fresno State (outside linebackers) — 1987; Fresno State (secondary) — 1980-86; San Jose State (outside linebackers) —1979
Hogs Reponding To ‘Old School' Robinson
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