Thirty minutes before the start of last Monday's preseason game against Dallas, Georgia Frontiere, the owner of the Los Angeles Rams, walked up to her new coach, John Robinson.
Robinson prepared to shake hands. Frontiere instead gave him a big hug, then a quick kiss on the cheek. Just like that.
No one among the 30,000 or so fans in the stands applauded, but perhaps they should have. Because the hug and kiss symbolized, better than anything in the ensuing game, that the Rams' chaotic fall from the top of the National Football League might be ending.
Since Frontiere inherited the Rams five years ago from her late husband, Carroll Rosenbloom, there has been more bickering than embracing in the team's Keystone Kops front office.
"We were laughingstocks of the league," Robinson says bluntly. "But we aren't any more."
The stunning hiring of Robinson, who won one national championship and 81 percent of his games at Southern California, was a major step toward restoring the team's lost credibility.
Robinson, a jolly, personable, cerebral man whose work at USC has made him a southern California celebrity, seems just the doctor to cure the Rams' internal ills. He is the latest in the line of new NFL coaches who rely as much on motivation as Xs and Os. Rams players, bruised by contract fights and disgusted over the administrative chaos, badly need some cuddling.
"When things go bad, it doesn't just affect your play on the field," said veteran defensive end Jack Youngblood, who is being asked to adapt to a 3-4 alignment. "It affects your personal life, too, your relationship with family and friends. You just can't leave it in the locker room. John can laugh. That's nice to see. He doesn't make things a drudgery. It's so logical, you wonder why more coaches don't try it."
Youngblood was a star during an era in which the Rams won seven straight divisional titles. Their last came in 1979--Frontiere's first as owner--when they lost to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XIV. What has transpired since has not been pretty.
Frontiere knew nothing about football or about running an NFL team and was resented deeply by longtime team employes loyal to her husband. She has purged all of them, including Rosenbloom's son Steve, who was executive vice president; Dick Steinberg, one of the league's best personnel men, who was responsible for some excellent drafts, and Don Klosterman, who as general manager annually stockpiled excess draft choices that give Los Angeles wonderful trading leverage.
Soon, no one knew for sure who was running the Rams: Frontiere, her sixth husband, musician-composer Dominic Frontiere, or even adviser Hugh Culverhouse, owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
While the front office foundered, the team's performance declined. After finishing 11-5 in 1980, the Rams were 6-10 and 2-7 the last two years under Ray Malavasi, who spent almost as much time feuding with the press and denying he would be fired as he did coaching.
Rams players liked Malavasi but say he was poorly organized. He also was unemployed after the 1982 season, fired by Frontiere and her advisers. Critics in Los Angeles waited, wondering who would be crazy enough to fill the vacancy.
No one suspected it would be Robinson, who had resigned his USC coaching job just months before, saying he had grown tired of recruiting and the repetition of his trade. He had taken a vice president's position in the USC administration, only to find quickly he missed coaching. Badly.
"When I was coaching, I bounced up as soon as the alarm clock went off in the morning," said Robinson. "With the new job, I'd lay there for a half-hour after it went off. I knew something wasn't right. As a coach, you have control. In my other job, I was frustrated because the control wasn't there."
It took a week for Frontiere to persuade Robinson to end his retirement. "I read the papers, I saw what had been going on, I was apprehensive," he said. But once he was convinced "we both wanted the same things for the team," he signed on, for a compensation package reportedly worth $350,000 a year.
"I knew the Rams, I would stay in Southern California and--let's face it--it was a challenge," he said. "I had made a mistake getting out of coaching and here was an opportunity to return under interesting circumstances."
By the start of training camp, Frontiere's stunning administrative reorganization was finished. Along with Robinson, she hired ex-Hawaii athletic director Ray Nagel as executive vice president. The rest of the front office--the financial man, the public relations man, the first-ever community relations man, the operations man--are her selections.
Her thumbnail sketch in the team press guide, once embarrassingly complimentary, has been toned down considerably. In an attempt to focus interest on the team and Robinson and not her eccentric ways, she has declined all interviews.
"The press really ripped her apart," grumbled one Rams administrator. "Now no one can believe she has hired these people. They think someone else has done it. But she has her team in place now; for the first time, she is completely comfortable with what's going on."
Certainly, the players are completely comfortable with Robinson, who must rebuild a roster damaged by a four-year record of poor drafts, bad trades and lousy contract decisions.
Robinson, a man who loves a good joke, doesn't yell at players: he encourages them. "I don't believe in discipline for discipline's sake," he said. "I think they should understand why we want them to do something."
He took the tarp off the practice field so fans could watch training camp. He reduced the length of practice sessions and made them more informal, and talked about such notions as pride and a return to winning.
"I thought I'd never see it, but we've been doing a lot of extra hitting in practice and everyone still has a positive attitude," guard Dennis Harrah said. "That's because he is a motivator. He's organized and he has a great sense of humor. It's nice to play for a man who will laugh at himself. He says, 'Let's work hard and have fun.'
"He's already got more respect than any coach since Chuck Knox left (after the 1977 season). But I'm not ready to say these are the new Rams yet. We've still got a ways to go."
Says quarterback Vince Ferragamo: "He's such a nice man that you want to play well for him. It kills you when you mess up. He cares about you and players appreciate that."
One day during training camp, Robinson didn't like how his players were practicing. Instead of punishing them, he called off the workout. "He does the little things that make a difference," said cornerback Leroy Irvin.
Robinson also has done one big thing that should make a considerable difference. Before the draft, he traded away his best running back, Wendell Tyler, so the Rams could pick SMU's Eric Dickerson ("he has potential to be great," says Robinson). It was a bold move that plainly told Rams fans there no longer was indecision in the front office, even if there is no general manager.
If Dickerson stays healthy, he could be sensational. He also fits in nicely with Robinson's plans to make the Rams into a power running team that also will pass enough to be entertaining. To sign him, Frontiere had to commit $2.2 million over the next four years, one reason Los Angeles has among the three-highest payrolls in the league.
"Everyone, including Georgia, has a commitment to this team," said Robinson, who has released or traded seven 1982 starters. Only 12 players remain from the Super Bowl team, with the once dominant defense especially depleted. "There is a stubbornness here to stay on the right road, no matter how hard it gets. That's what we've accomplished in camp, we are on the right road. But we still have to be tested, to see how we react to adversity.
"And we are going to face adversity. The question I want answered then is, will we keep our commitment?"
That's what all longtime Frontiere watchers in Los Angeles will be watching, too.