He could be surfing the thumping waves outside his former home on the Southern California coast. He could be diving off the rocky cliffs near his Maui vacation site.

But those endeavors must not have seemed challenging enough for 64-year-old John Robinson. He opted for the more daunting adventure of trying to rebuild Nevada-Las Vegas' football program.

Robinson, who won a national title and four Rose Bowls at the University of Southern California and twice led the Los Angeles Rams to the NFC championship game, decided in December to end a year-long layoff from coaching by taking over a team that has lost its past 16 games. The Rebels have had two winning seasons in their past 13.

"Sitting around the beach is nice, but my surfing skills have deteriorated," Robinson replied when asked why he chose to succeed Jeff Horton, who was fired after compiling a 13-44 record in five seasons.

Robinson was a candidate for Hawaii's vacant coaching job and considered returning to the NFL. Once he analyzed UNLV's situation, however, he eliminated those options. According to Robinson, who won a bowl game in each of his first four years as a head coach, the scenario was perfect.

UNLV broke away from the Western Athletic Conference with Air Force, Brigham Young, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, Utah and Wyoming to form the Mountain West Conference. UNLV also spent $18 million to renovate and expand Sam Boyd Stadium. He signed a three-year contract worth $350,000 annually, a cost that will be defrayed, in part, by the 2,400 new season ticket orders UNLV has received. (That may not sound like much, but UNLV officials believe they will increase the season ticket base by at least 30 percent over last season.)

"The job is intriguing," Robinson said, "because the program has slipped to the bottom, and it was sitting there waiting to happen. There's a timing factor. There's excitement in the job in terms of saying 'Maybe we can do this. Maybe we can do what Kansas State or Northwestern did.' "

In his 12 seasons over two stints at USC, the only other college at which he has coached, Robinson never had a losing season. He is 104-35-4.

Such credentials have reaped immediate rewards. With only two months to hire a staff and recruit players, Robinson landed several top newcomers, including starting quarterback Jason Vaughan from Middle Georgia Junior College and starting running back Jeremi Rudolph, a former Florida State signee who took a two-year detour through the Toronto Blue Jays' minor league system.

However, a player Robinson called a future Heisman Trophy candidate two years ago might make the biggest impact. Quarterback Jason Thomas followed Robinson from USC and will have three seasons of eligibility after sitting out this season.

"The name Robinson alone puts us on a whole new level," UNLV assistant sports information director Mark Wallington said. "We used to be a regional program. Now we're national just because of him."

But Robinson's legendary status couldn't save his job at USC. He was fired in 1997 after a long-running conflict with Athletic Director Mike Garrett. "The second time I was there, it just didn't fit," Robinson said. "It was uncomfortable just about the entire time I was there. It's like any job sometimes, whether it's your own expectations or somebody else's expectations, for some reason or another it just doesn't jibe."

Robinson didn't intend to return to the sideline, but his desire became renewed last year after a visit to the Washington Redskins' training camp. Watching his son-in-law, Arizona Cardinals tight end Johnny McWilliams, pushed him further.

"There were so many things that reignited all of the emotion and history," Robinson said. "Norv Turner [the Redskins' coach, who was one of Robinson's USC assistants] is a good friend of mine, and I went back there for a few days and hung out. I could remember flying back from D.C., thinking 'I gotta get back into this thing.' . . . As football starts coming around, it's almost biological in coaches.

"This is my passion. There was no way I could stay away from it."