Bill Plaschke

C'mon Lane Kiffin: Trojans are about swagger, not nitpicking

Banning a reporter? Issuing gag orders on injury reports? USC Coach Lane Kiffin misses the big picture when he keeps sweating the small stuff.

Earlier this week, angered by a question about the return of an injured player, Lane Kiffin stormed out of a daily news conference after less than 30 seconds.

I don't need that long to give him some advice.

Chill out, dude. Stop sweating the small stuff. End these weekly tiffs with the media. Worry less about hiding injuries and more about hitting linebackers. You are distracting your team and clouding your mission.

I called Kiffin Thursday about this growing mess, and, give him credit, he acknowledged his part in it. He admitted he was wrong to walk out of the news conference. He allowed that he didn't know all the facts before last week's brief banning of a reporter. He confessed that perhaps he has behaved too zealously in trying to gain every extra edge, thus attracting the sort of negative nationwide attention that the Pat Haden-run athletic department has tried to avoid.

But Kiffin also wanted a chance to explain himself, so here goes.

"This is about being at a competitive advantage versus a competitive disadvantage," he said. "I'm just trying to give my team every chance to win."

Kiffin took me back to the start of his head-coaching career here, when he arrived from Tennessee two years ago.

"When I first got here, I wanted to shut practices completely down, no media allowed, the way it was done at Tennessee, where we never had problems with injury information," he said.

Yet a shutdown would have been in direct contradiction to the Trojans' celebrated reputation for public accessibility and accountability — two trademarks that have been considered important parts of their athlete's education.

"So I didn't close practices, I couldn't close them, it was going against too much tradition," said Kiffin.

Since his arrival, though, two things have happened. The NCAA sanctions forced the neighborhood fans out of practice, essentially ending the community-accessibility element. At the same time, other schools in the conference, following the lead of Oregon, were closing their practices, turning USC's openness into a potential liability.

Kiffin said he would regularly assign three graduate assistants to scour the Internet for any news about opponents that would be helpful in game-planning. Yet he said the flow from the traditionally open schools in the conference was slowly drying up.

"We'd go check places like Oregon and get nothing," he said. "Yet at the same time, we were giving everything away."

But, c'mon, seriously, how important is information about an injury that the opponents can probably see during pregame practice?

"I'm not saying you go 12-0 instead of 6-6 based on injury information," Kiffin said. "But the coach of any sport wants to know who is playing for his opponent, what part of them isn't healthy. Will it affect what direction a lineman will block or how fast a receiver will run?"

This season, still reluctant to close practice but worried about information flow, Kiffin instituted rules that prohibited media members from reporting on injuries or formations they witnessed in the practice setting. This being the country's second-largest media market, filled with journalists unaccustomed to not reporting on what they see, it was barely a week before controversy struck.

"The policy was put in place to totally limit distractions for our players and coaching staff," Kiffin said. "But it's completely gone the other way."

First, Scott Wolf of the Daily News broke the news about kicker Andre Heidari's knee surgery. The operation did not occur during practice, nor was Heidari injured during practice, yet Kiffin was rattled enough that he immediately pulled Wolf's credential before a group of local sports editors convinced the Trojans that Wolf broke no rules.

"The way we viewed it, it was definitely going against policy," said Kiffin. "But when we got his side, I totally understood their point."

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