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Lane Kiffin sets a cautious, uncertain tone at the start

He said, “It’s very easy to see that we’re home.”

But Lane Kiffin sure didn’t look like it, standing unsteadily in front of the biggest college football job in America, blushing, wincing, the smallest guy in the room.

He said, “This is a perfect fit.”

But Lane Kiffin sure didn’t act like it, dwarfed by the lights and the questions, fidgeting under the arms of an oddly large suit, Tom Hanks in “Big.”

I have torched his hiring, I wish Mike Garrett had taken more time and shown more insight, but now that Lane Kiffin is here, I agree the new USC football coach deserves a fair chance.

So let’s count Wednesday’s introduction as his, um, mulligan.

Because, man, the kid really shanked it.

With cheers at their backs and bunches of media and big-money boosters in their faces, the Trojans’ new three-man coaching staff marched boldly out of a late afternoon mist into the Heritage Hall meeting room.

And the problem became immediate.

It was hard to tell which one was the boss.

Ed Orgeron looked like it. He’s big, he’s brash, he throws the weight of his former USC successes around like a forearm shiver.

Nope, he’s the new defensive line coach and recruiting guru.

Monte Kiffin looked like it. He’s weathered and regal and talks about Trojans football as if it were some religious ritual played in an ancient temple.

Nope, he’s the new defensive coordinator.

Orgeron and Kiffin took seats at the side of the room, leaving the third member of the staff to continue walking alone to the front dais, which immediately swallowed him whole.

Even those who wanted this 34-year-old guy to be hired as the head coach had to be asking, “This is the head coach?”

From the start, he was playing defense, his first stated goal was not about playing in the national championship game, but about staying out of NCAA jail.

“Overall the No. 1 thing we’re going to do is have a dedication to run an extra clean and disciplined program,” he said.

While he was saying that, of course, folks were ripping the lack of discipline he showed in leaving Tennessee after just one season, while accusing Orgeron of the dirty trick of stealing recruits.

This was just one weird moment in a conference filled with them.

His answers were ambiguous and strained. His charisma was flat. The intimidation he felt was clear.

When asked about all those angry Volunteers in Knoxville, he said, “They were upset we were leaving because they liked what we were doing.”

Yeah, well, that’s one way of looking at it.

When asked about all those NCAA violations at Tennessee, he said, “We did have some secondary violations. . . . It was not out of whack with other teams in the conference.”

Yeah, well, I guess even foolishness can be relative.

Those who wanted conviction heard only caution. Those who wanted passion felt only uncertainty.

Look back at videotape of his first news conference at Tennessee last year and you see Kiffin full of fight.

But at least for now, USC and the spotlight that comes with it has blinded that growl right out of him.

Even when asked about the one thing he does best -- run an offense -- Kiffin wavered.

So, coach, you going to call your own plays?

“That would be my guess because that’s what I’ve always done but . . . we’ll look at all options,” he said.

Look at all options? Aren’t you the boss? Can’t you just do it and tell everyone else to shut up?

Kiffin was probably being careful there because he wants to leave the door open for a return of UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow.

While Chow and Kiffin didn’t get along when they worked together here, Athletic Director Mike Garrett has essentially ordered the pursuit of Chow, and with good reason.

The kid needs the strongest staff possible. So far that group is the best thing about his two-day reign.

“He’ll be a good coach -- just look at his staff,” said former Trojan Keyshawn Johnson.

“You’ll see he’s got a great presence -- and he’ll be backed by a great staff,” said Orgeron.

I’ll admit, I was spoiled by the last guy. We all were. Going from Pete Carroll to Peter Pan is going to be tough for everyone.

But I will give the new guy that fair chance. Wednesday didn’t count. The work starts now. The work starts in earnest. There will be no rebuilding here, only reloading for another run at a national championship, right?

“I want to make sure we do this thing really slow,” Lane Kiffin said.

Like I said, a mulligan.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke


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