Lane Kiffin had just finished discussing the “magnifying glass” of operating in the Southeastern Conference, and how it had taught him the importance of “complete attention on the rules.”
Then came a question about one of the assistant coaches who had come with him, and whether Ed Orgeron had initiated phone calls to players who had been recruited to Tennessee.
“I don’t know that that’s accurate. . . . I don’t believe that has happened,” Kiffin said Wednesday evening, just after he was introduced as USC’s new head football coach. “I’ve told [Tennessee Athletic Director] Mike Hamilton I will not recruit the players that go there unless they call me.”
It was more a question of ethics than of NCAA rules. Although this is a mandated “dead period” for college recruiting -- four days when, as notices taped all around USC’s Heritage Hall explained, face-to-face visits are prohibited and contact is limited -- prospects are allowed to receive one phone call from each school.
Kiffin, noting that he had been gathering his family and been on a plane a good chunk of the day, promised he’d check into it, though -- a pledge that soon became moot.
Off to the side a few minutes after Kiffin finished speaking, Orgeron, after much prodding, told reporters that he had indeed initiated phone calls to some of the 26 Tennessee recruits he and Kiffin had received commitments from.
“Yes, I did call recruits to clear up any questions they had,” Orgeron said without identifying the players and declining to answer how many he reached. “In my knowledge, I followed the rules correctly.”
However, there were also reports that Orgeron encouraged recruits who had signed up for spring semester courses at Tennessee not to attend their first classes this week.
NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said rules stipulate that “an institution cannot contact a student-athlete enrolled at another institution without permission from the current school. A currently enrolled student-athlete who transfers must sit out a year before becoming eligible to compete. An enrolled student-athlete is one who is officially registered and enrolled in a minimum, full-time program of studies in any quarter or semester of an academic year, as certified by the registrar or admissions office, provided the student was present at the institution on the opening day of classes.”
Osburn also said the NCAA may choose to work with USC and Tennessee to gather “relevant fact and data” regarding Orgeron’s contact.
Asked if he advised Tennessee recruits to not attend classes Wednesday so they wouldn’t face transfer rules, Orgeron said, “I’m not going to get into that.
“I make tremendously strong ties with families in recruiting,” he added. “I always try to guide them in the right direction and provide information to them to help some young men who are wondering, ‘Coach, what can I do? What are my options?’
“All I did was present their options. Families call me. I call them. I had answers. I gave them answers to their questions.”
A father of one of the players said Wednesday that Orgeron had offered USC scholarships to some of the Volunteers recruits.
Jeff Bray said his son, former Kingsburg (Calif.) High quarterback Tyler Bray, was in a room Tuesday when Orgeron made his pitch to a group of players via speaker phone.
“He didn’t think it was very cool,” Jeff Bray said of his son’s reaction to the presentation. “You’re in the middle of all this turmoil and they’re trying to pull players. . . . My understanding was a lot of [the players] got very angry and voiced their anger on the phone.”
Mike Garrett, USC’s athletic director, said he hadn’t explored Orgeron’s contact with Tennessee recruits and wasn’t comfortable responding to questions about how he would handle the matter.
“I don’t even want to get into it,” Garrett said. “Are you kidding me? It doesn’t even make sense.”
Garrett said university compliance officials have reviewed violations that occurred at Tennessee under Kiffin’s leadership -- including female members of the school’s “Orange Pride” unit visiting elite recruits at their high school campuses -- and “we feel comfortable with it.”
Tennessee had a highly touted recruiting class, but experts have predicted it will unravel in the wake of Kiffin’s departure. National signing day for football is Feb. 3.
“Tennessee’s going to lose a lot of players, without a doubt,” said Tom Lemming, a recruiting analyst for CBS College Sports Network. “Tennessee has no coach with only two weeks left in recruiting. They’re kind of left between a rock and a hard place.”
As for USC: “Lane can’t do much better than what they were doing,” Lemming said. “All he has to do is maintain and add a few big names.”
Many of USC’s recruits seemed eager to meet their new coach. Lakewood High quarterback Jesse Scroggins and safety Dion Bailey reaffirmed their commitments in the wake of Kiffin’s hiring, and Hillside (Ill.) Proviso West receiver Kyle Prater is expected to begin attending classes next week.
San Diego Mission Bay running back Dillon Baxter also seems excited about playing for Kiffin, his coach, Willie Matson, said.