USC’s Lane Kiffin gets real, and that’s a surprise

I like Lane Kiffin.

And I certainly wasn’t expecting that.

Have no idea if he can coach, 12 wins in his career between the Raiders and Volunteers not much of a resume, but knowing a little something about alienating people, I thought I’d be dealing with an expert at the Pac-10 Media Day.

But Kiffin was nothing like the stiff, double-talking clumsy new hire who greeted everyone in his first USC news conference.

Not a hint of arrogance — although someone will suggest so by pointing out he was wearing sunglasses during his time on stage Thursday — and much to everyone’s disappointment, he came and went without a whiff of controversy.

He flashed a sense of humor, which has to be a surprise for anyone who only knows him from his lifeless, seemingly disinterested appearances on TV.

You hear about this lout, this so-called jerk with a disregard for showing anyone respect, and yet all I found was a wisecracking young man willing to approach the line, which means on occasion crossing it.

You read some of the stuff written about this guy, though, ESPN’s Rick Reilly mentioning a recent column written by’s Ray Ratto — a little surprised Reilly didn’t mention anything written by Bill Simmons — and now who is crossing the line?

Ratto not only likened Kiffin to Al Davis, but wrote Kiffin is “the guy you would white-out Pol Pot’s name to hate, he is the undisputed king.”

Pol Pot is credited with trying to cleanse Cambodia, resulting in the deaths of almost 2 million people, and while Ratto had time to think about what he wrote, nothing Kiffin has said off the cuff has been anywhere near as outrageous.

This kid is supposed to be evil personified, admittedly a letdown if your job is to write Page 2 columns and all you find is someone who occasionally strays from coach-speak.

And let me tell you, he’s great at that, Pac-10 Media Day beginning and Kiffin turning to me and bringing his hand down across his face, his expression changing from smile to boredom, knowing he was about go on automatic pilot.

Everyone poised to hear Kiffin pop off, all they got was “we’ll have our hands full,” when USC plays Stanford, and “we’ll have our hands full,” when USC plays Oregon.

Later he would explain it doesn’t matter what he says, wins and losses will determine what people think about him, and while that sounds right, most folks aren’t willing to hang in there with someone through tough times if they’re considered a jerk.

Most critics call him calculated as if that damns him. He’s some of that, but shockingly more genuine and willing to roll with a punch than his reputation suggested.

It was only one day, and we’ll see what happens when the Trojans lose, but this is no jerk. I know the folks in Tennessee might think differently, but what else do they have to think about every day?

So much has been said and written about this football coach, and that’s all he is, the vitriol at times savage, and I wonder now if it’s delivered with more gusto because he appears so unflappable, so removed from the criticism.

He said none of it gets to him, so he doesn’t always tell the truth. Of course it does. He’s human, no matter what others might write.

“I think it’s a [misperception],” he said when asked whether it’s his desire to antagonize people. “I haven’t gone out and made bold statements here, and won’t.”

A second later he’s talking about his change in approach. He said look at his record the last six months since coming to USC, and while setting aside the Kennedy Pola brouhaha, all has gone well.

“That’s because this is L.A., and the Lakers have dominated everyone’s attention and no one has had any interest in hearing what you have had to say,” I said.

“My thanks then to Kobe,” Kiffin said, and he’s quick.

If Media Day is any indication, Kiffin had no problem sounding like any other coach. I suspect some of that has to do with the Tennessee lawsuit as well as the hiring of a new president and athletic director. He might be flippant, but he’s not stupid.

It might also be who he really is.

As for what USC gets in a football coach, I know this, USC will finish the season in the Rose Bowl … wrapping up the regular season against UCLA.

Right now, that’s about all we know when it comes to what kind of job he’s going to do on the football field.

RICK NEUHEISEL is gambling again.

The guy, who ran amuck with the University of Washington for entering a NCAA basketball pool, was on the Dan Patrick radio show Thursday morning offering to put up his paycheck to prove he could be more accurate with a football than Kiffin or Jim Harbaugh.

I’m sure he was just joking, but when I asked him about it, all he could say was, “I’m back gambling,” in repeating my line to him, and I guess admitting it, which is probably a good sign.

NEUHEISEL SAID he misses Pete Carroll because “he was such a great adversary.”

He said he has no problems with Kiffin, the Pac-10 putting Kiffin on one plane to return to L.A. from New York and Neuheisel on another probably just in case.

He said “it’s time for UCLA” to demonstrate it belongs in the national picture, and while the beginning of the Bruins’ schedule is much tougher than what USC is going to face, he said he remains confident UCLA will be up to the task.

I’m betting he’s wrong.