New USC football Coach Lane Kiffin hopes lights are less bright in big city
Only a few hours before kickoff, the buildup reaching a peak, Lane Kiffin found himself in unfamiliar territory:
A grocery store.
Picking up snacks on Super Bowl Sunday, USC’s new football coach ventured from the family’s temporary quarters in a South Bay hotel to the kind of place he dared not enter for more than a year.
In football-crazed Tennessee, where Kiffin coached for 14 months, a simple errand to the market or restaurant was impossible. Demands for autographs, photos and just plain old small talk would have kept him occupied for hours.
But now he was back in Los Angeles, where for six seasons he’d been a USC assistant.
“This is a unique place,” Kiffin says. “You can have one of the best college jobs but not be the center of attention. You get to be normal.”
Kiffin’s time away from USC was anything but that. Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis hired him off USC’s staff in 2007, then fired him 20 months later, calling him a liar.
The coach hadn’t gone quietly from Tennessee, either, his one season there marked by brash predictions, repeated reprimands from the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, enough running afoul of NCAA rules to earn him the nickname “Lane Violation,” and an exit that prompted something close to a riot on campus.
Recently, Esquire magazine, recognizing Kiffin’s lightning-rod persona, included the headline-grabbing coach in its “Sexiest Woman Alive” contest, playfully noting of the 34-year-old married father of three: “Such a pretty girl. Sure raises a ruckus.”
Peter Martin, associate editor, explains: “Like some of our favorite women, he’s fiery and unpredictable.”
Like him or not -- and USC fans who voted in an online poll were split about his hiring on the day he was named Pete Carroll’s successor -- Kiffin, owner of a 12-21 record as a head coach, now holds one of the most glamorous jobs in college football.
And, ready or not, the Trojans open spring practice on Tuesday.
The road home
Easing into a chair inside the USC coaches’ offices a few weeks after he was hired, Kiffin smiles as he recalls how he and another former Trojans assistant, Washington Coach Steve Sarkisian, used to joke about succeeding Carroll.
Both wanted the job; neither wanted to be next.
“Let someone else go follow him and then get fired when they go 12-1 and not 13-0,” they’d say.
But his own reluctance disappeared quickly when USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett called in January after Carroll left to become coach of the Seattle Seahawks.
Kiffin says he wasn’t shocked by the news. He’d always believed his former boss’ competitive streak would lead him back to the NFL. However, he did not expect a call from USC. Not after his one controversy-filled season at Tennessee had ended in a 7-6 record and a loss to Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
His wife, Layla, had other ideas.
“You should be the next coach at SC,” she told him. “It’s a no-brainer.”
Garrett, in his phone call, seemed to agree -- just as long as Kiffin could bring along his father, Monte, a veteran college and NFL defensive coordinator, and line coach and top recruiter Ed Orgeron.
Convincing his father, Kiffin recalls, “took probably about 10 minutes of conversation.” For Orgeron, “about 10 seconds.”
“I think the line was something like, ‘Coach, I’m getting a plane ticket. I’ll be there today,’ ” Kiffin says.
Kiffin’s own exit wasn’t so simple -- not for a coach who had arrived in Knoxville preaching loyalty and togetherness and promising to deliver a team that would annually challenge for first place in college football’s toughest conference.
During a hastily called team meeting to announce his departure, Kiffin says several players yelled at him. Outside, it was even uglier. Students and fans crowded around the athletic complex, shouting insults and setting mattresses and debris afire. Painted over a boulder on campus were obscene comments and his wife’s phone number.
Kiffin says he quickly discovered he was wrong to think people would understand he was coming home.
His wife’s cellphone rang nonstop for two days and police were dispatched to the family’s home.
“When I saw some flashlights in windows as I was packing our bags, I knew it was time to go,” Layla says.
Such intensity over a coach leaving, Kiffin says, is “what people out here [in Los Angeles] would never understand.”
His upbringing had prepared him for just about anything a football game could offer. But not that.
His father’s son
Listen to Kiffin talk about his childhood and it’s clear that coaching was his only possible career track.
“When you’re little you either want to be like your dad or be directly opposite,” he says.
He wanted to be like his dad.
Lane was born in Nebraska, the second of Monte and Robin Kiffin’s three children, and the family spent much of his childhood moving with different coaching stops. Recounting his travels, Lane drops into coach-speak, team nicknames replacing cities: “We left for ninth grade and went to the Jets.”
During the NFL season, his mother extended his bedtime so he could watch the second half of “Monday Night Football” with his father. “We’d talk ball a lot,” Monte says. “He just loved to watch the games and ask questions.”
While the elder Kiffin scribbled notes, father and son traded opinions about coaching decisions.
“Other kids were watching John Elway,” Lane recalls. “I was watching Tom Landry.”
By the time he was playing quarterback for Jefferson High in Bloomington, Minn., Kiffin was changing plays in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage, sometimes to the consternation of his coaches.
“We had to pull the reins once in a while because he was so confident,” Kiffin’s high school coach, Stan Skjei, says with a chuckle. “There was never a dull moment with Lane around.”
Kiffin then moved on to Fresno State, where circumstances prompted him to begin coaching while still in school. Before his senior year, with future NFL quarterback Billy Volek set to start ahead of him and future NFL No. 1 pick David Carr coming in as a freshman, Kiffin was summoned to the office of offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford.
Tedford’s proposal: That Kiffin become a student assistant -- an offer quickly accepted and wholeheartedly embraced.
“He always had input and always had an opinion on things, sometimes too much so,” Tedford, who is now California’s head coach, says with a laugh. “I would have to tell him, ‘Be quiet’ -- though not that nicely.”
Ups and downs
In February 2001, after stints at Colorado State and with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Kiffin joined Carroll’s first staff as tight ends coach. Now, just as Monte Kiffin mentored Carroll when he was a young assistant, Carroll mentored Monte’s oldest son.
“He was very critical of me,” Kiffin recalls of Carroll. “Where maybe he’d let something slide with someone else, he got on me.”
One thing Carroll jumped on quickly was Kiffin’s brash and aggressive manner with players and fellow coaches.
“I know I rubbed people the wrong way,” Kiffin says.
He was counseled to tone it down.
“My point was learning to be tolerant of other people’s ways so he could come to appreciate the uniqueness and the differences,” Carroll says. “He needed to find a level of acceptance to get along well with people.”
The ambitious Kiffin moved from tight ends coach to receivers coach to passing game coordinator to recruiting coordinator. He then obtained the coveted offensive coordinator title -- a steppingstone to bigger opportunities -- after the 2004 season, when Carroll proposed reducing Norm Chow’s responsibilities and increasing Kiffin’s, nudging Chow toward the NFL.
Kiffin directed a record-setting 2005 offense that featured Heisman Trophy winners Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. He also was a part of two of the most memorable plays in USC history: Leinart’s fourth-and-nine pass to Dwayne Jarrett at Notre Dame and LenDale White’s ill-fated fourth-and-two run that Texas stuffed in the 2006 BCS title game.
Bush was on the sideline for the latter, a fact that USC fans will forever associate with Kiffin.
“I’ve never, ever questioned myself on why wasn’t Reggie on the field,” Kiffin says now. “I question myself all the time because we didn’t make it.”
Yet, only a year later, Kiffin became the youngest coach in the NFL’s modern era when he was hired by the Raiders.
Of that experience, which ended with team owner Al Davis’ proclamation that he had “picked the wrong guy,” Kiffin claims no hard feelings.
A team that won only two games in 2006 won four for him in 2007.
“I’m over it,” he says, adding about Davis, “He did give me a very good opportunity and in the short time we were there we made the team better.”
Back to business
Kiffin’s introductory news conference at Heritage Hall was noticeably devoid of the bluster that had accompanied his arrival at Tennessee -- the promises of a quick ascent to the top of the proud SEC and echoed choruses of “Rocky Top.”
He even waited a few weeks before making his first incendiary comment about a rival Pacific 10 Conference football program.
With USC coming off a lackluster 9-4 season, his approach during his first team meeting was also straightforward. He told the players that all positions were open, and he followed up in the coming weeks by tightening the screws on everything from conditioning workouts to the penalties for tardiness or missed classes.
When Carroll ran things, junior Chris Galippo says, “He was always happy, always fun, and the meetings were loud and rowdy.”
Kiffin, the linebacker says, “is a lot more businesslike.”
That’s because, Kiffin says, he can afford to be.
“We don’t need to go out and grab attention,” he says of USC, “because we have it.”
Longtime friends say Kiffin’s actions at Tennessee achieved his desired purpose: bringing attention -- good, bad or indifferent -- to a program in need of any kind of national profile.
“He’s always calculated and always has been,” says Trent Dilfer, a football analyst for ESPN who quarterbacked the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl title. “There’s not much Lane’s done that wasn’t thought out.”
At USC, Kiffin has promised to run “an extremely clean, disciplined program.” He attended the school’s hearing before the NCAA infractions committee last month and has thus far quietly awaited a ruling on possible sanctions that could keep his team out of bowl games and reduce scholarships.
Lately, however, there have been hints that “businesslike” might stray into business as usual.
Less than a month after saying the Trojans didn’t need to grab attention, Kiffin offered a scholarship to a seventh-grade quarterback.
That came a day after he took a shot at crosstown rival UCLA, saying, “I guess we waste time” trying to recruit players who sign with the Bruins.
Meanwhile, with fans and detractors alike casting their online ballots, Kiffin appears on his way to advancing into the second round of Esquire’s contest.
The ruckus continues.