USC’s father-son dance is a little uncoordinated
The smoke from the torching of the USC defense was still floating in dank Coliseum air when, in a tiny office in the ancient bowels of the stadium, the father came to the son.
“Put it all on me,” said the father.
“I’m not putting it on you,” said the son.
“Put it all on me,” said the father.
So goes perhaps the most delicate dance in college football today, one that waltzes beyond the field and into the family, one whose sentimental steps have suddenly become awkward and uncertain.
Two years ago, Monte Kiffin, perhaps the most celebrated defensive coach in NFL history, left his beloved Tampa football home and took a $700,000 pay cut to buoy the college coaching career of son Lane.
Today, Monte’s defense is drowning him.
Two years ago, Monte sacrificed a pro career that included a Super Bowl championship, 11 top-10 defenses, and credit for designing the popular Tampa Cover 2 scheme, all in hopes of helping Lane win.
Today, Monte’s defense is getting him beat.
USC would have won the first five games of Lane’s career if its defense had not been flattened down the stretch of its last-second, 32-31 loss to Washington on Saturday. USC would not have dropped steadily in the rankings while winning those first four games if its defense was not ranked 99th in the nation.
Lane’s offense is working. Monte’s defense is not. And now the nepotism naysayers have surfaced, the long-unspoken question being shouted from the depths of cyberspace.
Would the son ever have the guts to fire the father?
Said Monte: “You know, I’m up in the press box, I don’t really hear that.”
Said Lane: “People are really saying that?”
No, of course the son should not even think about firing the father. Absolutely, it’s too early to declare one of football’s most famous schemes run by one of its smartest people as a bust.
But they do need to figure this out, and that’s where the dance comes in.
It’s hurting Lane that his father is hurting so much over this.
“Can you imagine leaving something you love to take care of your child, and then to feel like you’ve let him down?” Lane said. “I keep telling my father that it’s about all of us, but he’s not hearing that.”
It’s just hurting Monte, period, sometimes even costing the famed workaholic even the few hours of sleep that he gets in the downtown hotel where he stays during the week.
“Oh, golly gee yes, it bothers me, you feel like you are letting everyone down, and then add the fact that it’s my son?” Monte said. “Yeah, it’s tough.”
That’s how Monte talks, all golly-gees and oh-boys, a 70-year-old guy with a creaky walk from a bad back that he fixed only at his son’s insistence. With beard stubble and crooked baseball cap, he is the exact opposite of his well-coiffed son, yet he is clearly his son’s hero.
“The way he’s changed his entire life and left so much that he loved to help me, this is something I will remember forever,” Lane said.
All of which makes it only harder for the father.
“I know we’re young, I know we’re learning, but it’s my job to coach them up and I’m not doing it,” Monte said. “To have this happen when you’re trying to help your kid? Are you kidding me?”
The prevailing thought is that Monte’s Tampa 2 defense, while it once led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl championship, is simply too difficult for college kids to grasp. But last year at Tennessee, when the father first joined the son, this same defense did not allow eventual national champion Alabama to score a touchdown.
“It works,” Monte said, his voice turning into a growl. “I know what people might be thinking, but I’m telling you, it works.”
But both the father and son agree that, so far, it is not working with young players who are so burdened with its Xs and O’s, they are too constricted to deliver the oohs and aahs. They agree it is also not working so well in a Pacific 10 Conference where the offenses are more advanced from top to bottom than those in the Southeastern Conference.
So, yes, they are thinking about it. And this week, Lane even spoke to former coach Pete Carroll about it. Carroll considers Monte one of his most important mentors, and incorporated some of Monte’s schemes in some of those great USC defenses of recent years.
“We agreed it that sometimes it’s like, in terms of seeing the game, Monte is way up here, and the players are down there,” Lane said. “He already has 40 plays in his mind, and these kids are just figuring out where to go. Sometimes it’s hard for them to play free.”
So the dance continues, this time with the son telling the father that the defense needs to be tweaked, and quick.
“Yes, he has said something to me about that, we’ve discussed it, and I agree,” Monte said. “We’ll keep working. We’ll get it right.”
For the sake of that universal bond between a father and son, I hope they do.
And I’ll be covering my eyes if they don’t.