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Lane Kiffin and father Monte coach USC football — and each other

USC was coming off a disappointing season, its 8-5 record not terrible by any means, but well below the expectations of football fans accustomed to national championships.

The Trojans simply couldn’t stop opponents, a topic Coach Lane Kiffin met head-on as he spoke at a fundraiser a few months ago.

“Our defense will be better,” he promised firmly, “because it will be impossible not to be.”

Then he paused for a well-timed beat and deadpanned:

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“Sorry, Dad.”

The comment drew roars of laughter, and a few cringes.

In a lighthearted manner, the 36-year-old head coach was acknowledging an awkward situation. The architect of that defense that looked like it couldn’t make a tackle in a phone booth?

Kiffin’s father, Monte.

Since he was a boy, Lane has talked football with his dad. Monte, who was an assistant coach with the Minnesota Vikings in the late 1980s, would make a point of taking a break from work to come home and watch and dissect the “Monday Night Football” matchup before Lane had to go to bed. Monte made notes about the teams while Lane analyzed the coaching decisions.

“Other kids were watching John Elway,” Lane has said. “I was watching Tom Landry.”

Lane followed Monte into the profession, and along the way the son hired the father. This is the second season the two have coached together at USC, and not all the fans are convinced this is a good idea.

Monte, 71, is in his 46th season of coaching and is best known as an architect of the Tampa 2 defensive scheme that helped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win a Super Bowl title. The defense puts a premium on speed and a middle linebacker who can drop deep into coverage and defend passes.

The Trojans, new to the system and still developing as college players, struggled to execute some of the most basic defensive principles last season. The same problems surfaced earlier this season.

USC’s defense gave up 84 points in two games — a lopsided loss at Arizona State and a close win in a shootout with lowly Arizona — and fans roasted Monte in letters and on Internet message boards.

“It’s about time USC gets rid of that old horse. No, not Traveler, but Monte Kiffin,” wrote one in a letter to The Times.

Monte seemed unfazed.

“You have to have blinders on and go coach your players,” he said. “You take the good times and the bad times and just keep working.”

Lane stands by his father’s coaching decisions, deflecting criticism — as he did last season — by arguing that the offense needs to play better as well.

The men have upheld their tradition of a meeting, though now it’s daily, and together they review the team’s progress.

“Hey, Coach,” Lane often says as he walks into his father’s office. “Pull up a couple plays here. Let’s talk.”

He settles onto a couch as Monte cues up the plays his son has selected for review on the wall-size screen. For a few minutes, it’s those Monday nights all over again. Father and son analyzing coaching decisions.

Except that the calls the Kiffins scrutinize are Monte’s.

A must-win situation

Father-son combinations are not unusual in coaching. College football legends such as Penn State’s Joe Paterno and Florida State’s Bobby Bowden — and even Pete Carroll when he was at USC — are among those who have employed sons as assistants. So did basketball’s Bob Knight, Eddie Sutton and others.

But rarely has a father worked under his son in the high-pressure world of a major college sports team.

“If your son is on the staff, you better win because if you don’t they’re going to find a flaw,” Bowden said. “And it’s usually your son.”

Bowden, 81 and retired, can imagine the criticism the Kiffins have endured when USC’s defense has struggled.

“I’m sure it’s the same thing,” he said, “They’re saying ‘He needs to get rid of his daddy.’

“It’s that family thing,” Bowden said. “There’s only one answer: Just win.”

Family resemblance

On practice days, Monte is in the office by 5 a.m., on the field a few hours later, and in meetings or reviewing film as late as 2 a.m. Rather than heading to the South Bay rental he shares with his wife, Robin, he shuttles to a hotel across the street from USC for a few hours of sleep before returning to work.

“He basically lives here all the time,” said Lane, who goes home each night to his wife, Layla, and three children in Manhattan Beach.

Monte is typically one of the first out of the locker room for practice, walking about 125 yards to the field alone. Lane sprints the distance with a security guard in tow, bursting through the gate as an air horn sounds to mark the start of a workout.

Son and father are usually at opposite ends of the field, Lane overseeing the offense, Monte the defense. Both were intensely focused this week as the Trojans prepared for Saturday’s game at the Coliseum against unbeaten Stanford.

“I don’t know what Stanford’s doing right now,” Monte tells defensive players in white jerseys. “But we’re going to have us a hell of a day! Here we go!”

A whistle blows and the players begin an agility drill, their legs firing up and down like pistons as they high-step between a line of padded bags.

“Finish! Finish! Finish!” Monte yells, his raspy voice rising as the players move past him. “Finish!” he says seven more times.

At the opposite end of the field, offensive players in cardinal-colored jerseys complete the same exercise under the watchful eye of Lane and other assistants.

On their way to the next drills, more than 80 players crisscross the field. Lane and Monte pull out their printed practice scripts detailing every play that will be rehearsed. Eventually, they move to the same end of the field, positioning themselves near opposite sidelines to instruct and observe.

Father and son watch each snap with the same telltale lean to their shoulders. They step toward the action almost in lock step, and then glance at their play sheets at the same time. Even at a distance from each other, they are moving in sync.

When working, Lane never calls Monte “dad,” and is just as apt to yell at him as he would any of the other coaches.

Especially during games.

Lane calls the offensive plays from the sideline, his eyes often fixated on a laminated play sheet he carries with him. Monte directs the defense from high above the field in the coaches’ booth.

If things aren’t going well defensively, Monte hears about it from Lane through his headset: “What are we doing? Can we get lined up? We look like idiots!”

After more than four decades in the coaching business, Monte doesn’t take anything personally — least of all from his son.

Lane, a former USC assistant, was the coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2007 but did not consider hiring his father, who was still working for the Buccaneers. In 2009, the University of Tennessee hired Lane as its head coach and he talked his father into joining him. A year later, when the Trojans came after Lane, then-athletic director Mike Garrett made defensive stalwart Monte and Ed Orgeron, a UT assistant with USC experience, part of a package deal.

“If he was a jerk or a smart aleck,” Monte said of his son, “I wouldn’t go work for the guy.”

Team comes first

All is calm for the moment. Most critics have retreated now that USC has won six of seven games this season. Monte’s defense played well the last two weeks in a 30-9 victory over California and an emotionally charged 31-17 win at Notre Dame.

But the defense will always be under scrutiny. Last season, USC lost consecutive games against Washington and Stanford on last-second field goals. Both defeats came because of defensive breakdowns. Monte took it hard.

“It was kind of a role reversal from the rest of my life,” Lane said. “I would go in to pick him up.”

Lane believes his father takes losses harder because they reflect on his son. Monte bristles at that suggestion.

“My son’s not more important than the football team,” he said. “With all due respect, he’s not.”

Despite the underlying tension from fans, the Kiffins’ bond remains strong. And it goes beyond football. Lane says that Monte occasionally offers fatherly advice in the office.

“I may be talking to him about playing a different player,” Lane said. “And then maybe later in the day he’s telling me to get out of here because he knows the 4-year-old is having a recital.”

Monte said he wasn’t bothered by the good-natured jab his son aimed at him during the fundraiser. “I know we have a great relationship,” he said.

Asked whether he could ever fire his dad, Lane said he can’t imagine it. Then he paused for another one of those well-timed beats.

“My job,” he said, “is to do what’s best for USC.”

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein


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