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USC Sports

USC’s Lane Kiffin loses the swagger, gains a steadiness

This is eventually going to be a column about Lane Kiffin’s Next Chapter, but can I first let a little steam out of my ears?

If the BCS folks really think USC is not going to be remembered as the 2004 national football champions, they are vacated in the head.

In announcing Monday that the Trojans’ title is being extinguished, or vaporized, or dissolved, or whatever, the BCS was like that policeman shooing folks away from the remnants of a sidewalk mugging saying, “Nothing to see here, nothing to see here.”

Oh yeah? There was plenty to see there. I was at that 2004 title game, I saw it, and I’ll never forget it. Nobody involved will ever forget it. USC wiped out Oklahoma in a mauling that will live forever.

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For a second consecutive year, the Trojans were the best team in the country that season, and the BCS can have their crystal doohickey, but the Trojans have been punished enough without taking away the truth.

They deserved to lose two seasons of bowls and all those scholarships, but no governing body is big enough to erase a memory, and long after Reggie Bush has retired and gone into the real estate business, the sports world is still going to remember the Trojans as 2004 national champions, exclamation point, end of story.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, Lane Kiffin’s Next Chapter.

It starts Saturday in Indianapolis, when the Trojans coach is marched into the NCAA courthouse to face lingering allegations from his tumultuous season as the Tennessee head coach, some stuff about illegal phone calls and contact with recruits, an allegation that he “failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the football program.”

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A year ago, he would be defiantly fighting this. But when I phoned him a couple of days ago, he was quietly resigned to it.

“It will be the end of the Tennessee part of my life,” Kiffin said. “Whatever happens, happens, but this will allow me to finally move on.”

While we’ve only seen him for a season, I think Kiffin has done that. Moved on. Quieted down. Grown up.

Seventeen months ago, I ripped his hiring, calling him “Lightweight Lane Kiffin” and writing that he neither commanded the national respect nor owned the national presence necessary for the USC job.

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I’m not prepared yet to eat those words. I still don’t think anyone is certain how this is going to turn out. Kiffin was 8-5 in his first year with only one win against a nationally ranked opponent and three blown four-quarter leads in five losses.

But a year later, he is clearly not the reckless coach who swaggered in here from Knoxville. The Tennessee experience taught him. The Trojans’ two-year bowl ban quieted him. Playing with a depleted squad humbled him.

“I’ve learned so much.… I’m still the youngest BCS coach, but I sure don’t feel like it anymore, and nobody talks about it anymore,” said Kiffin, 36. “A lot has changed.”

There were several times during his first season when he could have reverted to the petulant brat who pranked the SEC, but Kiffin calmly stared down his hurdles. No outrageous comments. No crazy team behavior. Marc Tyler’s recent off-field issues mark the first tough test of this new culture but, so far, so steady.

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During the middle of the season, with his defense allowing an average of a gazillion yards a game, I asked Kiffin about possible coaching changes when he interrupted me with, “Oh, so you want to know if I’m going to fire my Dad?” He then explained how the young defense would eventually understand, and they finished the year strong.

Before the Trojans played UCLA last season, I suggested that it was a must-win game for him, and he calmly agreed, embraced the heat, took the pressure off his players, and his team won.

Then, this winter, his first full recruiting class was ranked in the top five in the nation, the same sort of haul that Pete Carroll used to make. Even though these impatient stars would have to wait a season for national notoriety, they still valued USC, which means they valued Kiffin.

“I finally feel like I’ve come home,” Kiffin said. “I’m comfortable now, building things the right way, being myself without having to doing anything to stir things up.”

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He says now he caused such a fuss in Tennessee, insulting and challenging the royal families of college football’s greatest conference, because he felt he had no choice.

“Everything I did at Tennessee, all those things I said, that was for our players and our fans, to try to raise awareness of a program that needed it,” he said. “It wasn’t what I necessarily wanted to do, but it was what I needed to do.”

He has learned quickly that here, he only needed to coach, and that his image would be formed by his honesty and accountability, not his bluster. When he showed up at Pac-10 media day as the only coach doing lectern interviews while wearing mirrored sunglasses, he was criticized for trying to act too aloof and cool, and he soon lost the lenses.

“I’ve learned I can be myself here, I don’t need to grab attention, I can just teach and coach,” he said.

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He is slowly even winning over his toughest critic, Pat Haden, the athletic director who was hired after Kiffin and who must eventually be convinced that Kiffin can lead the Trojans into the next era.

Haden offered a statement of support when the NCAA leveled its charges against Kiffin, and will actually be in Indianapolis this weekend to back his coach, who is surely going to challenge some of the petty and ...

“No, I’m not talking about that,” Lane Kiffin said, which sort of says everything.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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