There’s no penalty faze for USC and Coach Lane Kiffin
I thought I’d check in with Jim Mora, but I was told he was moving.
Most guys who coach UCLA football usually end up doing so — some sooner than others — although this seems earlier than most.
No sweat. Instead of the losers, I thought I’d switch to the winner in town, USC’s Lane Kiffin, and there’s nothing derogatory in any way attached to that compliment.
Kiffin has done an astounding job the past two years in preparing USC for a chance to win it all. And I’m not sure astounding really covers it.
He was a Raiders joke, the Tennessee brat hired by Mike Garrett to replace a giant in Pete Carroll. USC even hired J.K. McKay to baby-sit and make sure Kiffin’s name didn’t appear again in embarrassing fashion on ESPN.
If that mountain weren’t tall enough, Kiffin had to deal with NCAA penalties. But here we are, USC perceived to be as powerful as it was in its glory years.
OK, so eventually word comes that Mora is still moving in and not on his way out quite yet, but there will be time later to discuss the Bruins’ relentless quest to finish .500.
This is already a story of success, and be honest, how many of you saw this coming two years ago? The Trojans are ranked No. 3 in the coaches’ poll, and those are Kiffin’s peers; the national media is also lining up to sing his praises.
“I was reading a story that said we had the most returning starters and getting Silas Redd from Penn State then we shouldn’t even play the games,” Kiffin says. “Just hand us the trophy.
“I know there’s that expectation out there; it started as soon as Matt Barkley came back. But hey, if you don’t want pressure, don’t want expectations, don’t sign Silas Redd.”
Then he smirks, as he does when wondering just how far he should go in answering the question: Does your team win the national championship?
“We have the makings of a team that could compete for it, yes,” he says, swallowing what he really thinks. “No. 3 now is about right.”
Then he makes a case for why LSU and Alabama should be ahead of USC. Both schools are entitled to 85 players, including 25 recruits, while USC is held to 75 and 15 by NCAA sanctions.
He likes reminding folks of what USC must overcome, the little “look at me” kid in him still evident at times.
“If you can win, whatever you consider winning, and you can do it again and again and with less players, that’s awesome,” he says.
But the little kid in him at age 37, coupled with a business approach for ultimate success at USC, makes him the incredible recruiter that he is. Witnesses to his recruiting power-point presentation say they now understand why he attracts the very best.
“Hey Kif,” a group of players shout out as they walk by, as if he’s one of their fraternity brothers.
“Can you imagine some of Nick Saban’s players yelling, ‘Sabe,’” he says with a wave, and keep in mind the tough-edged Saban is Kiffin’s coaching idol.
“Now watch this,” Kiffin says as one of the players approaches. “He’s going to ask to change roommates.”
Wide receiver Marqise Lee arrives and says, “I need another roommate.”
“How’s that for a coach knowing his players?” Kiffin says, then telling Lee, “It’s good for you. You and [Barkley] will learn to be on the same page; like me turning around and finding out Barkley already knows what I’m going to call.
“Nelson [Agholor] is little brother to big brother Robert [Woods]; you’re too young to be a big brother.”
Lee isn’t so sure.
“I’ll put together the rooms so all four of you are together,” Kiffin says, and Lee goes away delighted.
As Lee leaves, Kiffin says, “What an amazing kid; he’s going to be unbelievable. We had him hosting Silas’ visit.”
Kiffin stands when he mentions Silas Redd’s name.
“I couldn’t sit while waiting to sign him and I still can’t,” he says, while knocking down rumors USC took a scholarship away from a walk-on to give to Redd. “This is so cool. It’s so different; usually you sign a kid and wait seven months to get him. This is like signing a veteran free agent in [pro] football.”
Before Kiffin recruited Redd, he went to Athletic Director Pat Haden, who talked to school President Max Nikias. The NCAA had already made it clear it only wanted the best for Penn State’s athletes by freeing them to explore all opportunities.
Two years ago if this happens he’s vilified, now only mildly criticized for poaching. But that’s how far he’s come in terms of respectability. Haden has been a huge help, Kiffin says.
But he knows “I’ll be a terrible coach again if we lose this year,” and so he began telling his staff, “You can’t drink the Kool-Aid because our players are going to do so.
“The players are going to hear it from their classmates every day, expecting them to win by 50 every week and play in Miami.”
It sounds as if USC’s student body has a good feel for the potential of its football team.
“We have to watch out and make sure the expectations just don’t pound our guys down,” Kiffin says. “We have to make sure they enjoy the ride.
“I sat down with Tim Tebow when he was working out here. His senior season he came back and [Florida] was preseason No. 1 and all that and he said they didn’t have any fun. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen. That has to come from me.
“And that’s unnatural for me. I remember Pat saying [last year] after our first game with Hawaii, ‘Jeez, by the sound of it in the locker room, I thought we lost.’ I just have these standards, but I’m getting better at enjoying the moment.”
So he says. We’ll see as expectations increase.
Before we part, I ask about UCLA and Kiffin gushes, using words like “great” to describe the Bruins and the job Mora will do.
And I’m not buying a word of it.
He’s matured, all right, but no way this much.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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