C’mon Lane Kiffin: Trojans are about swagger, not nitpicking

Earlier this week, angered by a question about the return of an injured player, Lane Kiffin stormed out of a daily news conference after less than 30 seconds.

I don’t need that long to give him some advice.

Chill out, dude. Stop sweating the small stuff. End these weekly tiffs with the media. Worry less about hiding injuries and more about hitting linebackers. You are distracting your team and clouding your mission.

I called Kiffin Thursday about this growing mess, and, give him credit, he acknowledged his part in it. He admitted he was wrong to walk out of the news conference. He allowed that he didn’t know all the facts before last week’s brief banning of a reporter. He confessed that perhaps he has behaved too zealously in trying to gain every extra edge, thus attracting the sort of negative nationwide attention that the Pat Haden-run athletic department has tried to avoid.

But Kiffin also wanted a chance to explain himself, so here goes.

“This is about being at a competitive advantage versus a competitive disadvantage,” he said. “I’m just trying to give my team every chance to win.”

Kiffin took me back to the start of his head-coaching career here, when he arrived from Tennessee two years ago.

“When I first got here, I wanted to shut practices completely down, no media allowed, the way it was done at Tennessee, where we never had problems with injury information,” he said.

Yet a shutdown would have been in direct contradiction to the Trojans’ celebrated reputation for public accessibility and accountability — two trademarks that have been considered important parts of their athlete’s education.

“So I didn’t close practices, I couldn’t close them, it was going against too much tradition,” said Kiffin.

Since his arrival, though, two things have happened. The NCAA sanctions forced the neighborhood fans out of practice, essentially ending the community-accessibility element. At the same time, other schools in the conference, following the lead of Oregon, were closing their practices, turning USC’s openness into a potential liability.

Kiffin said he would regularly assign three graduate assistants to scour the Internet for any news about opponents that would be helpful in game-planning. Yet he said the flow from the traditionally open schools in the conference was slowly drying up.

“We’d go check places like Oregon and get nothing,” he said. “Yet at the same time, we were giving everything away.”

But, c’mon, seriously, how important is information about an injury that the opponents can probably see during pregame practice?

“I’m not saying you go 12-0 instead of 6-6 based on injury information,” Kiffin said. “But the coach of any sport wants to know who is playing for his opponent, what part of them isn’t healthy. Will it affect what direction a lineman will block or how fast a receiver will run?”

This season, still reluctant to close practice but worried about information flow, Kiffin instituted rules that prohibited media members from reporting on injuries or formations they witnessed in the practice setting. This being the country’s second-largest media market, filled with journalists unaccustomed to not reporting on what they see, it was barely a week before controversy struck.

“The policy was put in place to totally limit distractions for our players and coaching staff,” Kiffin said. “But it’s completely gone the other way.”

First, Scott Wolf of the Daily News broke the news about kicker Andre Heidari’s knee surgery. The operation did not occur during practice, nor was Heidari injured during practice, yet Kiffin was rattled enough that he immediately pulled Wolf’s credential before a group of local sports editors convinced the Trojans that Wolf broke no rules.

“The way we viewed it, it was definitely going against policy,” said Kiffin. “But when we got his side, I totally understood their point.”

Then came this week’s blowup, when, after Wednesday’s practice, a reporter asked about the return of injured center Khaled Holmes to the practice field.

I wasn’t at practice, I heard the substance of the question on the radio, so I’m breaking no rules by writing this. But Kiffin was infuriated that a reporter had just told opponents his most important offensive lineman might be healthy again.

Yet instead of saying, “I don’t talk about injuries, next question,” he heaved a giant sigh and walked away, a move that brought him more national scorn that could have been easily avoided.

“I got killed for this walk-off deal, and it could have been handled better, I agree with that. I made a snap decision and I learned from it,” Kiffin said. “But it did really hit me that some people just don’t understand my point.”

His point is one that fans will surely embrace: He’s trying to protect his kids by trying not to reveal anything that opponents would use against them.

Yet the media’s point is one that longtime local sports followers will surely embrace: If folks like John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll won national titles with an open, swaggering attitude of “We don’t care what you know, we’ll still beat you,” why can’t Kiffin do the same?

“I understand that’s what everybody might say about our history, but that’s just dumb,” Kiffin said. “You always look at things and try to improve them. You want to keep running the student body right?”

I’m guessing Trojans fans just want this entire standoff to disappear so the coach and his team can focus only on football. I’m thinking they are tired of their coach being in the news for ticky-tack things like forbidden Coliseum walk-throughs and healthy kicker Alex Wood wearing Andre Heidari’s No. 48 jersey.

I know Kiffin is tired of it too. Yet Kiffin says he doesn’t know any other way.

“I talked to Tim Tebow this summer, and he told me how his senior year at Florida was so tough because they were expected to win every game big, and that took some of the fun out of it,” Kiffin said. “I’m doing everything to take the pressure off my guys so they don’t miss out on that fun.”

Three weeks into what was supposed to be one of the Trojans’ most glorious seasons, one thing most folks can agree upon is that we’re all still waiting for the fun.