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Cloaked In Silver And Black

Lane Kiffin's path to becoming coach of the Raiders was a classic example of secrecy by owner Al Davis

July 26, 2007|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Maybe Lane Kiffin is too young to know better. Or too forthright to care. Either way, the NFL's youngest head coach -- a former USC assistant who could still pass for a student -- doesn't flinch as he lifts the silver-and-black curtain and describes step by step the process by which the Oakland Raiders hired him.

That's not a state secret, of course, but the Raiders usually treat things that way.

On the day he was hired, Kiffin said, Raiders owner Al Davis had him enter team headquarters through a back door "undercover, like it's the CIA or something."

Now, however, Kiffin's career is on display. He'll surely be among the most scrutinized NFL coaches this season, a 32-year-old prodigy -- the youngest NFL coach in the modern era -- taking over a franchise that finished a league-worst 2-14 last season.

The next phase of the youth movement begins today when the Raiders open training camp in Napa, Calif.

"People think, 'Did you just take the job so you could be the youngest head coach in the history of the NFL?' No, not at all," said Kiffin, the son of Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. "I had to have long conversations with him [Davis]. He had to figure out if I was the right guy, and I had to figure out if the job was right. Personnel issues, staff hirings -- there was a lot that went into that before I was going to accept the job."

Kiffin first talked about the hiring process while attending the NFL owners meetings in March, then expanded on his comments Wednesday in a phone interview.

Typical of the Raiders, the job search was anything but routine. After firing Art Shell, Davis was initially eyeing Steve Sarkisian, USC's assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach who had worked as an assistant for the Raiders in 2004. Sarkisian had three interviews with team officials.

"It was a great experience for me," Sarkisian recalled Wednesday. "What Al does is he takes you from A to Z, but you never go through the alphabet in order. You go from A to B to T to K....You're all over the place, whether it's your offense, to training camp, to travel, back to how you're going to handle this type of blitz, to how you're going to handle this type of player. It's all over the map. So there's no script, no manual that's going to get you ready for it."

On the third interview, Sarkisian brought along Kiffin and Mark Jackson, a former USC director of football operations. Sarkisian's thought was, should he take the job, he would bring along both and hire Kiffin as offensive coordinator.

It didn't get that far. Sarkisian returned to L.A. and, when Davis called, informed the owner he planned to stay at USC. That's when the Raiders turned their attention to Kiffin. But getting him back to Oakland wasn't as simple as making a call and booking a plane ticket.

First, the Raiders left phone messages but couldn't find him. Davis dispatched John Herrera, a longtime team administrator, to root him out. Kiffin was interviewing Trojans recruits when Herrera located him, gauged his interest in the job, then arranged for him to return to Oakland. It was the Sunday of the conference championship games.

Kiffin made the hour flight to the Bay Area that night, met Davis at the team facility around 9 p.m., and dived right into an interview. No waiting around. No chance to unpack. Just hour after hour of talking football, right past midnight.

"If you guys know Al, that's his time," Kiffin said. "He gets cranked up at night. That's when he's going. He was ready to go. I thought he was going to need coffee or something. He didn't need anything....It was right in his wheelhouse."

The next morning, after a short sleep at the hotel, Kiffin quietly re-entered the building and resumed the interview process. Davis had him break down Raiders tapes for five hours, starting at 8 a.m., before quizzing him on which players he liked and which he didn't. Then, he had him break down the rest of the teams in the AFC West. That was followed by another four-hour conversation, during which Kiffin gave his unvarnished appraisal.

"I wasn't going to say what he wanted to hear," Kiffin said. "If he wanted to hire me for that, I didn't want the job."

Evidently, both sides liked what they heard, and Kiffin was hired Jan. 23. Kiffin, in turn, hired Jackson as director of football operations.

Since then, the Raiders have made several changes. They traded Randy Moss and made peace with disgruntled receiver Jerry Porter; used the No. 1 pick on Louisiana State quarterback JaMarcus Russell, bolstered the secondary by signing safety Donovin Darius and coaxed respected assistant coaches Greg Knapp and Tom Cable to join the staff.

Kiffin shrugs off the suggestion he might simply be a yes-man for Davis, or a pushover with the players.

"I really don't worry about what somebody's going to say or write, because I don't have control over that," he said. "Worrying about that has nothing to do with winning or losing."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Flip sides

A comparison between the USC offense during the years when Lane Kiffin was co-offensive coordinator and the Raiders' offense in 2005 and 2006.

USC IN 2005-06

* In 26 games, the Trojans gained 12,631 yards on the ground and through the air and averaged 485.8 per game, both second only to Hawaii.

RAIDERS IN 2005-06

* In 32 games, they gained 9,621 yards and averaged 300.7 per game, both 26th in the NFL.

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Source: STATS LLC

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