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Kennedy Pola is worth the trouble

Assistant coach should be just what USC and Lane Kiffin need for a basic, solid offensive philosophy.

July 27, 2010|Bill Plaschke

He answers the phone while packing up boxes in his leased Nashville home, a controversial boss beckoning, a lawsuit swirling, probation waiting.

And all Kennedy Pola can do is talk old-fashioned USC football.

"We're gonna put our foot in the ground and go," he says.

All Kennedy Pola can do is talk Marv Goux.

"He taught me Trojan tradition, he taught me Trojan family," he says.

All Kennedy Pola can do is talk change.

"I want us to do things the way we used to do them," he says. "Keep our heads down and outwork everybody else."

Not that I think Pola is the giant, gravelly future of USC football, but, well, put it this way:

If you're going to get sued over hiring someone, this is the guy.

Lane Kiffin may have used the wrong protocol, but he called the right number. Hired from the angry Tennessee Titans last weekend to be the Trojans' new offensive coordinator, Pola is the end of swagger, the end of shortcuts, the end of smarm.

"You don't try to outshine anybody," he says. "You just do things the right way and good things will happen."

It's simple, it's vanilla, but it's exactly what the Trojans need as they begin an era already clanking with distractions from the old one.

The Trojans need a return to tradition: Pola was USC's blocking fullback in the early 1980s, then coached there for four seasons under Paul Hackett and Pete Carroll in the early 2000s, laying the freshman foundation for Reggie Bush and LenDale White.

The Trojans need a return of the running game: During Pola's five years as Jacksonville's running backs coach, the Jaguars finished third in the league in rushing yards while producing two Pro Bowl running backs.

The Trojans need a return to homegrown leadership: Pola, who has done everything from coach local high school football to recruiting Bush and White, is not just being hired to boss the Trojans' offense, he is on a path to perhaps one day becoming their next head coach.

If you think this means it was crazy of Kiffin to hire him, well, Kiffin didn't really hire him, having passed him over in his search for a running backs coach while pursing the Minnesota Vikings' Eric Bieniemy. Pola has become the offensive coordinator at the unofficial request of new Athletic Director Pat Haden.

Who knows where this is all going? But with Pola in the middle of it all, the Trojans once again seem centered.

"We're here to carry the torch for the past Trojans into the present and future," he says. "We have to carry it proud."

Speaking of torches, that Tennessee folks are roasting Kiffin for recruiting Pola without the Titans' permission has little to do with Pola, who wasn't even mentioned in the lawsuit.

The controversy just emphasizes how little support Kiffin currently has among Trojans alumni, of which openly critical Titans Coach Jeff Fisher is one. Let's face it, the ground upon which Kiffin will walk into his first game as a USC head coach is already cracked and shaking.

Into this mess steps a guy who, despite his boulder build, has never been bigger than the team. He is a guy who labored in 681 yards' worth of rushing obscurity during his four years of blocking for a string of forgettable Trojans running backs, his only statistical highlight being a 65-yard touchdown pass in 1983 against Stanford.

"I remember passing it downfield to Timmy Ware and this Stanford safety is standing next to me in the backfield saying, 'Man, that fat guy can throw the ball,' " Pola says.

He is most proud that, despite his scarcity of collegiate carries, he never lost a yard. He has passed along that push-forward ethic to every player he has ever coached, including nephew Troy Polamalu, whom he still tutors today.

"We teach the importance of being a smart player, of being able to see things before they happen," he says.

Pola practiced what he preached when he left USC after the 2003 season, his fourth as a Trojans running backs and special teams coach. After USC won the AP national title in the Rose Bowl that season, he asked Carroll if he would ever have a chance at being an offensive coordinator, and he was told, no, that the job would go to the younger Kiffin.

Carroll was threatened by Pola's strong presence, just as he was later threatened by Norm Chow. So, like Chow, Pola left, honed his craft in the NFL, and proudly returned to USC's pro day two springs ago, where he was scouting for the Jaguars and asked for permission to compare notes with Trojans offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates.

"Pete said no, he said he was always competing," Pola says. "I kind of went, 'Wow.' And I just moved on."

Now he is back, promising to compete the way Carroll long ago competed, putting his foot in the ground and going, two strong steps forward, one important look back.

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