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New USC football Coach Lane Kiffin hopes lights are less bright in big city

COLLEGE FOOTBALL

A magnet for attention, and controversy, during brief stints at Tennessee and with the Oakland Raiders, Kiffin, 34, will face plenty of pressure in his first season as Pete Carroll's successor. But he says he welcomes the chance to keep a lower profile and lead a more ‘normal' life.

March 27, 2010|By Gary Klein

Only a few hours before kickoff, the buildup reaching a peak, Lane Kiffin found himself in unfamiliar territory:

A grocery store.

Picking up snacks on Super Bowl Sunday, USC's new football coach ventured from the family's temporary quarters in a South Bay hotel to the kind of place he dared not enter for more than a year.

In football-crazed Tennessee, where Kiffin coached for 14 months, a simple errand to the market or restaurant was impossible. Demands for autographs, photos and just plain old small talk would have kept him occupied for hours.

But now he was back in Los Angeles, where for six seasons he'd been a USC assistant.

"This is a unique place," Kiffin says. "You can have one of the best college jobs but not be the center of attention. You get to be normal."

Kiffin's time away from USC was anything but that. Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis hired him off USC's staff in 2007, then fired him 20 months later, calling him a liar.

The coach hadn't gone quietly from Tennessee, either, his one season there marked by brash predictions, repeated reprimands from the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, enough running afoul of NCAA rules to earn him the nickname "Lane Violation," and an exit that prompted something close to a riot on campus.

Recently, Esquire magazine, recognizing Kiffin's lightning-rod persona, included the headline-grabbing coach in its "Sexiest Woman Alive" contest, playfully noting of the 34-year-old married father of three: "Such a pretty girl. Sure raises a ruckus."

Peter Martin, associate editor, explains: "Like some of our favorite women, he's fiery and unpredictable."

Like him or not -- and USC fans who voted in an online poll were split about his hiring on the day he was named Pete Carroll's successor -- Kiffin, owner of a 12-21 record as a head coach, now holds one of the most glamorous jobs in college football.

And, ready or not, the Trojans open spring practice on Tuesday.

The road home

Easing into a chair inside the USC coaches' offices a few weeks after he was hired, Kiffin smiles as he recalls how he and another former Trojans assistant, Washington Coach Steve Sarkisian, used to joke about succeeding Carroll.

Both wanted the job; neither wanted to be next.

"Let someone else go follow him and then get fired when they go 12-1 and not 13-0," they'd say.

But his own reluctance disappeared quickly when USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett called in January after Carroll left to become coach of the Seattle Seahawks.

Kiffin says he wasn't shocked by the news. He'd always believed his former boss' competitive streak would lead him back to the NFL. However, he did not expect a call from USC. Not after his one controversy-filled season at Tennessee had ended in a 7-6 record and a loss to Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

His wife, Layla, had other ideas.

"You should be the next coach at SC," she told him. "It's a no-brainer."

Garrett, in his phone call, seemed to agree -- just as long as Kiffin could bring along his father, Monte, a veteran college and NFL defensive coordinator, and line coach and top recruiter Ed Orgeron.

Convincing his father, Kiffin recalls, "took probably about 10 minutes of conversation." For Orgeron, "about 10 seconds."

"I think the line was something like, 'Coach, I'm getting a plane ticket. I'll be there today,' " Kiffin says.

Kiffin's own exit wasn't so simple -- not for a coach who had arrived in Knoxville preaching loyalty and togetherness and promising to deliver a team that would annually challenge for first place in college football's toughest conference.

During a hastily called team meeting to announce his departure, Kiffin says several players yelled at him. Outside, it was even uglier. Students and fans crowded around the athletic complex, shouting insults and setting mattresses and debris afire. Painted over a boulder on campus were obscene comments and his wife's phone number.

Kiffin says he quickly discovered he was wrong to think people would understand he was coming home.

His wife's cellphone rang nonstop for two days and police were dispatched to the family's home.

"When I saw some flashlights in windows as I was packing our bags, I knew it was time to go," Layla says.

Such intensity over a coach leaving, Kiffin says, is "what people out here [in Los Angeles] would never understand."

His upbringing had prepared him for just about anything a football game could offer. But not that.

His father's son

Listen to Kiffin talk about his childhood and it's clear that coaching was his only possible career track.

"When you're little you either want to be like your dad or be directly opposite," he says.

He wanted to be like his dad.

Lane was born in Nebraska, the second of Monte and Robin Kiffin's three children, and the family spent much of his childhood moving with different coaching stops. Recounting his travels, Lane drops into coach-speak, team nicknames replacing cities: "We left for ninth grade and went to the Jets."

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