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

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

During the NFL season, his mother extended his bedtime so he could watch the second half of "Monday Night Football" with his father. "We'd talk ball a lot," Monte says. "He just loved to watch the games and ask questions."

While the elder Kiffin scribbled notes, father and son traded opinions about coaching decisions.

"Other kids were watching John Elway," Lane recalls. "I was watching Tom Landry."

By the time he was playing quarterback for Jefferson High in Bloomington, Minn., Kiffin was changing plays in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage, sometimes to the consternation of his coaches.

"We had to pull the reins once in a while because he was so confident," Kiffin's high school coach, Stan Skjei, says with a chuckle. "There was never a dull moment with Lane around."

Kiffin then moved on to Fresno State, where circumstances prompted him to begin coaching while still in school. Before his senior year, with future NFL quarterback Billy Volek set to start ahead of him and future NFL No. 1 pick David Carr coming in as a freshman, Kiffin was summoned to the office of offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford.

Tedford's proposal: That Kiffin become a student assistant -- an offer quickly accepted and wholeheartedly embraced.

"He always had input and always had an opinion on things, sometimes too much so," Tedford, who is now California's head coach, says with a laugh. "I would have to tell him, 'Be quiet' -- though not that nicely."

Ups and downs

In February 2001, after stints at Colorado State and with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Kiffin joined Carroll's first staff as tight ends coach. Now, just as Monte Kiffin mentored Carroll when he was a young assistant, Carroll mentored Monte's oldest son.

"He was very critical of me," Kiffin recalls of Carroll. "Where maybe he'd let something slide with someone else, he got on me."

One thing Carroll jumped on quickly was Kiffin's brash and aggressive manner with players and fellow coaches.

"I know I rubbed people the wrong way," Kiffin says.

He was counseled to tone it down.

"My point was learning to be tolerant of other people's ways so he could come to appreciate the uniqueness and the differences," Carroll says. "He needed to find a level of acceptance to get along well with people."

The ambitious Kiffin moved from tight ends coach to receivers coach to passing game coordinator to recruiting coordinator. He then obtained the coveted offensive coordinator title -- a steppingstone to bigger opportunities -- after the 2004 season, when Carroll proposed reducing Norm Chow's responsibilities and increasing Kiffin's, nudging Chow toward the NFL.

Kiffin directed a record-setting 2005 offense that featured Heisman Trophy winners Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. He also was a part of two of the most memorable plays in USC history: Leinart's fourth-and-nine pass to Dwayne Jarrett at Notre Dame and LenDale White's ill-fated fourth-and-two run that Texas stuffed in the 2006 BCS title game.

Bush was on the sideline for the latter, a fact that USC fans will forever associate with Kiffin.

"I've never, ever questioned myself on why wasn't Reggie on the field," Kiffin says now. "I question myself all the time because we didn't make it."

Yet, only a year later, Kiffin became the youngest coach in the NFL's modern era when he was hired by the Raiders.

Of that experience, which ended with team owner Al Davis' proclamation that he had "picked the wrong guy," Kiffin claims no hard feelings.

A team that won only two games in 2006 won four for him in 2007.

"I'm over it," he says, adding about Davis, "He did give me a very good opportunity and in the short time we were there we made the team better."

Back to business

Kiffin's introductory news conference at Heritage Hall was noticeably devoid of the bluster that had accompanied his arrival at Tennessee -- the promises of a quick ascent to the top of the proud SEC and echoed choruses of "Rocky Top."

He even waited a few weeks before making his first incendiary comment about a rival Pacific 10 Conference football program.

With USC coming off a lackluster 9-4 season, his approach during his first team meeting was also straightforward. He told the players that all positions were open, and he followed up in the coming weeks by tightening the screws on everything from conditioning workouts to the penalties for tardiness or missed classes.

When Carroll ran things, junior Chris Galippo says, "He was always happy, always fun, and the meetings were loud and rowdy."

Kiffin, the linebacker says, "is a lot more businesslike."

That's because, Kiffin says, he can afford to be.

"We don't need to go out and grab attention," he says of USC, "because we have it."

Longtime friends say Kiffin's actions at Tennessee achieved his desired purpose: bringing attention -- good, bad or indifferent -- to a program in need of any kind of national profile.

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