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The play's the thing for USC's Lane Kiffin, mentor Jeff Tedford

Trojans coach says he isn't about to give up play-calling duty. His old teacher, Cal's Tedford, who'll be on the opposite sideline Thursday, tried to delegate that responsibility, for a while.

October 10, 2011|By Gary Klein
  • Whether by necessity or preference, head coaches Lane Kiffin of USC, left, and Jeff Tedford of California run the offenses for their respective teams.
Whether by necessity or preference, head coaches Lane Kiffin of USC, left,… (Photos by Luis Sinco / Los…)

Lane Kiffin is not ready to let go.

He acknowledges he may never be.

USC's head coach doubles as the Trojans' sole play-caller, an increasingly rare combination in major-college football. But Kiffin does not foresee passing off play-calling responsibilities.

"I kind of think I would get bored," he said. "I just don't know what you do all day if you don't do Xs and O's."

Kiffin will be on the sideline Thursday night, laminated play sheet in hand, matching wits with mentor Jeff Tedford when USC plays California in a Pacific 12 Conference game at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

It will be the second time the former Fresno State colleagues have faced off as head coaches. Last season, USC blew out the Golden Bears, 48-14.

Tedford, like Kiffin, once called all the plays for his team. However, after the 2004 season he began delegating that responsibility.

Then came a 5-7 record in 2010, his first losing season in Berkeley, prompting Tedford to go back to being intimately involved in what he describes as a collaborative play-calling process.

"The problem is, I never really let it go," Tedford said in a phone interview. "Every third play I'd say, 'How about this?' It's never completely gone away."

Cal is coming off a 43-15 loss to Oregon, a defeat that dropped the Golden Bears to 3-2 overall and 0-2 in conference play. But their offense appears to be improved. Last season the Bears finished 90th among 120 major-college teams in total offense. Cal goes into the USC game ranked fourth in the Pac-12 and 26th nationally in total offense.

"He's got Cal back on track," said Monte Kiffin, USC's defensive coordinator. "I said, 'Jeff, you were doing great as the head coach. You don't have to start calling plays again.' "

Tedford was Fresno State's offensive coordinator in 1994 when Lane Kiffin arrived in California's Central Valley as a freshman quarterback.

Kiffin played high school football in Minnesota and knew he wanted to become a coach. He chose Fresno State because Tedford had directed college football's highest-scoring offense in 1992 and the third-highest-scoring unit in 1993.

"Even though it was a long ways away, I knew if I went to Fresno I would jump-start my coaching career because I would be learning from him every day," Kiffin said.

Kiffin ultimately gave up years of his eligibility to become a student assistant coach working with Tedford.

"That put me way ahead of everybody else my age because of what a great teacher he was and because of the pro-style system he was running," Kiffin said.

Tedford, who played quarterback at Downey Warren High and Fresno State, was Fresno State's offensive coordinator for five seasons. He went on to success in the same position at Oregon before taking over at Cal in 2002.

The Golden Bears nearly beat USC at the Coliseum in Tedford's first season and then defeated the Trojans in triple overtime in Berkeley in 2003. The next year, Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed his first 23 passes against the Trojans, who thwarted the Golden Bears with a last-minute defensive stand.

Cal finished the 2004 season 10-2 and ranked fifth nationally in total offense. That's when Tedford decided to step back.

"I would lock myself in a room and that's all I could think about," Tedford said of play-calling. "Over the years, you get continuity on your staff and feel pretty good about turning it over to people. The other thing is . . . head coaching duties kind of take over."

After Cal's disappointing 2010 season, former assistant Eric Kiesau rejoined the staff as passing-game coordinator after four years at Colorado. Offensive line coach Jim Michalczik also returned after two seasons with the Oakland Raiders.

Now, Tedford said, the three share game-planning and play-calling.

"We call them as a staff," Tedford said. "There's so much familiarity there, I really feel good about the way it's going right now."

Kiffin understands why Tedford and other coaches relinquish play-calling responsibilities. "They can step back and look at the whole thing, which the majority of people do," he said.

Just don't expect Kiffin to follow.

He acknowledged that a head coach has responsibilities beyond calling plays.

But . . .

"You can only do so many speeches and fundraisers," he said.

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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