Monte Kiffin, a former defensive coordinator in the NFL, joined the coaching… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
USC was coming off a disappointing season, its 8-5 record not terrible by any means, but well below the expectations of football fans accustomed to national championships.
The Trojans simply couldn't stop opponents, a topic Coach Lane Kiffin met head-on as he spoke at a fundraiser a few months ago.
"Our defense will be better," he promised firmly, "because it will be impossible not to be."
Then he paused for a well-timed beat and deadpanned:
The comment drew roars of laughter, and a few cringes.
In a lighthearted manner, the 36-year-old head coach was acknowledging an awkward situation. The architect of that defense that looked like it couldn't make a tackle in a phone booth?
Kiffin's father, Monte.
Since he was a boy, Lane has talked football with his dad. Monte, who was an assistant coach with the Minnesota Vikings in the late 1980s, would make a point of taking a break from work to come home and watch and dissect the "Monday Night Football" matchup before Lane had to go to bed. Monte made notes about the teams while Lane analyzed the coaching decisions.
"Other kids were watching John Elway," Lane has said. "I was watching Tom Landry."
Lane followed Monte into the profession, and along the way the son hired the father. This is the second season the two have coached together at USC, and not all the fans are convinced this is a good idea.
Monte, 71, is in his 46th season of coaching and is best known as an architect of the Tampa 2 defensive scheme that helped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win a Super Bowl title. The defense puts a premium on speed and a middle linebacker who can drop deep into coverage and defend passes.
The Trojans, new to the system and still developing as college players, struggled to execute some of the most basic defensive principles last season. The same problems surfaced earlier this season.
USC's defense gave up 84 points in two games — a lopsided loss at Arizona State and a close win in a shootout with lowly Arizona — and fans roasted Monte in letters and on Internet message boards.
"It's about time USC gets rid of that old horse. No, not Traveler, but Monte Kiffin," wrote one in a letter to The Times.
Monte seemed unfazed.
"You have to have blinders on and go coach your players," he said. "You take the good times and the bad times and just keep working."
Lane stands by his father's coaching decisions, deflecting criticism — as he did last season — by arguing that the offense needs to play better as well.
The men have upheld their tradition of a meeting, though now it's daily, and together they review the team's progress.
"Hey, Coach," Lane often says as he walks into his father's office. "Pull up a couple plays here. Let's talk."
He settles onto a couch as Monte cues up the plays his son has selected for review on the wall-size screen. For a few minutes, it's those Monday nights all over again. Father and son analyzing coaching decisions.
Except that the calls the Kiffins scrutinize are Monte's.
A must-win situation
Father-son combinations are not unusual in coaching. College football legends such as Penn State's Joe Paterno and Florida State's Bobby Bowden — and even Pete Carroll when he was at USC — are among those who have employed sons as assistants. So did basketball's Bob Knight, Eddie Sutton and others.
But rarely has a father worked under his son in the high-pressure world of a major college sports team.
"If your son is on the staff, you better win because if you don't they're going to find a flaw," Bowden said. "And it's usually your son."
Bowden, 81 and retired, can imagine the criticism the Kiffins have endured when USC's defense has struggled.
"I'm sure it's the same thing," he said, "They're saying 'He needs to get rid of his daddy.'
"It's that family thing," Bowden said. "There's only one answer: Just win."
On practice days, Monte is in the office by 5 a.m., on the field a few hours later, and in meetings or reviewing film as late as 2 a.m. Rather than heading to the South Bay rental he shares with his wife, Robin, he shuttles to a hotel across the street from USC for a few hours of sleep before returning to work.
"He basically lives here all the time," said Lane, who goes home each night to his wife, Layla, and three children in Manhattan Beach.
Monte is typically one of the first out of the locker room for practice, walking about 125 yards to the field alone. Lane sprints the distance with a security guard in tow, bursting through the gate as an air horn sounds to mark the start of a workout.
Son and father are usually at opposite ends of the field, Lane overseeing the offense, Monte the defense. Both were intensely focused this week as the Trojans prepared for Saturday's game at the Coliseum against unbeaten Stanford.
"I don't know what Stanford's doing right now," Monte tells defensive players in white jerseys. "But we're going to have us a hell of a day! Here we go!"