USC Coach Lane Kiffin claims he knew nothing about a former assistant coach… (Matt York / Associated Press )
The spotlight is back strong than ever, summoning sweat on the brow of the USC officials who thought they had unearthed and examined and understood everything.
Apparently, they have not.
Lane Kiffin is back in NCAA hell.
Just when it appeared the Trojans coach had broken free of his troubled reputation, Kiffin was again tackled this week by his inescapable past, and now you have to wonder how it will ultimately shape his future.
According to a report by Yahoo! Sports, former USC assistant Willie Mack Garza broke NCAA rules by reimbursing a talent scout to pay for a prospect and his mother to visit Tennessee when Garza was coaching there in 2009.
Garza's boss at the time? It was, of course, Kiffin.
The talent scout who paid for the ticket? It was, naturally, Will Lyles, the increasingly infamous bird dog whose bark has already led NCAA investigators to Oregon and Louisiana State.
If there is one name that USC does not need associated with its program right now, it's Will Lyles. If there are two entities that USC does not want in the same sentence right now, it's Kiffin and the NCAA.
This latest report brings both bits of radioactive matter back into Heritage Hall, where Athletic Director Pat Haden just set a new record for sighs.
"I wake up with a knot in my stomach every morning,'' he said in a phone interview Tuesday. "Just when you think everything is behind you, it's not."
Haden, who didn't hire Kiffin, nonetheless has covered his back throughout the young coach's two seasons here, and his public support remains unwavering.
"I'm more interested in reality, not perception," Haden said. "Lane may never change some of the perception about him, but the reality is he's doing the right things here at USC."
Kiffin assured Haden that he had no knowledge or involvement in Garza's alleged $1,500 repayment to Lyles for flying highly touted running back Lache Seastrunk and his mother from Texas to Tennessee for an unofficial recruiting visit.
"All I can say on that is that the alleged incident, I had no knowledge of, or no knowledge of a relationship at all," Kiffin told reporters Tuesday morning.
Garza allegedly confessed the misdeed to the NCAA on Aug. 30, and two days later he suddenly "resigned" from the Trojans, ending a two-year working relationship with Kiffin in a move that USC surely hoped would make the entire affair disappear.
Not so fast. The reality of Garza's alleged infraction, while it occurred 2,200 miles away, instantly painted the USC coach's offices in barrels of ugly perception. Kiffin has proven to be a solid citizen here, deftly handling the difficulties of running a giant program while it sits frozen under the NCAA's biggest microscope. But the Garza incident resurrects old questions of integrity.
Beginning with, how could the head coach of a major program not know that one of his assistants paid a talent scout to fund a recruiting trip? If Kiffin was doing his job at Tennessee, how could he not know about Lache Seastrunk? Wouldn't he have at least bumped into him on campus during the unofficial visit and later asked Garza, "How did that kid get here?"
"I asked Lane about this, and he was absolutely unaware of what was going on," Haden said. "Should he have been aware? That's what the NCAA has to answer."
The other tough question involves Garza's season with the Trojans. If he was indeed a rogue recruiter for Tennessee, why would he suddenly become a clean one for the Trojans? Does USC have to worry now that its sincere two-year effort at compliance and cleanliness could be soiled with future revelations of past Garza messes? Are they sure nobody in Heritage Hall has Will Lyles on speed dial?
"In today's college athletics, I've learned that there's a surprise around every corner," Haden said. "But nothing I've uncovered leads me to believe that any of that is happening here. I have a high degree of confidence in what we're doing here. There is no suggestion that anything is being done wrong here."
This is pretty serious stuff, the honorable Haden putting his reputation on the line for a high-profile employee he hasn't really known very long. Kiffin can never say that he wasn't given every opportunity to succeed here, and certainly the trust of his boss has empowered and enlightened a coach who now thinks before he swaggers.
"He followed a legend here in Pete Carroll, and we know some beliefs about him will never change, but I know he's a guy who wants to win the right way," Haden said.
I'm guessing this is yet another reason that Kiffin has to win, period. His margin for error here grows slimmer with this controversy. If his past is going to distract, then his present here better delight, the Trojans playing tougher and smarter than they did in Saturday's loss at Arizona State.
Kiffin's job is not in jeopardy. But Haden's patience is not endless. The leap of faith he is taking in his coach could be the first step toward Kiffin's ouster if the coach doesn't live up to the boss' beliefs.
Is there anything else out there? Any more dusty baggage on the crazy carousel of Lane Kiffin's past? The athletic director's stomach is in knots, and just when he thinks everything is behind him … well, it better be.