Lane Kiffin has become more involved with a greater number of players and… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Lane Kiffin exited the field and hustled up several flights of stairs to greet USC football fans perched atop an observation deck overlooking the Trojans' practice facility.
USC's first spring workout was underway, and the embattled coach was eager to start anew, to leave the memory of last season behind.
So Kiffin has spent the last five weeks on the move.
He ventured to the farthest corner to study linemen in one-on-one drills. He directed the scout team. And he spent long periods camped on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage.
Kiffin, it seemed, was just about everywhere except in the middle of the offensive huddle, which he largely turned over to offensive coordinator Clay Helton.
Critics of Kiffin's play-calling — or his ability to serve as both head coach and play-caller — no doubt welcome that situation. But when asked this spring if the arrangement will carry over to the coming season, Kiffin was consistently coy.
"I haven't really thought about it," he said.
Athletic Director Pat Haden has.
"The play-calling will be the next thing he's got to figure out," Haden said. "I still believe, in spite of some critics ... that he's a very good play-caller. I think he's a doggone good play-caller."
The play-calling question is one of several that will probably remain unanswered when the Trojans conclude spring practice Saturday with a scrimmage at the Coliseum.
The competition to succeed Matt Barkley at quarterback is expected to continue through summer and training camp, with third-year sophomores Max Wittek and Cody Kessler leading freshman Max Browne.
Coaches are still searching for cornerbacks who can perform effectively in new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's more aggressive scheme.
And injuries have muddled the depth chart at nearly every position.
Regardless, Kiffin is happy to look ahead.
"Some people around here say, 'It seems like you're having a little more fun,' " he said recently. "I think I am."
Last season was anything but enjoyable for Kiffin or a team that opened the season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll and nose-dived to a 7-6 finish. USC was at the center of controversies surrounding Kiffin's vote in a preseason coaches' poll, the banning of a reporter from practice, a player switching jersey numbers during a rout of Colorado and the intentional deflation of footballs by a student manager.
The season ended with an embarrassing loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. It was followed by subsequent reports about a heated postgame locker-room scene, the departure or firing of several assistant coaches and the decisions by several top recruits to sign elsewhere.
Kiffin said he evaluated everything that happened last season and made a decision after national signing day in February to move on.
"I don't think about last year anymore," he said.
Sometimes, however, he cannot help but be reminded. This week, for example, after the Trojans practiced in high winds, a USC employee asked Kiffin how the quarterbacks fared in conditions that resembled the Sun Bowl.
"I don't know what the last term you said was there," Kiffin said, jokingly. "You obviously haven't bought into our hypnosis idea that we did with our players. Snapped our fingers — and it never happened."
Kiffin, however, made changes.
He hired Pendergast to replace his father, Monte Kiffin, as the top defensive assistant and also added new coaches for linebackers, the offensive line and running backs.
He said he "analyzed everything that had to do with winning and losing," including himself. Some criticism was deserved, he said, but some did not register.
"I hear all the time something like, 'You don't high-five guys enough,' or 'How come you never chest-bump a player,' " he said. "I came to the conclusion that chest-bumping a player had nothing to do with whether I called bad plays or not.
"Now, I called some bad plays. I did that. But chest-bumping a player had nothing to do with it.
"A lot of people around the country are winning games and winning conference championships and national championships that aren't chest-bumping players."
Still, Kiffin has made an effort to open up to more players, especially on defense.
"He's more interactive," said Devon Kennard, a fifth-year senior end. "I've noticed a difference."
Junior linebacker Hayes Pullard said Kiffin's transformation began during Sun Bowl preparations, when defensive players were surprised to see him observing drills. The focus has continued.
"He's way more engaged," Pullard said.
How that translates during the season remains to be seen.