There have been two narrative threads for Lane Kiffin over the past year or so. The first includes indignant forehead slaps and raised voices. The second isn't exactly laudatory. It's just more measured.
The first amounts to this: He's a good-for-nothing, spoiled brat who's never done anything. He's a loudmouth who plays free-and-easy with the rules and bailed on his fans and players at Tennessee after just one year.
The second: Well, his early career certainly has been interesting. But let's wait and see if he can actually coach.
You've, of course, read this before. Many times.
One of these narrative threads, however, will gain substantive traction over the coming weeks -- starting tonight at Hawaii -- as Kiffin begins what by any standard will be a difficult coaching assignment: Leading USC through severe NCAA sanctions that include a two-year postseason ban and a reduction of 30 scholarships over three years.
Other than a taking a shot at UCLA on national signing day last February -- which came off as a clumsy case of sour grapes -- Kiffin has mostly been focused and businesslike. And honest. When reporters ask him questions, he seems to say exactly what he thinks.
For example: Coach, what's your team going to look like against Hawaii?
"There are a lot of questions in everyone's mind, including mine as a head coach," he said. "How good are we going to be? We haven't played together or coached together with this team. With the limited contact and practices, it will be interesting."
He's not been afraid to discipline players. He's been quick to stop lackadaisical practices and demand a better effort. There's a sense that the circus that was USC has left town with the departure of Pete Carroll.
But the biggest changes are on the depth chart. Middle linebacker Chris Galippo, a returning starter, was beaten out by Devon Kennard. Allen Bradford had a firm grip on the starting job at tailback until he didn't: Marc Tyler emerged from whatever-happened-to-him? status to earn the nod. A group of veterans are looking up at true freshman receiver Robert Woods on the depth chart. Same at one cornerback spot, where true freshman Nickell Robey separated himself from Torin Harris.
"I tell our players all the time: if they don't like where they are on the depth chart, play better," Kiffin said. "We're not going to be stubborn and try to prove ourselves right because we name the guy a starter. We're going to evaluate that every week."
Early in the Carroll Era, USC was celebrated for its culture of competition. Seniority didn't matter. If a true freshman was better, he was going to play. That seemed to fade late in the Carroll Era, the most obvious example being the seemingly privileged status given to running back Joe McKnight, who rarely looked like the Trojans' best running back in large part because he spent many practices chilling on a golf cart because of some minor injury.
But Kiffin's attitude about some of the depth-chart surprises is notable: He doesn't strike a self-serving, "There's a new sheriff in town" pose.
"It's not done on purpose," he said. "If the same guys who ended last year [as starters] were the best guys at this point, they would still be at the top. We have always said we're going to play the best players regardless of age, regardless of recruiting rankings, regardless of where they are from. What was done before we got here doesn't mean anything to us. We've judged our guys only from the first day we've gotten here."
Which is the right message. That used to be the "USC way" and it was a big reason hot shot recruits wanted to go to USC: The opportunity to play immediately if they were good enough.
Yet this is a transitional USC. The Trojans are going to trot out a starting 22 tonight that could play with just about anybody. But the depth isn't there, and scholarship sanctions are going to make depth a bigger issue over the next four or five seasons.
Kiffin's immediate challenge is keeping his team motivated. One approach is obvious: It's us against the world. Still, Kiffin said that won't be the central theme of his locker room speeches.
"I get the sense they have that on their own," he said. "I've not pushed that. They've been through a long off-season. As I said before, the wrong people are being penalized. These players weren't even here when all that [Reggie Bush] stuff happened. They can only worry about what they can control. And that's going out and playing the best that they can each and every week."
And at this jumping-off point, Kiffin's reputation can start to re-write itself in ink instead of pencil.
A good example of new wait-and-see approach? Kiffin only fielded a couple of questions on the Pac-10 coaches teleconference on Tuesday. Then crickets. A shocked moderator told him no one had anything else to ask of him.
Said Kiffin, "That's a first."
The looking back is done. The present is ready to be measured.