- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- The nominee for "Worst Person in the World" from the state of Tennessee has been a bit of a letdown on the West Coast. When he wore bright orange, Lane Kiffin was as loud as the Volunteers' uniforms. He was a controversy not waiting to happen. He called people out. He trashed-talked. He immediately started beeping loudly on the NCAA's radar.
But since he arrived in Los Angeles, ascending to what he called his "dream job" at USC, he's been mostly an all-business, old school, grumpy football coach.
"You been bored?" Kiffin quips. "You were all excited when I got hired here."
Yes and no. Things have been pretty hectic around USC for the past year or so. While reporters often enjoy a little drama, there are limits. Typing fingers do cramp up, after all. The Reggie Bush mess. Pete Carroll leaving. Kiffin getting hired and the ensuing hullabaloo in Knoxville. NCAA sanctions. The comings and goings of scores of players. The comings and goings of athletic directors and school presidents. A five-loss season for a program that had grown accustomed to the number five representing a disappointing final AP ranking. Highly-rated recruiting classes, despite sanctions. Tennessee shipping its NCAA problems to Kiffin's new address. A seemingly endless wait for the NCAA to rule on USC's appeal of sanctions.
A notable void, however, has been controversy arising due to Kiffin's conduct at USC. Oh, he took a shot at rival UCLA after signing his 2010 recruiting class, but that was more a tempest in a thimble than a teapot. He sometimes provides assessments of players' shortcomings that can seem too honest. But, really, the only big story this spring at USC is injuries, which means there are plenty of stifled yawns by observers at practices. Who saw that coming?
"Sometimes I get people here that actually want to see that brash side," Kiffin said.
Just not many over the age of 21.
On the one hand, this is a good thing. It's possible that Kiffin shortly will be judged on substance, on whether he can coach or not, on whether he can lead the Trojans back to the top of the Pac-12 or not. His oft-noted limited résumé -- a 5-15 record coaching the Oakland Raiders and a 15-11 mark in two college seasons -- reveals little.
What is revealing is five losses a year after the Trojans, in their final season under Carroll, were unceremoniously smacked out of the conference's top spot by Oregon. What is revealing is watching practice and wondering, "Where did all the NFL-looking dudes go?" Just three years ago, USC looked better getting off the bus than any team in the country. No longer. Now they look like just about everyone else.
Part of that is injuries. Twelve members of the two-deep depth chart have practiced little or not at all this spring. The Trojans numbers were already down, which convinced Kiffin to sign a handful of early-enrollees who weren't up to previous standards just to get more available warm bodies.
Still, there are plenty of old school USC guys, starting with quarterback Matt Barkley and his top target, Robert Woods. They are a potentially dynamic pass-catch combination. Left tackle Matt Kalil, defensive end Nick Perry, safety T.J. McDonald and cornerback Nickell Robey are going to be playing on Sundays. D-tackle George Uko has been impressive this spring. But there are obvious holes -- for one, the offensive line is perilously thin and unproven -- and the backups don't look like the next generation.
"We got guys running with our twos that weren't even going to play football, but we found them in science class after a tryout," Kiffin said.
A touted recruiting class of 23 arrives in the fall, and many of those freshmen are going to immediately be in the mix for playing time. Toss in the expected return of the injured players, and the reinforcements will number 35.
But will they win? It may be nice that the hyperventilating from critics is trending down, but the bottom line is there is a bottom line, of which Kiffin is well aware: Winning.
Kiffin said he feels more comfortable this spring, and it's clear his players share that sentiment. Understand: The transition to Kiffin was challenging for many. Carroll had become an icon at USC. All those five-star players he signed did so in large part in order to join Carroll's "win forever" cult of personality. Carroll was all about bottomless enthusiasm and optimism. Kiffin is a different bird. For some veteran players, his approach, which often included unvarnished criticism, was tough to take.
"First spring, it was rough with getting guys to buy-in and accept that we didn't have Coach Carroll -- the 'there's a new coach, just deal with it,'" Barkley said. "Some guys were holding back and didn't like the way things were going."
Barkley said Kiffin has loosened up a bit. "Even this year, Coach Kiffin has given in a little bit, making it more fun for us, that competition style we were kind of used to before," Barkley said.
The person at USC who knows Kiffin best waves away the criticism that has dogged him. "It's basically one state," said USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, Lane's pop.
"I know him. I've known him for 35 years. I feel I've got a pretty good feel for him," Monte Kiffin said. "If I thought he was a smart alec or wasn't a good head coach, first I wouldn't have gone to Tennessee or I would have taken opportunities to go back to the NFL [instead of going to USC]. They don't know him."
That's fair. An ill-fated tenure working under Al Davis and a single year at an SEC school shouldn't define Kiffin as a coach. And, ultimately, it won't. Kiffin knows what will, though.
"If you are worried about what people are writing about you, win games," he said.
Or else those negative assessments will begin to develop a foundation built on incontrovertible fact.
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