Can Kiffin coach? Maybe the answer is yes

November, 21, 2011
11/21/11
8:00
PM ET
If Lane Kiffin keeps this up, he's in danger of becoming "coach Lane Kiffin," not "Lane @#%$@ Kiffin" or "%&@# Kiffin" or just "@#$%@," for short.

You say "Lane Kiffin" to a college football fan -- a football fan, really -- and you get many reactions. Most of the bad. Dude has some baggage. He's best known for off-field controversies in large part because he's not done much -- good or even bad -- on the field.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesAfter another big road win, it's time to state the obvious -- Lane Kiffin is a very good football coach.
Off the field? Well, take your pick of controversies. Kiffin was involved in a coup at USC that led to legendary offensive coordinator Norm Chow getting pushed aside. Kiffin fell afoul of team owner Al Davis as the Oakland Raiders coach and was fired after 20 games. At Tennessee, he trashed talked most of the league, infuriating commissioner Mike Slive, got in trouble with the NCAA and bolted after just a single season for USC.

This is old news, of course. And Kiffin has mostly behaved and avoided controversy at USC.

But we were left with an important question: Can he coach?

An 8-5 finish in 2010 didn't reveal much. It was adequate but hardly impressive. A 7-3 start was greeted by mostly positive reviews, then he lost consecutive games to Notre Dame and Oregon State.

So that was the question in 2011. Hate Kiffin. Love Kiffin. But, again, can he coach?

The 38-35 win at Oregon on Saturday hinted that, yes, he can. That he might be growing into the job. That he's matured as a leader and motivator. At 9-2 and ranked 10th in the AP Poll as well as the ESPN.com Power Rankings, he's a win over rival UCLA away from what would unquestionably be considered a successful season: a "true" South Division championship, 10 wins, a top-10 ranking, a win over top-five team (Oregon) and wins over rivals Notre Dame and UCLA.

There's always been some substance to the Kiffin dislike, even beyond the off-field issues. For one, more than a few folks saw him as born with a silver coaching spoon in his mouth, a guy had successfully conned his way into big-time jobs before he deserved them or was ready.

When he got hired at USC in 2001, three years after graduating Fresno State, he'd never been a position coach -- anywhere. He got the job because his dad, Monte Kiffin, was Pete Carroll's defensive mentor. Four years after arriving, Chow was pushed aside for him -- just in time for Kiffin to coach the 2005 Trojans, one of the most talented offenses in college football history. After two seasons, at age 31, he was hired by the Raiders.

When that didn't work out he immediately got hired by Tennessee, an SEC power. One year later, he took over USC, among the top-five programs in the nation. All that after going 5-15 (Raiders) and 7-6 (Tennessee).

The point is there wasn't much you could finger to justify why so many seemingly smart people kept hiring Kiffin.

Until Saturday in Eugene, though the performance at Notre Dame in a 31-17 win was pretty darn good, too.

The Trojans had effective plans on both sides of the ball against the Ducks, which got them a 38-14 lead. Sure, Oregon stormed back but Oregon does that. And, sure, if that 37-yard field goal to tie the game on the final play of regulation had been good, most money would have been on the Ducks in overtime.

Details and what might have beens. The W is what matters.

With no hope for a conference or national title or even the postseason, Kiffin has the Trojans playing their best football. They started slowly against a weak schedule but have steadily improved. He's kept the team motivated and focused, even though he's got plenty of underclassmen eyeballing the NFL.

Now, of course, comes the tough part: Losing 30 scholarships over three years will challenge the Trojans as they try to remain competitive at the top of the conference. We'll see how Kiffin and USC weather circumstances that would try Bear Bryant.

Still, Kiffin has started to push back against his critics with evidence of his skill. All the snarking about his past is backgrounded by his present, by what he created last weekend and this season.

But, Lane, make sure you take care of UCLA on Saturday. Don't make me come back next week with a "Never Mind."

Ted Miller | email

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