Commentary

USC tenure transforms Lane Kiffin

Originally Published: May 21, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

So USC's Lane Kiffin was in Phoenix for the recent Pac-12 Conference meetings, and guess who he sees in the hotel workout room? None other than South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, the patron saint of smart-ass football coaches everywhere.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
AP Photo/Dave MartinLane Kiffin's tenure at Tennessee, though short, was filled with headlines.

Since he was in high school, Kiffin has idolized the Head Ball Coach. He loved Spurrier's innovative mismatch pass offense. Loved the visor. Loved the John Blutarsky pencils-hanging-out-of-nose attitude.

"Probably the best college coach there was," Kiffin says.

So Kiffin politely interrupted Spurrier's workout to say hello. And that's when the HBC complimented Kiffin on the Trojans' 10-2 record last season and the program's resolve despite an NCAA-imposed bowl ban, the usual array of media critics and even some in-house doubters. Spurrier likes resolve.

"Coach," said Kiffin, "I was just trying to be like you, say the things that you used to say all the time. They hated me saying it."

Spurrier thought about that for a moment.

"Boy, I said those in the summertime and you say those in the season."

Not anymore, Kiffin doesn't. The new and improved Kiffin is so restrained and diplomatic that's he's almost unrecognizable at times. He now gives his coaching and recruiting skills all the speaking parts.

You once loved to despise Kiffin. I know I did.

He ditched Tennessee for USC after just 14 months, leaving the Vols' program in such chaos that it looked like a battle scene from "Ghost Recon: Future Soldier." Orange and white carnage everywhere.

At Tennessee, Kiffin was purposely smug, confrontational and controversial. He was Spurrier Lite, but with a more obnoxious smirk. Opposing fans regularly voted him their least favorite coach. Opposing coaches probably did, too.

"I never saw a list where I wasn't No. 1 or 2 -- and the other one was [Alabama's] Nick Saban," says Kiffin. "My GAs [graduate assistants] would give me a hard time: 'Yeah, you're No. 1 again.' But there was a time there when I moved to second or third because LeBron had jumped both of us."

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
St. Petersburg Times/Zuma Press/Icon SMIKiffin's comments about opposing coaches (in particular, Urban Meyer) made him enemy No. 1 in the SEC.

He can smile about it now because of that 10-win season, because of another killer USC recruiting class and because he's nearly 2½ years removed from the UT experience. He's not that guy at Tennessee anymore. He's found his happy place.

"It does feel much different now," says Kiffin, who just turned 37. "I guess what you're saying is that some people have noticed that now."

His accountant has. So has his athletic director.

Just a few days ago, Kiffin was on a conference call with his accountant and a loan officer. Kiffin is buying a house. So they discussed all the usual topics: loan amount, borrowing rate, closing date, etc.

The usual, right?

Except the last time Kiffin bought a house, he didn't have a clue. He couldn't have told you the name of the bank, the mortgage percentage ... nothing.

"I couldn't tell you any of that because you're so focused on getting the program going," he says. "You're so consumed by it all."

This will be Kiffin's ninth season at USC, his third season as its head coach. He has reached a comfort level. He is driven, but not overwhelmed anymore. He actually knows the loan amount.

Of course, it helps when you've got 19 returning starters, including quarterback Matt Barkley and safety T.J. McDonald. And you're finally eligible for a bowl. And despite three more years of scholarship reductions, you're still raking in the blue-chip commits like leaves in the backyard.

But it goes beyond that. Kiffin is smarter, more aware. He's not accusing opposing coaches of breaking NCAA rules when they haven't (Urban Meyer, February 2009). He isn't popping off without an actual reason.

[+] EnlargeBarkley-Kiffin
AP Photo/Charles BausWith Matt Barkley under center, Kiffin has little reason for worry these days.

"There has absolutely been a maturation of Lane Kiffin and that will continue," says USC AD Pat Haden. "I expect him to be a different person five years from now as a coach than how he is now. He's already come a long way as a head coach and I anticipate more growth going forward. I think Lane Kiffin has a giant upside as a head coach."

When Haden, a former Trojans star quarterback, took the AD job in 2010, he and Kiffin discussed how USC was going to conduct its football business. Haden didn't read him the riot act, but there was no confusion about coaching conduct and winning with class. And there still isn't.

"I don't think his reputation will ever be the reality of Lane Kiffin," says Haden. "People have a fixated belief of what he is and what he's about. My personal experience as his athletic director, working closely with him for two years, is not like that. He wants to do everything right. … He's a lot more fun in person than people perceive him to be. He's got a bigger personality than people give him credit for. I think he's a very smart guy who knows where he wants to take this program, who plans to be here a long time, and I certainly hope he will be."

Just a few days ago, Kiffin finished his offensive game plan for the Sept. 8 meeting against Syracuse. A family vacation is planned. Life is good.

"It's my third season," he says. "I know the place. It gets easier."

For him, yes. For us, no. We've lost a guy to despise.

Kiffin still wants to be No. 1 -- in the final BCS rankings, not the Least Liked list. But his days of lobbing verbal Molotov cocktails seem to be done.

Bluto and the Head Ball Coach mourn the loss.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter