- Mark Saxon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Six months ago, USC opened its $70 million temple to college athletics, the John McKay Center. You get to the second floor, where the football program fills an entire wing, via a marble stairwell lined by a two-story bank of high-definition video screens. The building has a state-of-the-art security system, and athletes and coaches pass through the doors by punching in a code or placing a thumb on a fingerprint scanning pad.
Late last week, Lane Kiffin, dressed in a long-sleeve white workout shirt and black sweat pants, punched in a few numbers, waited for a tiny flash of green light, a click and, voila, the door opened.
"Today is a good day," he said. "My code still works."
It must feel at times like Kiffin is entering a fortress of solitude when he walks through those doors, safe in his office with a small core of loyal followers, but surrounded by public hostility.
An ESPNLA poll near the end of USC's 2012 season showed 65 percent of respondents wanted Kiffin fired. A Los Angeles Times poll around the same time came in at 76 percent against him. And some people would be surprised he got that much support.
The head coach has two years left on his contract, but the question of his job status came up often enough during the most-recent offseason recruiting period and assistant coach searches that USC athletic director Pat Haden met individually with families and prospective hires to assure them no changes were imminent.
Kiffin's 2013 team now opens spring practice with the hope of making USC fans forget last season's bad dream -- a preseason No. 1 ranking that fizzled into a drab march to 7-6 mediocrity.
"I really regret the mindset of training camp"
Kiffin took a break from meetings with his new coaches the other day to sit down and discuss his team's past and his view of its future. He wanted to get a little sun but instead found the west-facing patio of the McKay Center was covered in morning shade. A jackhammer droned away in the background. It was a fitting backdrop to discuss the state of this program, a shadow overhead and noise in the background.
Kiffin, 37, having perhaps heard one criticism too many this winter, is ready to fire back.
"My question would be, 'Twelve months ago, where were those criticisms?'" he said. "That same guy -- that fan, or that alumnus or the money person -- that sits here and says, 'Man, you're going to be here forever,' and 'We love what you're doing, that's awesome,' just last August is the same guy saying, 'Well, he holds his play card too much, he doesn't have a relationship with the team because he doesn't jump up and high-five everybody.'
"There was nothing different. Let's really get to the bottom of why we were more successful the year before. Let's get to real things."
The past three months have been largely about that for Kiffin -- searching out concrete problems that can be fixed. He accepted the resignation of his top defensive coach, his father, Monte Kiffin. He fired his offensive coordinator and let the secondary coach go. He brought in three new coaches and is considering sharing or handing off play-calling duties, though he isn't ready to discuss that yet. He also brought in a small, but star-studded recruiting class.
As he dissects how a team with a star quarterback, two of the most brilliant receivers in the nation and returning starters all over the place could regress so drastically, he starts at the beginning.
"I do really regret the mindset of training camp," Kiffin said.
With NCAA sanctions limiting USC's roster to 75 scholarship players, Kiffin elected to severely restrict contact in fall camp to avoid injuries. As the season wore on, he realized, "We were not a very physical football team," but by then it was too late.
It wasn't just about the team's physicality, though. After the team's second loss, at Arizona, Kiffin realized that, despite his emphasis on preparation over hype, his players hadn't absorbed the message. Months later, he watches film of the second half of USC's season and sees that the energy level wasn't the same as it had been before that loss. All summer they had heard they were a shoo-in for the BCS title game at the Orange Bowl. They noted the rankings and might have bought into them too fully.
"I tried everything. But as a head coach, you've got to figure something out," Kiffin said. "Obviously, it didn't work."
It might be hard for some frustrated fans to believe, but Kiffin does some good things for his players.
He has been meeting these past few weeks with each of his players, one at a time. He leads the meeting, but the position coach is there, as is special teams coach John Baxter, who oversees academic matters for the team. Kiffin wants the players to be aware that they will be held to strict standards. He gives them progress reports on their athletic and academic careers.
He also held a team meeting in which he projected a copy of former USC tight end Rhett Ellison's paycheck onto a screen. He highlighted the deductions: federal tax, state tax, agent fees. There is a reason 78 percent of NFL players are broke within two years of retiring. Kiffin wanted his players to realize how easily it can go.
"Even if you have a great career and you play 10 years in the NFL, you're 31. Now, what are you going to do?" Kiffin said. "You've got a lot of life left. That's the best scenario, as opposed to what usually happens. They play two years, then go play in the Arena League for a year or two. Now, they're 24 or 25 and really don't have any money."
Kiffin is not as good at publicizing those behind-the-scenes contributions as he is at setting off an endless series of mini-controversies with things he says or does in the public eye. He now calls the negative reaction to things he does "The Kiffin Factor," borrowing Haden's phrase.
The little sparks of controversy tend to become raging grassfires. Some of that might be fanned by what USC people often view as national animosity for their program.
"USC, in my opinion, is the most hated school in the country," Lawrence Jackson, Detroit Lions defensive end and a former Trojan, said. "When you have a down year like that, the frustrating part is people talking smack in the locker room, throughout the NFL.
"I was proud of the guys for fighting and not giving up. Pete [Carroll] benefited from the great players we had. Almost any coach can be successful working with first-round picks and All-Americans. That created pressure for Lane. Something people don't want to look at with Lane is, has he gotten a fair shake?"
The reference, of course, is to the sanctions. Say what you will about Kiffin, but when the NCAA handed down some of the harshest penalties in its history in June of 2010, how many USC fans would have gladly taken 25 wins and a handful of sold-out games at the Coliseum over the next three years?
USC's failures despite having Matt Barkley, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods are well-documented, but how many people talk about this: USC didn't have a single front-seven defensive player at the NFL combine. The Trojans traditionally crank out star defensive linemen and linebackers.
Kiffin opens spring camp without a starting quarterback, not exactly ideal footing from which to recover from a down year. He says it's a wide-open competition, and he would be perfectly willing to hand the reins of his team to true freshman Max Browne, a highly decorated recruit from Washington.
Who knows how many wins it will take to satisfy USC fans next fall? Who knows how many it will take to satisfy Haden? Kiffin said he has no idea.
He does have a plan. He recognized his father may not have been suited to stop the varied looks of Pac-12 offenses, so he hired former Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to install a defense he thinks will be better suited to the college game. Instead of relying on four down linemen, Pendergast often stacks five players on the line and has one or more of them standing up at the time of the snap. The hope is that USC will finally be able to stop running quarterbacks and sweeps.
Kiffin, who figures to remain heavily involved in the offense, is open to instilling more spread looks, too.
What he's not willing to do is to scrap a pro-style offense altogether. While some people have wondered why USC doesn't go to a wide-open style like the Oregon Ducks employ, Kiffin points out, "Let's not forget who just won this conference: Stanford. Let's not forget who just won the national championship: Alabama.
"They're physical, they run the ball, use play action. … That helps your defense."
Alabama is a good place to start, from Kiffin's perspective. Six years ago, Nick Saban was vilified nationally for the way he bolted the Miami Dolphins for the Crimson Tide. Now, after back-to-back national championships, Saban has more Facebook fans than God, according to the Birmingham News.
Kiffin talks to Saban fairly frequently. He admires the discipline he insists on with his players, his no-nonsense approach on the sidelines, but, mostly, he admires the results.
"It's all about winning," Kiffin said. "Winning makes people forget a lot of things."
Lane Kiffin reflects on turbulent season as spring practice opens.