- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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It isn't every day you inform USC's Lane Kiffin that one of his own players questioned Kiffin's ability to lead the Trojans' program.
And it isn't every day that Kiffin says, "That doesn't surprise me one bit. You got to blame somebody, so you're going to blame the head coach -- and you should. I blame myself for this."
Wait. What? Was that actually Kiffin who fell on Tommy Trojan's sword?
Yes, it was. In fact, during a nearly two-hour interview, Kiffin did more than just take responsibility for one of the most exasperating and spectacularly failed seasons in recent USC history. He also said he was a coaching work in progress, that he had needed to grow up, that he was sometimes his own worst enemy.
It wasn't an apology, but it was an admission. And for Kiffin, that's progress.
Nobody in college football takes more public relations body blows than Kiffin. USC athletic director Pat Haden, in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, referenced it as "The Kiffin Factor."
"He's anti-Teflon," Haden told the Times. "I mean, stuff sticks to him that doesn't even belong on him."
Kiffin often can't swing a chinstrap without creating a controversy. Soon he'll be accused of being the phone voice of Lennay Kekua.
Of course, some of it is his own fault. As the 31-year-old head coach of the Oakland Raiders, he warred with owner Al Davis and was fired after losing 15 of his first 20 games. His one-season reign at Tennessee was a hit-and-run accident. And his third season as USC's head coach was a living, breathing nightmare, full of injuries, losses and dysfunction.
"Why do I feel like I'd be the most polarizing figure?" said Kiffin, phrasing his own question. "I would say it's got to be a combination of things. It's got to be mistakes I've made as a young head coach going all the way back to Oakland to mistakes at Tennessee, to mistakes here. So you're going to pay for mistakes you make along the way, whether you did them on purpose or not.
I blame myself for this.
”-- USC coach Lane Kiffin on the 2012 season
"No. 2, I would say the preseason buildup. The buildup of the preseason No. 1. The Heisman Trophy candidate. The All-Americans. Recruiting was going unbelievable -- the No. 1 recruiting class. With that hype comes a lot of expectations. When those aren't met that's going to fall on the head coach.
"And then you're at SC, I would say would be the third one."
Kiffin's mistakes don't seem to have an expiration date. People tend to love him or loathe him. If an LA Times readers poll is to be believed, he's trending high on the loathe-a-meter. When asked if USC should keep Kiffin, 76 percent of the respondents answered, "No."
"When you're a sports figure and people dislike you, they're going to look for the negatives," Kiffin said. "Once you start rooting against somebody, you're always going to look for the negative in everything they do."
Negatives aren't difficult to find in the Trojans' 2012 season. In August they were the Associated Press' preseason No. 1. In January, they were unranked and failed to receive even a single mercy vote in the final poll. North Dakota State did, but not mighty USC.
Kiffin blames himself for this -- this being a 6-1 start, but a 1-5 finish. He blames himself for losses to rivals UCLA and Notre Dame, and a grotesque Hyundai Sun Bowl defeat to Georgia Tech, which entered the game with a 6-7 record.
In the end, it was a season of the wrong kinds of firsts for USC. It was the first time since 1964 that an AP preseason No. 1 finished unranked. It was the first time since 2001 that a USC team finished with six losses.
And then there were the Kiffin PR miscalculations: the expulsion of a local newspaper reporter from practice a post-practice, mini-hissy fit with the media a jersey-changing incident that, depending on your interpretation of the NCAA rules book, was borderline legal, but stretched the envelope of sportsmanship, or was done with the intent to deceive an opponent.
Because of his past, Kiffin doesn't get the benefit of the doubt. When a USC student manager intentionally deflated footballs before the Oregon game this season, Kiffin was blamed for creating a culture that enabled such actions.
"You start losing games and now you have an issue like, for instance, the deflated ball," Kiffin said. "I knew nothing about the ball, had never heard anything about it. But because we weren't playing very well and were starting to lose games -- we had just lost two games in a row -- now the ball issue is a reflection of Kiffin and all the things bad about Lane Kiffin."
There is no anger in his voice. He speaks about the incidents as if they were clinical studies.
The jersey-changing controversy?
"Nothing at all illegal," Kiffin said. "One-hundred percent legal by NCAA rules."
Just to be sure, I contacted the Pac-12 conference office to clarify the rule. The Pac-12 said it would defer to the NCAA. The NCAA suggested I contact the Pac-12.
The NCAA Football Rules and Interpretations manual says, "The following are unethical practices: Changing numbers during the game to deceive the opponent."
Kiffin says there was no intent to deceive. Fine. Whatever. But the point is, it was perceived as Kiffin trying to pull a fast one (a third-string quarterback switched numbers before the game to play on special teams and then switched back to his original number later in the game as a garbage-time QB). The Kiffin Factor kicked in again.
Said Kiffin: "But if you step back from it and you go, 'Wait a second. Let me not just look at it from a black and white [perspective]. Let me look at it when I analyze the Kiffin Factor that goes into that.' OK, don't do it."
In other words, no more jersey switching. No more booting beat reporters out of practice. No more walk-off news conferences. Kiffin is at last figuring out that they aren't worth the blowback.
But 76 percent of LA Times respondents don't want Kiffin gone because he gave the hook to a sports writer. They want him gone because the Trojans stunk it up during the second half of the season, because USC went from No. 1 to virtual irrelevancy, because nobody seems to remember Kiffin's 10-2 record in 2011.
The Trojans never won a close game last season. They lost their rivalry games, lost to Stanford for a third time in a row under Kiffin and gave up 62 points in a non-overtime loss to Oregon. The Trojans finished 60th in total defense and 69th in rushing defense, resulting in the departure of Kiffin's father and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. On offense, USC committed 34 turnovers, which ranked tied for 116th in the country.
The absolute low point was a 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech, which had needed an NCAA waiver to become bowl eligible. Star quarterback Matt Barkley was out because of a shoulder injury. His replacement, redshirt freshman quarterback Max Wittek, couldn't function in the 35 mph winds. And the Trojans' defense couldn't stop a Georgia Tech offense that would finish fourth in the country in rushing. Just to add to the fun, there was a postgame meltdown in the USC locker room.
A few weeks later, one Trojans player told me that Kiffin had "lost" the USC locker room. He described the defeat to Georgia Tech as, "getting boat-raced by a high school football team."
So I asked the player, "Can Kiffin win at USC?"
"Yes, he can win," said the player, who spoke under the condition of anonymity. "Do I think he is the coach of the future for the Trojans? I don't know. I do know that Pat Haden didn't hire Coach Kiffin. At SC, it's all about winning. When you start off the preseason ranked No. 1 and you're the first team in college football to lose six games, there's a lot of pressure that following year."
I read the key quotes back to Kiffin, including the player saying that he thought Kiffin was, "a great coach." But make no mistake: the player questioned Kiffin's ability to lead the program going forward.
"That doesn't surprise me one bit," Kiffin said. "When you have all the hype that this team had around it coming into this season -- remember, these kids, everywhere they went, from the day Matt Barkley came back [for his senior season], was, 'See you in the Orange Bowl [site of the Discover BCS National Championship]. I'm making my tickets already for Florida.'
"That's where their minds were, regardless of what we said. Then when you go through that stretch at the end -- the toll that takes on your players, losing five of six games there's not much positivity going on, no matter what you do. So to hear players upset or 'lost' the locker room, that's going to happen. That does not surprise me at all."
Did it hurt to hear?
"No, because I know the profession," Kiffin said. "I know how it works. Kids are going to be disgruntled, they're going to be upset."
Kiffin is 37. He has made mistakes. Lots of them. He said he had spent so much time "into X's and O's and what it takes to win, that I hadn't grown up enough to understand the other stuff that matters."
Now he understands, especially after he and his boss, Haden, discussed those non-X's/O's topics.
Haden has been his most public supporter. He has raved about Kiffin's work ethic, recruiting and play-calling skills.
But Kiffin will tell you that he has to do a better job of reducing the peripheral issues, of communicating better with his players on defense, of earning back the trust of USC followers.
The 2013 recruiting class will help. USC is No. 8 in the ESPN RecruitingNation class rankings. Nine of its 14 commits are ranked in the ESPN 150.
But there's no getting around the NCAA scholarship sanctions that are attached to USC's program like an ankle monitor. The Trojans' football roster is capped at 75 scholarship players and, on average, Kiffin can sign only 15 players per year. The NCAA penalties expire after the 2014 season.
The cumulative effect of the sanctions is obvious and debilitating. USC's roster depth has been affected. Competing schools can sign a full complement of 25 players each year. Kiffin's recruiting margin of error is almost nonexistent.
"It was done for a reason," said Kiffin of the sanctions. "It was done to crush the football program But we're not going to sit around here and let it be an excuse and say, 'It's OK that we went 7-6 because of that.' It's not OK."
The reality of the situation is this: even with Haden's support, Kiffin likely has to win at least eight or nine games next season -- and they have to be the right eight or nine. No more oh-fers against Notre Dame (the 2013 game is in South Bend) and Stanford and UCLA (both in the Coliseum next season).
"It can't come fast enough," said Kiffin of the Aug. 29 opener at Hawaii. "I'm really looking forward to it.
"It will always be, 'What have you done for me lately?' You know what? We're undefeated this year. We haven't lost a game."
See? Optimism. If you're Kiffin, there's no other alternative.
USC coach Lane Kiffin took responsibility for the Trojans' historically poor season and acknowledged that he is a coaching work in progress.