Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Updated: January 14, 4:56 PM ET
Kiffin, family feel the warmth at USC
By Shelley Smith
The jeers and the taunts got to be too much, too frightening. Lane Kiffin had announced he was leaving the University of Tennessee for USC, and the students and fanatics in Knoxville seemingly imploded.
They burned mattresses and trash. Then, in unison, they shouted his wife's cell phone number and address. Nasty text messages began arriving. Cars filled with hecklers began cruising by the Kiffin house.
"They weren't going to come with me," Kiffin said about his wife, Layla, and their three young children. "But she said, 'I'm not staying here.'
"I'm sure there's some combination when you happen to take a job the night before the first day of school and it's 10 o'clock at night it kind of combines for a rowdy crowd," Kiffin said. "It was hard, but as I look at it, it was their passion for what it was we were doing. What would happen if we were leaving and they didn't care? It would mean we're not doing a very good job."
And so, because of the danger, the Kiffins boarded a plane and flew to the coast they consider home. Once there, the family received a hero's welcome at Heritage Hall, where about 150 students and players chanted "We Are ... S-C."
But it also meant USC had to add extra security as the family made its way to campus, "just because of potential knuckleheads," a security officer said. Once inside, though, the warmth and support the family felt, Kiffin said, was almost overwhelming.
"These are players I've known," he said. "And they know me."
That meant even freshman quarterback Matt Barkley. Kiffin said he first saw Barkley when Barkley was in the ninth grade. Kiffin brought Pete Carroll out to see Barkley twice that season and then offered him a scholarship.
"I did," Kiffin said. "Wait, is that a violation? Is it a violation if you did it, left and then came back? I don't know. All I know is the kid was really good."
Barkley was one of the first players to give Kiffin a hug as he made his way into the packed lounge, where a phalanx of media waited for nearly an hour after the scheduled time. "Traffic," Kiffin explained. That must have been when he knew he was really back in Los Angeles.
As he addressed the group, his 3-year-old daughter, Pressley, moved to the table near the podium and surveyed the cameras and people, refusing to be flummoxed by the enormity of what she was seeing.
And when she decided to stand on the table, Kiffin laughed, explaining, "She's been on a plane all day."
The day happened to be the first birthday for his son, named after Lane's father, defensive guru Monte Kiffin, who is joining Lane on the staff at USC. Ironically, his son goes by his middle name, which is Knox. Asked if he was now considering changing it to, maybe, Troy? Kiffin shook his head no, explaining, "Dad's got a dog named Trojan."
Shelley Smith is an ESPN correspondent based in Los Angeles.