Thursday, October 14, 2010 Updated: October 15, 12:37 PM ET
Jeff Tedford key mentor for Lane Kiffin
By Mark Saxon ESPNLosAngeles.com
LOS ANGELES -- Lane Kiffin's dizzying ascent up the coaching ladder might not have happened if Jeff Tedford hadn't gotten tired of kicking him out of his office 13 years ago.
It wasn't personal. It was a matter of tact. Kiffin was a reserve quarterback stuck behind two future NFL players on the Fresno State depth chart. He spent a lot of his free time sitting in Tedford's office, watching film and picking his position coach's brain.
When the rest of the Bulldogs' offensive coaches got to the office for their nighttime meetings, Tedford didn't have a choice. He asked Kiffin to leave.
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"They couldn't talk about the players in front of me," Kiffin said, "because I was still a player."
That led to an idea. Tedford, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, suggested Kiffin give up his fifth season of eligibility to become a student assistant. Kiffin was 22.
It may not sound like such a revolutionary notion -- Kiffin wasn't going to put much pressure on Billy Volek or David Carr to start -- but it offered him a crucial head start on other young coaches trying to break through.
He had the connections through his father, longtime NFL assistant Monte Kiffin, but this gave him a prime internship at an age when most players aren't willing to give up their dreams of playing.
It's one of the explanations Kiffin gives when people ask him how he got the Oakland Raiders job at 32, the Tennessee Volunteers job at 34 and the USC Trojans job at 35.
"A lot of guys are trying to make it in the league or over in the XFL or dabbling with playing still. By the time they come back, I had three or four years in already," Kiffin said. "It was a blessing in disguise that I wasn't very good."
There was another blessing from those early days of his career. A young offensive coach could do worse than to have Tedford as his mentor. Tedford's star was in its early ascent. He would go on to become the offensive coordinator at Oregon before taking over Cal in 2002. The program was in tatters following a 1-10 season under Tom Holmoe and years of decline.
Jeff Tedford, left, was an assistant at Fresno State when he first encountered Lane Kiffin as a player there.
Since then, Tedford has kept the Bears steadily competitive without quite breaking through into the national-title conversation. Looking at the history of the program, it's hard to knock a guy whose worst season (his first) produced a 7-5 record and who has sent two quarterbacks, Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers, off as first-round NFL draft picks.
Kiffin picked up the seeds of his offensive philosophies from Tedford. To this day, USC, Fresno State, Washington and Cal are the only three teams on the West Coast that employ two backs in the backfield and a quarterback under center, as most teams in the NFL do. Two of Kiffin's other key mentors, Pete Carroll and his dad, are defensive guys.
"You could start out in your career under a guy and he was OK, but he wasn't really special. Jeff was a special coach," Monte Kiffin said.
Mentor meets protégé Saturday at the Coliseum, where Cal visits looking for its first win over USC since 2003.
A lot of fuss was made when Kiffin coached against his former colleague, Steve Sarkisian, in the Washington game. This one probably means more to Kiffin, though he won't let on.
"I don't really think about it like that," he said.
Tedford told Bay Area reporters this week, "Lane's a friend and, obviously, someone who I have a deeper relationship with because he played for me."
Tedford said he had a pretty good inkling way back then that Kiffin would coach. He also had a pretty good inkling he wasn't going to get on the field. Kiffin watched Carr throw during a summer workout and started seeing a future in coaching more clearly.
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"I looked at the way he was throwing and I said, 'I'm going to move down on this depth chart really quick,'" Kiffin said.
One of the aspects of Kiffin's coaching that sometimes gets overlooked in all the controversies that have surrounded him is his technical mastery of the game. Former athletic director Mike Garrett alluded to it when he hired Kiffin, saying, "He's always been so good at the X's and O's part."
For a change, USC fans aren't grumbling about the play calling this season, one of the common complaints under the past two offensive coordinators. Kiffin is handling those duties himself, just as he did at Tennessee and when he was offensive coordinator at USC until 2007. USC special-teams coach John Baxter spent the previous 13 seasons at Fresno State, so he sees the traces of Tedford in Kiffin.
"I've known him since he was 19. He's always seen the game in slow motion," Baxter said. "He calls plays from the sideline that are unbelievable. There are other coaches' kids that don't do this. He just has a knack for it. Jeff gave him an opportunity and he took advantage."
Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.