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Thursday, November 8, 2012
Flak adds up for Lane Kiffin

By Mark Saxon
ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Give Lane Kiffin a few more years and he just might restore the shine to USC football. Remember what that was like, USC Trojans fans? How fun it was to make bleary-eyed people back East pay attention to what was happening in the Pacific time zone?

He's so good at recruiting, so nimble an offensive thinker, that you can feel the potential even as it lays there, untapped. If he's allowed to continue to stockpile elite recruiting classes and to innovate within the confines of USC's pro-style offense, we could again see USC as the flag bearer for West Coast football.

But can he stay out of his own way long enough to let his vision unfold? Will the USC administration give him time? This tendency to be constantly embroiled in petty controversies -- a pattern we've seen before from Kiffin -- makes you wonder whether we'll ever find out if he can be a program builder.

"Obviously, as a head coach everything falls on you," Kiffin told reporters after Thursday's practice.

He's been saying that a lot lately.

This latest tempest, involving a student manager deflating some game balls, is about as trifling as these things get. Kiffin said he knew nothing about it and, when the compliance people learned of it, the kid was fired. Even if Kiffin knew, is it a major infraction or good old-fashioned gamesmanship? The supposed victim, Oregon coach Chip Kelly, said the story means "absolutely nothing" to his program.

For years, American League baseball teams thought the ventilation at the Metrodome, where the Minnesota Twins played, was being manipulated to give an advantage to the home team. Guess what? It was. A superintendent of the building named Dick Ericson later confessed to it. But the Twins didn't forfeit their 1987 or 1991 World Series titles.

Give most head coaches of major sports teams the chance to grab an edge, provided it's under cover of darkness, and they'll usually hold on tight. These days, multimillion-dollar contracts are at stake, so the pressure to hedge on sportsmanship just keeps going up.

With Kiffin, it's a crime of accumulation. He seems so intent on cutting corners, he finds himself going in circles at times. Most coaches don't want to tell their opponents which players are injured, but Kiffin takes it to the extreme, refusing to discuss even obvious ailments and, briefly, banning a reporter who found a leak.

Against Colorado, he had backup quarterback Cody Kessler wear the same jersey number as punter Kyle Negrete, and then used Kessler on a two-point conversion try. How's that for sneaky?

The question lingers: Why? Why look for an edge when the opponent is Colorado, the worst team in the conference? Why not work with reporters, setting guidelines for what is fair to report and what is proprietary, rather than keep a choke-hold on information?

Yet add up all the silliness and it doesn't come close to denting USC's reputation as badly as Kiffin's predecessor did. The NCAA just amended its rules so that head coaches can be suspended when an assistant commits a violation. That means Pete Carroll would have been responsible for whatever running backs coach Todd McNair knew about the forbidden goodies Reggie Bush was found to have received.

Kiffin, like his players, had to pay the price -- no bowl games two straight years and onerous scholarship limits -- for whatever Carroll knew and whatever Bush did.

And these are days when some USC fans will feel nostalgia for the Carroll years. He produced BCS title runs and, in down years, Rose Bowl bids. This was the first season Kiffin had a team that (1) was allowed to contend for a national title, and (2) was expected to. The result has been a disappointing 6-3 record, with surprising losses to Stanford and Arizona and -- even worse -- an expected loss to Oregon.

Kiffin has to find a way to kick-start this thing. If his team loses two of the next three games -- a possibility with Notre Dame among the elite and UCLA improving rapidly -- it won't be a slam dunk that he'll still be around when recruits sign their letters of intent in February. Because athletic director Pat Haden didn't hire Kiffin, people have already begun to wonder whether the coach might be on shaky ground.

From what I know of Haden, I would be surprised if he takes a drastic measure after one mediocre season. It might take something more dramatic -- say an embarrassing loss in the Alamo Bowl. For one thing, Haden told ESPNLA 710 last week that he thinks Kiffin has a "big-time future here at USC."

Kiffin and Haden are different kinds of leaders, different kinds of people. If anything, further shenanigans from Kiffin might make Haden question his own role in this thing.

He told me a couple of years ago that being the AD at his alma mater was a constant source of anxiety for him. He values his sterling reputation and never knows what's around the corner, even if it's some college kid offering impermissible golf-cart rides to a player.

Because it's USC, even small negative storylines will become major news, particularly in the shadow of this season's wasted promise. Kiffin knew what he was getting himself into. So did Haden. If Kiffin can't find a way to clean up his act, somebody might one day clean it up for him.