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Saturday, November 17, 2012
Kiffin has Haden's patience for now

By Mark Saxon
ESPNLosAngeles.com

PASADENA, Calif. -- Pat Haden walked in short, determined strides up a rain-slickened Rose Bowl tunnel, big, cold drops plopping onto his tan baseball cap from the bleachers about 50 feet above his head.

The athletic director wasn't in much of a mood to talk so soon after USC's 38-28 loss to UCLA, the one that cleared up any doubt that his most celebrated program was finishing off a pretty big belly-flop. Haden thought for a second or two when asked by a reporter if he had a moment to talk and then politely shook his head, quietly saying, "No."

Lane Kiffin
If has been a rough season for Lane Kiffin, but he will be back in 2013 for another run at it.

Later, we learned that he had already assured Lane Kiffin he would be the Trojans' head coach in 2013. How do we know? Because Kiffin blurted it out in his postgame news conference and Haden later confirmed it in a text message. Different relationships, however, have different boiling points and it's fair to wonder what has to happen for this one to begin to steam.

It's easy to get caught up in these kinds of moments. USC fell behind 24-0 in the first half. The Bruins' fans were going crazy and so were the players. The Trojans were just standing there in the drizzle. Kiffin's team didn't just look less prepared than Jim Mora's team. It looked less excited to be there. Why were they so flat at the start? Why did they abandon the run for a stretch of the third quarter? What's his part in the spike in Matt Barkley's interceptions?

The coach admits he isn't blameless.

"A lot of that falls on me," Kiffin said. "For us to go down like that early, obviously there was something wrong with how we had our guys ready to play."

I think we can fairly say by now that the 2012 college football season has not reflected well on Kiffin. Not only have the Trojans lost to teams with a fraction of USC's talent, but it has been embroiled in an endless series of silly controversies.

He banned a reporter from practice for reporting on an injury. He had his players switch jerseys to deceive the worst team in the Pac-12, Colorado. A student manager deflated balls to give USC's offense an edge, an act Kiffin and Haden denied knowledge of.

Perhaps a more impetuous AD would have gone off by now, maybe even started lining up support to fire his coach and to bring in his own guy. Kiffin was hired by Mike Garrett, at the time desperately trying to fan the dying embers of the Pete Carroll era by bringing in a Carroll protege. You have to wonder if the two men even see eye to eye in their behind-the-scenes interactions. Their backgrounds are certainly different. Kiffin is the son of a career NFL assistant coach, with a Fresno State education and a scant playing career. Haden is a former Rhodes scholar with NFL and national-title pedigrees.

It's not that it's the perfect marriage, but Haden knows it's not the right time to call a divorce attorney.

Have we forgotten already how well the Trojans finished in 2011, how much momentum was swelling in the program by December, when Barkley and T.J. McDonald announced they would return for their senior seasons? Have we forgotten already how well Kiffin has recruited under the worst possible circumstances for a program of USC's stature, with the NCAA throttling down its numbers and looking over its shoulder?

Kiffin's first two seasons were played under the most severe sanctions, with the players knowing they couldn't play in a bowl game. We have to see how well he can coach when things aren't so stacked against him, even if the early returns aren't promising. You don't find that out in 11 games. You don't find it out in 12 or 13 either.

If USC were sitting here at 4-7 and hadn't shown some fight against the Bruins, the conversation would be different. Even if Notre Dame comes into the Coliseum and continues a run at the national title next week, Haden figures to stay patient. Even if USC goes to El Paso or San Antonio or somewhere and plays an uninspired bowl game, he'll stay patient.

Next year, of course, is a different story.