Kiffin has a true believer in AD Haden
But will Trojans coach be more than a bridge between pre-, post-sanction eras?
LOS ANGELES -- While his office at Heritage Hall is being remodeled, USC athletic director Pat Haden is working in a campus space that was a dental clinic last year. The setting isn't as strange as it would seem. After all, there are times when contemplating the challenges that still face the Trojans football program must feel something like getting a root canal.
"Some people think the sanctions are over. Some people are tired of hearing it. But we still have two more years of them, and Lane Kiffin has to live with it every single day," Haden said. "We'll have 58 scholarship players that will suit up on Thursday when we play Hawaii. Let me say that again, only 58 scholarship players will suit up. We've got some work ahead of us."
That work must be spearheaded by fourth-year head coach Lane Kiffin, of course, and Haden has his back.
Despite outside pressure to replace Kiffin after last season's disappointing 7-6 record, the AD says he is not on the hot seat this season.
"Let's just see how this year plays out, OK?" Haden said. "I know everybody is anxious. Some people want to fire him; some people want to keep him. What's the rush? This is not the Bataan Death March. We're going to try to enjoy this football season."
Earlier this week, Kiffin walked off the practice field and headed toward his office, smiling as he talked about the pressure to win big despite sanctions that will ultimately cost the program 30 scholarships between 2012 and 2014.
Kiffin seems to know there is a chance that, in the end, he'll be remembered primarily as a bridge between pre- and post-sanction eras at USC. Next season is the last of his five-year, $20 million contract, and if the Trojans don't find a way to win games with a depleted roster, both this season and next, he may never get a chance to coach a probation-free USC squad.
"It is what it is. Everybody's got problems," Kiffin said. "No matter what the numbers are or what the impact is, I don't think anybody remembers that when the ball is kicked. I understand that. I don't get upset with fans or media that expect us to win 13 games. Once the ball is kicked, if we give up a fourth-quarter score, nobody is going to say, 'Oh, they only had this many defensive players, and they were playing with walk-ons out there.' Nobody cares about that."
Haden points to Alabama and Michigan State's struggles while dealing with scholarship limitations years ago and is trying to measure Kiffin's success against those schools in those situations rather than holding him to the lofty standards normally placed on USC football coaches.
"Do you grade him on a curve?" Haden said. "I think you have to because of the situation we're in."
Haden thinks he has a special coach in Kiffin. He talks to him every day, sometimes multiple times, during the season. Haden played under John McKay and knew Pete Carroll well and thinks Kiffin connects to players the same way they did. He has seen him coach USC to a 10-2 season and a top-five ranking with a full complement of players and thinks he can do it on a consistent basis when the impact of the sanctions finally ends.
"I see him relate to his players," Haden said. "You may see somebody quite aloof, but I've seen some incredibly interesting, almost tender, relationships he has with his players. They respect him. He was here before with Pete and was part of that incredible run. He knows the dynamic of USC and what it takes to get back there. We're nowhere near that level now, and we understand that but he knows what it takes to win around here. We just haven't been able to do it yet."
Carroll continues to cast a large shadow over Kiffin and the football program and will continue to do so until Kiffin or another coach has the same kind of success Carroll did in taking USC to seven consecutive BCS bowls and winning back-to-back national championships. Carroll left for the NFL before the sanctions hit, but he is still revered on campus and will continue to serve as the lofty measuring stick by which all future USC coaches are judged.
"Any time you follow someone so successful, it's going to be difficult," Kiffin said. "You're always going to have people saying, 'Why aren't you doing it like Pete did it?' That's why it's always easier to follow someone that got fired and didn't win games, because they don't say, 'Why aren't we doing it that way?'"
It's easy to forget how young Kiffin is. He burst onto the college football scene as a 26-year-old assistant in 2001 when Carroll came to USC. At 31 years old, he was hired by the Oakland Raiders and became the youngest head coach in NFL history. At 33, he replaced Phillip Fulmer at the University of Tennessee and became the youngest head coach in college football, and, a year later, he returned to USC to replace Carroll. Now, at 38, he looks to lead his team back to prominence.
"He's a young guy, a young coach, who's still maturing and still growing," Haden said. "He'll be a better coach this year than he was a year ago.
"I think Lane made some real significant changes this past offseason. He looked at himself in the mirror."
There have been times over the years when Kiffin's immaturity might have gotten the best of him. He took some heat last season for, among other things, not being honest about his vote in the preseason coaches' poll, switching up player jerseys during a game against Colorado, not allowing opposing teams to practice at the Coliseum in advance of game days and, ultimately, for a 7-6 finish to a season that began with a No. 1 ranking and national championship aspirations.
"I think he realizes we had some distractions last year that were self-inflicted. Some of them were his, and some of them weren't," Haden said. "Lane is going to get blamed for things that are not his fault. He just accumulates blame, but some things were certainly self-inflicted."
It's all part of the growing process for Kiffin, whose on-the-job training has always taken place in the spotlight of historically great teams not normally known for serving as a training ground.
"When you're fortunate enough at a young age to get the jobs that I was able to have, you're making your mistakes on the national scene," Kiffin said. "You're not making them at a small school as a 31-year-old head coach where nobody really knows you and you can learn from those mistakes. If you're going to do well, you're going to need to learn from your mistakes and not repeat them. That's what I'm always trying to do, but when you make those mistakes on a national stage, they stick with you for a long time. I didn't get a chance to get those out of the way at a [Division] I-AA program, but I'm obviously not complaining. I've been very fortunate."
Kiffin never needed to sell Haden on why he should stay on as USC's football coach this season. He had already sold him on it every time they talked on the practice field or at Heritage Hall or over the phone. Their vision for what needed to be changed in the offseason was, Haden says, always in line.
Kiffin understood there needed to be significant changes on defense for which his father, Monte, served as coordinator. After Oregon beat USC 62-51, Monte knew his time was up. Oregon rewrote the record books that day by tallying 62 points, nine touchdowns and 730 yards -- the most ever against the Trojans.
"He had made that decision prior to the end of the season," Kiffin said. "He had already told me during the year, 'Regardless of how we finish, I'm going to go back to the NFL.' It was just a decision he had made, so it made it really easy."
Kiffin hired Clancy Pendergast, who was the defensive coordinator at Cal the past three seasons and the defensive coordinator with the Arizona Cardinals when they advanced to Super Bowl in 2008. He has transitioned USC from a more conventional 4-3 defense to a "52" scheme, which will feature more blitzing and allow defensive ends to also double as linebackers.
"I think this scheme is a better scheme for college guys, and my dad would tell you that, too, being around it," Kiffin said. "We tried to teach our guys so much. NFL guys like Derrick Brooks and John Lynch could handle it, but I don't know if our guys were able to take all that information and play fast. Clancy's system is not nearly as complicated and doesn't have nearly as many rules. It's a lot simpler. I think it's a better college system."
There had been talk about Kiffin giving up play-calling duties on offense as well, but he never seriously considered it. Haden says he wants Kiffin to call the plays. He points to the Oregon game, in which USC scored 51 points, and the Arizona game the previous week, in which they lost 39-36 and Marqise Lee set a Pac-12 record with 16 catches for 345 yards and 2 touchdowns.
"So much has been talked about the offensive miscues, and there were times we didn't play well, but we scored 51 points in one game and 36 points in another and lost those games," Haden said. "It's not play calling and scoring on offense. We had some serious defensive deficiencies. Lane knew that himself. I didn't need to go in and say, 'You need to make a change at defensive coordinator.' He felt a change was needed, and I give him credit. It couldn't have been easy for him."
Kiffin has worked on tweaking his offense in the offseason. He has been studying the New England Patriots' short-yardage packages after USC converted just 34.2 percent of its third downs, which ranked 105th among Football Bowl Subdivision teams. The Patriots led the NFL last season in third-down conversions at 48.7 percent. He also changed USC's practice schedule from early-morning practices to more traditional afternoon practices and has made the practices more physical after being cautious with players last season.
"I just didn't like the feeling of last year," Kiffin said. "I just didn't like the feeling of our line of scrimmage -- the inability to consistently run the ball, the inability to consistently stop the run. I just looked at that and said, 'OK, I was practicing one way because we were adjusting to the numbers being low, but you can't keep doing something if it doesn't work,' so that feeling of being healthy but not being physical wasn't a good feeling. Not for SC football. SC football is about being physical, and we're going to be a physical team this season."
When Haden walks out of his office, it doesn't take him long to be stopped by students or alumni who chime in with their two cents on the team.
Haden is usually affable, even when being criticized for sticking with Kiffin after last season, but refuses to make any move now or later based on the whims of a fan base that has a weekly love-hate relationship with its coaches based on the previous game's result.
"My job is to provide some guidance and leadership and stability," Haden said. "I appreciate people's passion. I share it. I want to win every game, too, but my view is not going to sway just by a bunch of texts and emails and tweets I get. I've got to understand that it's part of my job to deal with these folks, and I do the best job I can. My job, until I get fired, is to do what I think is best for USC."
And Haden believes Kiffin is the best coach for USC this season and for the foreseeable future until, well, he's not.
"My job is to support our coaches," Haden said. "I support our coaches 100 percent until they're not our coaches."