Don’t judge a book by its cover.
There might not be a more over-used cliché in the English language. Yet as the topsy-turvy story of Lane Kiffin — a football lifer turned high-profile coach — reaches its next chapter on the steps of the Coliseum, one look at his past doesn’t really tell you where this opportunist is headed.
It’s easy to label USC’s newest household name as an unproven and somewhat browbeaten coaching caricature. His career path has come full circle but has been anything but the status quo — defined not by playoff appearances and BCS bowl games, but by allegations, press conference antics and recruiting methodologies that would make a tabloid writer or gossip columnist blush.
During his initial sojourn at USC from 2001-2006, Kiffin, in his best jack-of-all trades role — as the wide receivers coach, passing coordinator and eventual offensive coordinator — helped build the foundation for the most prolific offense college football witnessed over the past decade. Although Heisman Trophies and BCS National Championships made for thrilling bullet points to add to his quickly evolving résumé, Kiffin benefitted greatly from the experience of growing under Carroll, while also proving that he represented more than a beneficiary of Carroll’s namesake. Kiffin’s influence became etched in the development of NFL talents like Steve Smith, Dwayne Jarrett, Mike Williams and Dominique Byrd.
“As an assistant coach the experience in my mind matched the extremely high level of success I had set out for,” Kiffin said. “My first NFL job I got to work around Tom Coughlin. And then being here for so long with Coach [Pete] Carroll — it was very exciting going through all of those championship runs.”
If the book on Kiffin had closed after his time at USC, the literature might not have been top-dollar, but enjoyable enough for a quick read. The same could not be said for his brief time in Oakland.
From the day Al Davis made him the youngest head coach in NFL history at age 31 by introducing him as “Lance,” to the underwhelming 5-15 record he accumulated, to his painfully awkward pink slip in September 2008, to the still-ongoing battle regarding his buyout plan, the NFL proved to be an experience unworthy of too much ink in the 35-year-old’s coaching memoirs.
“There were so many things going on there, not only being so young and a head coach in the NFL, but being in such a unique place that has a lot of battles you have to go through,” Kiffin said. “It really has prepared me for when things don’t go right or when you have to deal with adversity.”
And if Kiffin’s book ever needed a consistent theme, adversity would be a fitting place to start.
In 2009, when the Fresno State alumnus accepted the job to become the 21st football coach at the University of Tennessee, unbeknownst to the Rocky Top Faithful, the university’s selection to replace longtime fixture Phil Fulmer would not only fail to live up to the image of his predecessor, but would become one of the most hated men in university history.
On the surface, a 7-6 record in a powerhouse conference like the SEC, with a team as undisciplined and green as the Volunteers were last season, would normally be applauded by boosters and alumnus. But when a barely .500 team is led by a man who in 365 days quickly transformed from a play-caller to a nightly news headliner to a potential NCAA rule breaker, anxiety in Knoxville grew.
There was the back-and-forth banter with Florida coach Urban Meyer, the late-night arrests of key members of his team and accusations he made derogatory comments to a recruit about a rival school — and the list goes on. Kiffin was no longer perceived as a top-notch leader but as an arrogant rebel rouser — and that was before the night of Jan. 12.
We all remember the scene as Kiffin made the cross-country leap to become USC’s replacement after the surprising departure of Pete Carroll.
In Knoxville, there was the abrupt statement, the getaway car and the ensuing madness. Riots were started, mattresses were burned, rocks were defaced and the ugliness of fanaticism boiled over on the streets of the stunned and heartbroken town.
More than eight months have passed since then, and the Minnesota native is certain he made the right decision. He also says he is proud of the time he spent as Tennessee’s coach.
“I think your job as a head coach when you come in is to improve your roster and make sure your players are doing a great job academically and we did both of those, so I feel good about that,” Kiffin said. “I don’t feel good about the timing, but I couldn’t really control that. When your dream job becomes available and is offered to you, sometimes everything doesn’t turn out perfectly.”
While even the most cynical of Kiffin’s doubters would have a hard time criticizing why he made the move from Tennessee to Los Angeles, the newest chapter in what has become a can’t-put-the-book-down type of read hasn’t been all California dreaming.
Throw in a NCAA-instituted two-year bowl ban and the loss of potentially 30 scholarships for institutional instability during the reign of Mike Garrett, and the “dream job” Kiffin took amid mass hysteria suddenly becomes a challenge of unforeseen proportions for a man who has a meager 12-21 lifetime coaching record.
But though media pundits and talking heads portray the coach as a cocky and conceited self-promoter, Kiffin barely bats an eye at the criticism, believing that this job presents him with a career-defining opportunity.
“This is a completely different job than I have had before, and if you study it or pay attention to it, you will see a very different approach,” Kiffin said. “We need to graduate players and coach our players really well and recruit really well, and that’s it. We don’t need to do anything outside of that.”
While Kiffin has made news outside of this self-imposed realm of simplicity in recent weeks — both for the nature in which he recruited former Tennessee Titans running backs coach Kennedy Pola for the team’s offensive coordinator position, and for reports that the NCAA will increase its probe regarding recruiting violations that took place during his time with the Volunteers — USC’s coach seems unmoved by the hoopla.
Write what you want about him, convict him in the court of public opinion or publish editorials bashing him for why he does what he does. Just don’t expect a reaction.
“People ask me all the time, ‘How you deal with this’, or ‘This just happened, aren’t you just consumed by it all, aren’t you overwhelmed?’” Kiffin said. “And I’m really not. I take it one day at a time, and just do what I do, which is coach. I just go to work, and have always enjoyed my job. And obviously when you are at your dream place for the profession that you love, you enjoy it even more. I love every second of every day, and every day walking in here regardless of what is going on.”
Although the initial chapters in his story might depict a brazen figure that seems comfortable masking his inabilities with trash talk and unconventional ideology, Kiffin is undoubtedly comfortable in his own skin, and doesn’t believe his past will threaten a program looking to regain its glory.
“Kids since the fourth grade have watched USC play in BCS games every single year until last year, which is better than any marketing any person or coach could dream up,” Kiffin said.
For those out there hoping Kiffin’s final pages will be full of angst and more tumultuous turns, don’t go looking for that lame-duck status to be thrust upon him just yet. Although former USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett might have been the hand that plucked him from Knoxville, USC’s coach has supporters in all the right places.
“I know from multiple conversations with both of them [Athletic Director Pat Haden and President C.L. Max Nikias], they are extremely behind our program and our staff,” Kiffin said. “Usually for a head coach, when an athletic director changes or a new president comes in who didn’t hire him, it can be a scary situation. But this is very unique, because Max having been here for years and Pat being involved for years and not coming from another A.D. job where maybe he has his own guy, I have already felt their support.”
Although support has poured in from the upstairs corridors of Heritage Hall, for this story to go from nightmarish to Hollywood-esque, it will take uncommon undertakings on the part of Kiffin in his first year: specifically, the task of motivating high-caliber athletes to compete, despite the fact there is no holy grail to obtain.
But again, Kiffin isn’t hitting the panic button as the season closes in on the Trojans.
“I just don’t think [USC football players] go to practice or to a seven-on-seven and say, ‘Boy if I do well today I am going to get to the Rose Bowl,’” Kiffin said. “Maybe some other places where players are motivated differently, that could be more of an issue. I don’t foresee that here.”
For now, the uncertainty of the days that lie ahead will surely captivate a university, a community and a nation of naysayers who question whether this man is the right fit for one of the most sought-after positions in sports — a position that the coach believes the last 1,000 days has more than aptly prepared him for.
“I don’t feel there is a job in America in this profession that I would feel too much weight on,” Kiffin said. “Think about the last three years and what I have been through.”
Where will the next three years take this whirlwind tale?
Keep reading. Regardless of what you think you know about Lane Kiffin based on his cover, the chapters soon to come will surely surprise you.