Better late than never, I guess.Such was my initial reaction to USC coach Lane Kiffin’s apology of sorts for the disastrous 2012 football season. In a two-hour interview with ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski, Kiffin accepted blame for all that went wrong last season, admitting that he is a “coaching work in progress” and that he needs to “grow up.”
For once, I don’t think many USC fans will disagree with him.
First, I’ll give the man his credit: I agree with most of what he said. The odds were stacked against the 2012 Trojans. With so much pressure to be perfect, anything less than an undefeated season would have disappointed many, so it was unlikely that the third-year coach would please everybody.
But he didn’t do himself any favors along the way.
At this point, it would be quite redundant to hash through all of Kiffin’s missteps last season, which went far beyond the win-loss figures. The jersey switching, the football deflating and the beatwriter banning have all been well-documented.
Kiffin’s off-the-field transgressions have proved to be distractions and, if we are to believe his words, distractions were something that his players already had had enough of.
“When you have all the hype that this team had around it coming into this season — [the players said], ‘See you in the Orange Bowl [site of the Discover BCS national championship],” Kiffin said in the interview of his team’s mindset coming into the season. “That’s where their minds were, regardless of what we [coaches] said.”
This is where many have taken issue with Kiffin. Over the course of his relatively short career, he has been called many things: petulant, arrogant and dishonest, to name a few. His reputation precedes him wherever he goes to the point that I’m not sure many people outside of his defenders at USC have any nice things to say about him.
But he has also been called something else: a good football coach. A current USC football player said just as much recently, while also criticizing Kiffin for the lack of control he had over the USC locker room. That lack of control was evidenced by the reported incident involving several players. It has been characterized as a “disagreement” by some and a “full-on brawl” by others following the loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
Regardless, few have questioned Kiffin’s knowledge of the Xs and Os. He has excelled in that regard, as well as in recruiting. But it is in the area of managing and leading people, namely kids in their late teens and early 20s, that Kiffin appears to have failed. One needs to look no further than his comments about his own players making plans for Miami before the season even began.
For Kiffin’s sake, and for USC’s, he must improve in this facet of coaching. Whether or not he can remains to be seen. But admitting there is a problem is the first step in combating it, and Kiffin did that this week — a reassuring development. But his other comments were equally troubling.
With respect to the infamous jersey-switching incident that occurred against Colorado, Kiffin claims that the tactic was “100 percent legal,” according to NCAA rules. But, according to Wojciechowski, the NCAA Football Rules and Interpretations manual states, “The following are unethical practices: Changing numbers during the game to deceive the opponent.”
Kiffin claims there was “no intent to deceive.” If that is the case, then what was the intent? To see how redshirt freshman quarterback Cody Kessler looked wearing jersey No. 35?
Kiffin’s refusal to budge on this topic speaks to his stubbornness, a trait that has its positives and negatives in the college football world. With national signing day right around the corner, it will most certainly be an asset in persuading high school players to come to USC following last season’s poor showing. Even with scholarship reductions, Kiffin’s 2013 class has already been lauded as one of the nation’s best, and a strong finish will earn him some goodwill among his detractors.
But past incidents like the jersey switch will always find their way into the conversation, and as a result, forming an opinion on Lane Kiffin will never be as simple as black and white.
In the results-based institution that is college football, I believe Kiffin can succeed. He proved it two seasons ago, and I believe he can do it again. You may never consider yourself a “Lane Kiffin fan” because of his many offenses, but he doesn’t need to win a popularity contest to be the right man for the job of USC’s head coach. He needs better results on the field, not to convince people to like him.
But by winning more games next year, he might just be able to do both.
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