I’ll admit that heading into the football season, USC head coach Lane Kiffin doesn’t have a lot going for him.
USC’s dive from preseason favorite to unranked with six losses last year was unprecedented, and Kiffin’s chilly public persona only fuels his detractors. If he wins fewer than nine games this upcoming year, there is a reasonable chance that he will be coaching elsewhere in 2014.
That said, there is an aspect of Kiffin that deserves some praise. In light of Aaron Hernandez’s murder charges and accounts of his transgressions stemming back to his days at the University of Florida, Kiffin’s ability to instill character and dignity in his players off the field warrants praise.
Fans all want a return to the early-2000s glory days of Pete Carroll, but as many Trojan diehards saw up close with the Reggie Bush scandal, the talent is not always worth the trouble.
For Kiffin, that mantra has held true. Not every player will be Matt Barkley, but for the most part, few will spend the night in jail or commit a crime.
We take it for granted, but Kiffin has run a nearly spotless ship when it comes to his players keeping out of trouble off the field. Former USC tight end Junior Pomee was arrested for burglary and similar charges this past February, but he walked the plank, as Kiffin booted him off the team.
Kiffin doesn’t make it a goal to be everyone’s “cool uncle” like former head coach Pete Carroll did. When both were at USC, Carroll was the party; Kiffin was the one breaking it up.
In 2011, former USC linebacker Everson Griffen organized a trip to Las Vegas with current USC players. Jordan Campbell, a former USC linebacker who was cited by police for a breach of peace with Griffen in 2009 when both were at USC, was also involved.
Partially out of fear for being suspected of giving improper benefits, athletic director Pat Haden banned the team from making the trip. I doubt Kiffin protested Haden’s decree. What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay there, so the pair made sure the trip didn’t happen.
There will still be a drunken Marc Tyler rant or ineligibility due to golf cart issues once in a while, but Kiffin has kept the egregious incidents, such as arrests that seem to occur often at Ohio State or Florida, to an admirable minimum.
Winning is the goal every college football team goes into the season with. But at USC, fans should appreciate the job Kiffin has done on the recruiting trail since taking the job in January 2010. He’s racked up the star ratings, but also managed to sift out troublemakers before they even register for classes.
USC finished as one of Rivals.com’s top 10 recruiting classes in Kiffin’s first three years, and just one of his recruits (Pomee) has run into legal trouble while at the university. In the Pac-12, only Stanford, Cal and UCLA have fewer arrests since Kiffin was brought in. Not only is he recruiting top talent, but he and his staff are controlling their players once they arrive on campus.
College football head coaches are often likened to father figures for their players. Kiffin is more along the lines of a principal, and that isn’t a bad thing. Growing up, few children want to be sent to the principal’s office. I imagine it’s the same for USC football.
He’s generally not friendly with the media. His sometimes-dispassionate demeanor doesn’t easily endear him to the raucous Trojan fan base. He’s going to keep everyone waiting with his decision on the starting quarterback. And his image from his admittedly immature days at Tennessee and with the Oakland Raiders still burns vividly in the minds of his many critics.
But Kiffin was born to coach. His father was a coach. His brother is a coach. When it comes to off-field disciplinary matters, Kiffin knows what he’s doing.
His coaching calls are still questionable and his public persona could be better. And if his team underperforms this season, he might be looking for a new job this winter. But don’t say Kiffin doesn’t know how to keep his players in line.
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