Lane Kiffin stood there with his arms crossed, surrounded by the typical frenzy of reporters, his face serious, his answers succinct.
It was early August. The first official practice of training camp had just been completed. The new USC coach spoke in a business-like tone to a handful of reporters. A smile didn’t dare threaten to break across his face. His body language was a bit defensive and he never let his guard down.
This was my first eyewitness look at the new USC coach, my first impression of the post-Pete Carroll era from the head man himself. I had no idea what to expect from Kiffin, but I left thinking only one thing — for a guy who coached under Carroll for six years, Kiffin could not be more different.
At Pac-10 media day, Kiffin kept his sunglasses on at the podium, a move that some saw as arrogant and disrespectful. He speaks and looks like a guy with something to prove. He probably doesn’t want to be compared to Carroll, especially at this early and uncertain stage, but the comparison is unavoidable. You are always judged against your predecessor.
He knows that to have any chance of winning the hearts of USC fans, he has to win games.
“Winning and losing games are the things that matter,” Kiffin said after the first day of training camp.
Kiffin has a tendency to ruffle feathers (see the entire state of Tennessee) though some of that will be forgiven if he can win. But in light of the iron hammer the NCAA dropped on USC this offseason, this is a rare case where winning won’t be enough.
Kiffin has to win, but do it in a different way. What was acceptable in the past will no longer fly. Kiffin has to reinvent the culture at USC with a quality that was easily Carroll’s largest shortcoming: discipline.
Throughout the Carroll era, USC was always near the top of the list in the Pac-10 in penalty yards per game. In 2008, the Trojans drew 103 yellow flags for 948 yards. They improved only a bit last season, drawing 90 penalties for 798 yards.
Discipline off the field must improve as well. Kiffin has already had a chance to prove himself in this category. He suspended freshman tailback Dillon Baxter for the season opener at Hawaii next week for an undisclosed violation of team rules. An unnamed source told the Los Angeles Times that marijuana use was involved.
Then again, Kiffin allowed senior fullback Stanley Havili to return to practice only a day after it was revealed that he punched junior cornerback T.J. Bryant, an injury that forced Bryant to have surgery on his cheekbone.
All of these decisions will be inevitably second-guessed, but there is little doubt that the feel of the program has changed.
“It’s a total turnaround from the old program to coach Kiffin’s style,” senior center Kristofer O’Dowd said. “It started in February and it carried all the way over here to August.”
Fair or unfair, Kiffin’s decisions will be judged against the standards that Carroll set, especially in this upcoming season.
Although it is certain that Carroll’s reputation took a huge hit in Los Angeles when he took the job at the Seattle Seahawks, USC fans are going to find it hard to forget the eight consecutive winning seasons, the seven-straight Pac-10 titles and the two national championships.
Even more importantly, perhaps, is the cult of personality that Carroll fostered so well during his tenure at USC. He had a childlike enthusiasm for the game. He seemed to bounce around the practice field and from one subject to another in interviews. He had the perfect amount of rah-rah, fire-’em-up energy that so well suited the college game and the Trojans.
Kiffin’s personality simply cannot compare to Carroll’s. He’s not going to flash any boyish grins. He’s rarely going to joke around. He’s serious. He’s all business.
If you think about the position Kiffin is in, his standoffishness makes sense.
Kiffin acts like he has something to prove because he does. He went 5-15 at the helm of the Oakland Raiders and 7-6 as the head coach at the University of Tennessee. The message boards are full of detractors who say he hasn’t paid the necessary dues to warrant the head coaching job at USC.
Kiffin has a chance to silence the critics. The first step is obviously to win games.
But to truly win over USC fans, he has to do things differently than Carroll, and the most logical place to start is discipline.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Kiffin is playing things so close to the chest, keeping his arms crossed and his sunglasses on. The glare from stepping out of Pete Carroll’s shadow is going to be a heck of a challenge to overcome.
“Middle Ground” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Josh at firstname.lastname@example.org.