You could first see it in the press room following USC’s 31-17 win over Notre Dame in October.
It was there again on the field after the Trojans’ 38-35 upset of Oregon in Eugene. It was as wide as ever when USC led UCLA by 50 late in the fourth quarter on Saturday: it being a smile on USC coach Lane Kiffin’s face.
There’s been plenty for the normally stoic Kiffin to feel good about over the final two-thirds of the Trojans’ 2011 season.
It’s a drastic turnaround from where he was only two months ago.
The low point came in late September. The Trojans had just suffered a 43-22 shellacking on the road at Arizona State — the culmination of an ugly start to the season that saw USC need to hold on late to beat less-than-stellar Minnesota and Utah at the Coliseum.
There were questions from the Trojan faithful about whether Kiffin was the right guy for the job. After all, this was the guy whose only two previous head coaching ventures ended in him being called a liar (by late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis) and causing a near riot (by angry Tennessee fans).
There was the fact that it was former athletic director Mike Garrett who hired Kiffin to replace Pete Carroll in January 2010 and Pat Haden might have wanted a different man in charge of the program.
And, there was Kiffin’s pedestrian 11-6 record over his first 17 games at USC.
All of that seems so long ago. USC went 7-1 over the final eight games of the season and Kiffin is now being talked about as the possible national coach of the year, an award that would be richly deserved. While UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State have all fired their coaches this season, there are no doubts about Kiffin’s job security. The freshmen and sophomore laden Trojans could be a preseason top-five team in 2012.
So, just how did he do it? How exactly did the 36-year-old Kiffin, still the youngest head coach of the 120 in NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, take a Trojan program on the verge of sanction-strapped mediocrity and return it to the doorstep of its former glory in less than two years?
It started with recruiting — just not the traditional kind. First, Kiffin convinced his dad, defensive guru Monte Kiffin, and recruiting maven Ed Orgeron to head west with him and join his coaching staff at USC.
Then, when the sanctions hit in June 2010, the coaches had to persuade Trojan juniors and seniors to pass on a free transfer to another school — a veritable get out of NCAA jail free card — and play out the remainder of their college careers with no chance at a national title or bowl game. A few transferred, but the majority stayed.
Kiffin and company also had to hold together what they could of the 2010 recruiting class, most members of which committed to play for a sanctions-free USC coached by Carroll.
That group included record-setting sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods (Pac-12 best 111 catches for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011), two-headed starting tight end combo redshirt freshmen Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble (a combined nine touchdowns) and defensive stalwarts sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey and freshmen linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard — three of the Trojans’ top four tacklers this season.
An 8-5 season in his first year in charge was a disappointment for Kiffin, so with no bowl game to play in, he and his staff climbed into planes, trains and automobiles and traversed the country, selling the USC program to the nation’s top high school and junior college talent.
The recruiting efforts resulted in a mammoth 30-player class that included Pac-12 Co-Offensive Freshman of the Year wide receiver Marqise Lee (73 catches for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns), first-year starters freshman Lamar Dawson (linebacker), freshman Marcus Martin (offensive guard) and junior Isiah Wiley (cornerback) and special teams standouts freshman Andre Heidari (first-team All-Pac-12 kicker) and junior punter Kyle Negrete (zero touchbacks in 2011).
Scholarship reductions — part two of the NCAA sanctions — will hit the Trojans next season, making the coaches’ decisions in evaluating high school talent even more crucial in the three years to come.
Kiffin’s most important recruiting job this offseason though, will be with players already on the USC roster. Heisman-hopeful junior quarterback Matt Barkley and three All-Pac-12 First Team performers — junior offensive tackle Matt Kalil, redshirt junior defensive end Nick Perry and junior safety T.J. McDonald — could bypass their final year of eligibility and head to the NFL.
Kiffin has said he wants to help each player make the best decision for himself. That doesn’t mean, though, that the coach won’t remind his players of how special the 2012 Trojans could be.
Whether or not Barkley and friends return for their senior seasons, Kiffin has shown that he is the right man for the job. Less than two years after crippling NCAA sanctions, he’s put USC back in the national spotlight.
That’s something even Kiffin can smile about.
“Sellin’ the Sizzle” ran Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org.