To everyone — the pundit, the avid fan, the man who sells you bacon-wrapped hot dogs on Exposition Boulevard — Lane Kiffin represents a number of things.
To some, he’s a perpetual brat.
To others, he’s a Trojan prince, leading USC back from NCAA sanctions.
Truth, in turn, becomes muddied, and it’s understandably challenging to decipher fact from fiction. Just who exactly is the Trojans’ third-year coach? Do the stereotypes stick? Is he actually that arrogant? Is he actually the boy wonder?
But answering just yes or no to such sweeping generalities would be dishonest and unfair. I can’t pretend to respond to either, exactly. Many of us cover Lane Kiffin, but how many of us truly know Lane Kiffin on any sort of personal level?
I have interacted with him enough to express a few opinions confidently. For starters, I’ve found him to be thoughtful and calculated — he doesn’t do or say things for the sake of simply doing or saying them. And two, he carries a better sense of humor than he’s given credit for. I like that.
But as many will inevitably point out, that doesn’t mean his record is spotless.
More or less, he comes across as incredibly stubborn.
This is one flaw that has been accentuated in recent weeks, as USC stumbled at Stanford, 21-14, and four days later, he infamously stormed out of a press conference after 29 seconds following a question about the return of an injured player.
“Kiffin is a talented, aggressive recruiter and a decent football strategist whose spoiled-brat arrogance constantly undermines his efforts to become a great coach,” wrote Grantland’s Shane Ryan last month. “He stretches rules, misreads interpersonal situations, and issues the wrong kind of challenges to his enemies. People excuse these as the follies of youth, but that’s a cop-out; they’re the follies of character, and maturity isn’t always related to age.”
Yup, there are flaws. Ryan chooses the term “spoiled-brat arrogance,” which leans toward hyperbole but is unmistakably rooted in reality. Football coaches tend to be stubborn-minded, petty people. They’re often micromanagers. And Kiffin is a football coach, after all.
But the funny thing is, No. 13 USC reversing course this season and meeting its Coliseum-sized preseason expectations largely hinges on whether Kiffin, 37, can still grow as a coach and become less stubborn, and more mature.
Friday indicated this might be possible.
Toward the end of his team’s bye-week practice at Howard Jones Field, Kiffin, fielding questions from a smaller contingent of reporters, at last admitted a rather obvious but important point. As the team’s offensive play caller, he called a subpar game in USC’s mid-September road loss to Stanford — in case anyone wasn’t aware.
“You’d love to have it back but you can’t,” he said. “In coaching, you’re just like players. Every game is not the same. You’re going to have some games where you make some better calls and get in a rhythm. I didn’t feel like I did really well in that game with our players.”
He took blame, and it was refreshing.
What makes this noteworthy is that it was a public admission. For a while now, Kiffin has received a substantial amount of criticism for a failure to take ownership — at least publicly — for events that have transpired during his tenure, including the Stanford game. Usually, he has deferred, highlighting a particular play or circumstance.
But Friday’s admission suggests a lot.
It suggests the “arrogant” coach might be open to honest, self-evaluation. It suggests the coach is receptive to criticism. It suggests the coach can still reflect and look to better himself.
That said, none of the aforementioned possibilities might be true. But I want to be fair and at least give him that chance. Cynicism shouldn’t be our guiding principle. As much time as we’ve invested in thinking about Kiffin, he still hasn’t reached the age of 40 and has only been a head coach for a total of 62 games.
That’s relatively young, which begs the question whether he has room to grow.
The Trojans’ success over the remaining two-thirds of the season will be tied to his ability — or inability — to do so.
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