LOS ANGELES >> Lane Kiffin has an idea.
He’s not serious about it. Not really. There is, however, just a hint in his voice that suggests he’s not totally joking, either.
“I did think the other day what it would be like to be a high school head coach or to be at a small school,” Kiffin said. “I thought about it the other day. The first time. I wonder if there’s something to that peace of mind. Maybe it’s something I can go back and do when I get older. I’m going to go coach high school.
“It’s just the game. It’s the game in its realest sense and it’s fun. Working with the kids and not all this other stuff. You go back and have fun.”
If Kiffin’s Trojans have another season like last year, he may not have to wait long to give high school a try.
Nonetheless, on this day, with spring practice fading in the rearview mirror, it’d be hard to find a guy on the USC campus in a better mood than the Trojans’ football coach.
As he relaxes on the big, white, leather sectional couch in his office, sunshine spilling through the sliding glass doors that lead out to a small patio, Kiffin seems at ease as he considers the future of a coaching career spent mostly in the brightest of spotlights.
NFL head coach at 31. SEC head coach at 33. Head coach of USC at 34. When it comes to acronyms, the 37-year-old Kiffin’s resume has some of the best in sports on it.
But it’s been a bumpy ride for the boy wonder, bouncing from one volatile situation to another. When it comes to turmoil, Kiffin seems to either walk into it or create it. It’s a talent that has made him maybe the most vilified man in college football today.
It’s part of what prompts the inevitable question, but suggest to Kiffin that he’s coaching for his job this season and he answers, “I always feel like that’s the case.”
Kiffin’s boss, USC athletic director Pat Haden, brushes off that idea as well.
“I’m not going to start getting into those things,” he said. “I’m not going to make any pronouncements. Let’s just enjoy the season.”
There’s definitely a no-drama vibe emanating from USC these days. The Trojans are still dealing with NCAA sanctions handed down in 2010 for the Reggie Bush scandal, but they will be neither bowl-banned nor No. 1 going into the 2013 season.
After USC went 7-6 last season, Kiffin replaced about half his assistants, including his father, the longtime and well-respected NFL defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, and preached to his staff that he wanted to recreate the passion and energy of his first season in this, his fourth with the Trojans.
He said others have told him he seems more relaxed this spring, and his boss is fine with the team flying under the radar.
“Let’s just earn it on the field,” Haden said. “Let’s play as hard as we can. Let’s have no off-the-field distractions. Let’s play the game with a sense of purpose and fun and with a little more physical nature than we did last year.”
Last year was anything but fun.
The Trojans became the first team to start the season No. 1 in the AP poll and finish it unranked since Mississippi in 1964, when the rankings only went 10 deep. They lost five of their last six games, including a downright depressing 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
They couldn’t run the ball. The defense fell apart. Star quarterback Matt Barkley was inconsistent, and finished the year injured. For the first time since 1995, USC lost to both UCLA and Notre Dame.
“The way that I think of it in a positive way is we’re going to learn from it,” Kiffin said. “That can’t happen again. But we’re not going to change everything because prior to that game (a 39-36 loss at Arizona on Oct. 27) we had won 17 of the previous 20 games. We were 17-3 in the middle of sanctions, probation, reduced roster. All those things going on, we’re winning 17 of 20 games. We’re doing something right.”
But during those last two months of last season, “Everything that could go wrong went wrong,” he adds.
And with the losses, came drama. That always seems to be the case with Kiffin.
His 20-game run in the NFL ended with then-Raiders owner Al Davis calling him a liar and firing him with cause. While Kiffin clearly wasn’t the solution, a decades’ worth of futility in Oakland suggests he was far from the only problem with the Raiders.
A couple of months later, Kiffin landed at Tennessee, a fading program in the midst of an awkward breakup with longtime coach Phillip Fulmer.
Kiffin managed to tick off most of the Southeastern Conference, talking trash and pushing the envelope in recruiting as he tried to pump some life into the Vols.
They did get better under Kiffin, going 7-6, but he turned out to be one and done. He couldn’t resist the temptation to return to USC, where he was offensive coordinator under Pete Carroll, and replace his mentor. He left behind NCAA violations and a thoroughly ticked off fan base in Knoxville.
He hasn’t exactly been embraced by the USC faithful, skeptical of his credentials and exasperated at time by his actions.
In three seasons with USC, he’s been fined by the Pac-12 for criticizing officials, battled the local media over access to practice and the reporting of injuries and had special teamers switch jerseys to run trick plays against overmatched Colorado.
So, of course, when it was revealed that a USC team manager under-inflated the footballs for last year’s Oregon game, Lane got blamed again even though there was no evidence he had anything do with it.
“He’s the anti-Teflon coach,” Haden said. “Stuff sticks to him that’s not even his fault. He gets blamed for earthquakes and wildfires.”
Around USC they call it the Kiffin Effect.
“That is frustrating because I know a completely different person from what a lot of people assume that he is,” said Layla Kiffin, Lane’s wife. “But then you ask the team and you ask the parents that know him, and they all can say the same things I do. He is personable. And he is funny. And he’s extremely smart. He’s very gifted and talented at what he does.
“It wasn’t that he’s spoiled and his dad groomed him to be what he is. I understand why he gets the criticism, but there’s so much more to him.”
Haden didn’t hire Kiffin, he inherited him from former AD Mike Garrett, who was pushed out after the NCAA hammered USC.
“I’ve come to appreciate Lane,” Haden said. “You can’t ask for a guy who’s going to work harder and be more dedicated.”
Haden said Kiffin has been “nothing but compliant,” when it comes to NCAA regulations. The team has done well academically and off-the-field issues have been minimal, he added.
Haden called Kiffin a very good recruiter and good play caller.
“I think he’s maturing as a coach,” Haden said. “I don’t think the reality is anywhere near the perception of being aloof, arrogant. Confident, yes. I love confidence.”
And Haden said Kiffin has taken full responsibility for last year’s fade.
“He looked at everything. What does he need to change. What does he need to do different,” Haden said.
Kiffin is 25-13 at USC while dealing a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over three years.
“I think he’s been as good as he can be,” Haden said. “The NCAA didn’t give us these sanctions to keep us winning. We’re working our way through them. You have to grade (Kiffin) a little bit on the curve.”
Kiffin understands his image is tied directly to his record.
“Winning hides a lot of problems and losing creates a lot of problems,” he said. “Somebody was saying to me, man this year you really had a lot of screw ups. Seems like you really matured two years ago and then you regressed and fell back.
“I said ‘No, I didn’t all of sudden regress.’ I said we went 10-2, but nobody wrote at the end of the year about the fact that I got fined in the middle of year $10,000 from the commissioner for complaining about officials. We beat UCLA 50-0 to end the season, nobody ever wrote about Kiffin’s screw ups during the season, what a baby he is complaining about officials.
“But (when) you lose this year, now all of sudden — the balls being deflated, which I knew nothing about at all, that’s still being written about. People still bring it up about what a bad season I had, and how I regressed. But if we would have won all the games, won 11, 12, 13 games, it wouldn’t have come up later or been written about my immaturity. When you lose things get magnified like that.”
Kiffin said he often wonders how his career would have played out if it had taken a more typical trajectory. If he had endured his growing pains without so many people watching.
The result is a coaching career that can be measured in dog years. It’s as if Kiffin has already coached a lifetime. So if and when the end comes at USC, he’s ready.
“Whether they fire me tomorrow or if I’m here 15 years,” he said with a smile, “I’m retiring either way.”