I had a chance to sit down and talk with USC coach Lane Kiffin and many of his staff members before they left for Hawaii to figure out how the 35-year-old Kiffin could get three prominent head coaching jobs in three years despite having a 12-21 record as a head coach. Here’s the story I came back with.
Also, here are some leftovers from my sit-down with Kiffin in his office at Heritage Hall.
Markazi: It’s been quite an off-season for you are you excited to finally get the season underway?
Kiffin: People ask me all the time how hard has this off-season been and I joke, ‘What off-season?’ It hasn’t felt like an off-season. There’s been a lot of stuff going on obviously. We were really excited to get to camp and now it’s the next step. I’m very excited for our players especially. To get to put all this behind them; all this talk about sanctions and scholarships and bowl games, they had nothing to do with it. They’re suffering the penalty for other peoples’ actions.
Markazi: You were only away from USC for three years but it seems like a lifetime ago, has it felt like that after everything that went down in Oakland and Tennessee?
Kiffin: When I think about it, it seems like a long time ago but when I got back here and once I walked around it seemed like I had never left. Those games, those Rose Bowls, those Orange Bowls, those national championships, those Heisman Trophy winners, it seems like ten years ago but once I got back here it seems like I never left.
Markazi: What do you take from your previous experiences that make you believe you will be successful this time around?
Kiffin: Being here at USC the first time it was extremely valuable to be with coach [Pete Carroll] from the first year to see how things were done from the beginning. That was more valuable than anything I’ve done in my career. If you come somewhere once they’re rolling and once they’re on top you don’t know how it got to that point. Guys who come here know don’t know what it was like to be 2-5, to lose to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl after rushing for one yard and have to go on the road and recruit the best players in the country. It wasn’t real easy. Knowing that, knowing the work ethic that it took, the way that we had to do that is extremely valuable for us today because I try to get our coaches to operate that way. To recruit and treat players like they’re at a smaller school. Don’t have an arrogance about you because you’re at ‘SC because it wasn’t always like this. That was extremely valuable for me. To maintain that work ethic of myself and our staff now even though the program has come a long way.
Markazi: What do you take from you time at Oakland and Tennessee though where things didn’t go as plan or end as everyone involved had hoped?
Kiffin: It made me a lot stronger. I’ve been through a lot. It’s been good though. Everything happens for a reason. Coming here and now having all the controversy with the sanctions and dealing with the probation and bowl games and all the things that come with that, that’s a lot of adversity. The fact that I’ve gone through adversity with the Raiders and adversity with Tennessee after I left that’s a good lesson for our players. I talk to our players all the time, I tell them to worry about what you can control. I can’t control what fan bases at other places are going to say about me on the internet. So I talk to them about that. They can’t control whether or not we’re going to play in a bowl game or not. They can only worry about what they can control so I use that as a perfect example for them.
Markazi: There is still this feeling if you were to succeed here you would jump ship as you have in the past, how do you respond to those who question your stability after being with three teams in three years?
Kiffin: I’m extremely happy here and I feel like I’m home. There’s no burning desire in me to prove that I can win more games in the NFL or somewhere else. I love it here. I love the atmosphere. I love college football. I love the passion of the fans. I love watching the kids grow. We get them from all over country, from all these different backgrounds and we have to mesh them together and develop them as a team on and off the field. It’s so exciting to see the transition from when we get them to draft day. When we put them into our system on offense, defense and special teams, we’re preparing them for the NFL. We’re preparing them for their draft days and workouts. I really like seeing that because that’s the goal of all these guys when they come here.
Markazi: You were extremely outspoken and controversial at Tennessee and have been rather subdued so far at USC, so which one is the real Lane Kiffin?
Kiffin: This is the real me. If you study me overtime, outside of my one year at Tennessee, this is how I’ve been. At Oakland you didn’t hear me say the things I did at Tennessee. When I was an assistant here [at USC] you didn’t hear me say the things I did at Tennessee. This is me. Do I tell people what they want to hear? No. But am I attacking other people to enhance our program and get our name out there? No because you don’t need to do that here. This is the best way to describe myself. I don’t change what I do. I’ve always prided ourselves on working extremely hard and putting in long hours in recruiting and football. So I don’t need motivation. I don’t need to say, ‘Well, this guy wrote this about me’ or ‘This person said this about me,’ to motivate me to all of a sudden work.
Markazi: You are probably the most hated man in Tennessee after the way you left the Vols after one season. Are you still surprised at the reaction you got for leaving Knoxville and coming to USC?
Kiffin: It was very interesting to see all the attention leaving Tennessee to take another job got. I made a decision for my family and myself to go back to a place I was extremely familiar with and comfortable at. Outside of last year, the last ten years of my life were in California. Our kids were born here. This is a place that is extremely special to us. I changed jobs. People do that every day. I didn’t commit a crime. I went from a great job to what is in my opinion the best job in America. People change jobs every day. So was I surprised by the reaction? Sure I was because all I did was make a decision for my family and myself to change jobs. We’re extremely appreciative of our time there. It was a great year there. I know we left that roster a lot better than it was when we got there.
Markazi: How do you describe your recruiting style when you’re going after a player or coach you want?
Kiffin: I don’t believe in the word can’t. I tell our coaches that all the time. Don’t tell me that you can’t do something. Tell me that you choose not to. You’re making a decision not to. Don’t ever tell me we can’t do something because we can. We can do anything. That’s how I operate and that’s how I tell our coaches to operate. We’ve had kids tell us there’s no way I can sign with you, my mom won’t let me, it’s too far way, whatever it is and three months later they sign with us.
Markazi: How do the NCAA sanctions change how you approach this season and really the next 3-4 years if you’re still here at USC at the end of the four-year probation period?
Kiffin: It doesn’t change how you work but it’s an extremely exciting challenge for what it is. You’re at a disadvantage against everyone you’re going to play. They’re going to have more players than you. They’re going to have more things like bowl games to motivate them than you. You’re at a disadvantage but what a great challenge it is. If you can win under that it’s something that no one else does.
Markazi: Would you still have come to USC had you known what the sanctions were?
Kiffin: This is still USC. I still live in Manhattan Beach. My family still loves being here. We still have the ability to sign the best players in the world and get them one of the best degrees in the world and none of that has changed. This is still my dream job.
Markazi: How has it been coaching alongside your dad the last two years with you handling the offense and Monte controlling the defense?
Kiffin: It’s been great. We’re going on our second year and I love it. Not because he’s my dad but I love seeing his interaction with the players and other coaches and how they learn from him and line up to get information from him. He’s a non-stop resource of ball and schemes and information. I love our guys being able to learn from him.
Markazi: Because of who you are, not only have you been thrust into the spotlight but so has your wife, Layla, and your three kids. How have you dealt with that attention?
Kiffin: It’s part of the job. I limit them. You don’t see them a lot because I don’t want those kids to feel abnormal. That’s why you don’t see them here as much. It’s like I tell our players. You’re held to a higher standard than the normal student. The normal student screws up at midnight, nobody pays attention to it. It happens all the time. You signed up to be on scholarship to play football at USC and that’s a big deal. You’re going to be held to higher standard. You don’t get to be like other students. I don’t get to be like other people my age and that’s a part of the deal when you sign up for this job. When I screw up it’s a lot different than when my buddies I went to high school with screw up.
Markazi: When you see, hear or read people talking about you negatively does it still affect you?
Kiffin: I’ve been so hardened that I don’t even pay attention to it anymore. You walk by the screen and something is rolling on the ticker or your name is on the left side of the screen on SportsCenter and they’re going to talk about you and you just become hardened by it. I can’t control what people are going to say about me that don’t know me. All I can do is continue to do things the right way and worry about what I can control. When people meet me they don’t think that way when they leave. I care a lot more about the people that know me and that I deal with everyday than the people I’ve never met. I’d much rather have it be that way than the guy people say a lot of really good things about that don’t know him and then when they do meet him or talk to the people that know him, they come away not liking him.
Markazi: Do you think a winning season will change some of the perception of you or do you think you’ll have to deal with this for the foreseeable future?
Kiffin: I don’t know. I can’t change it. Whatever I do there’s going to be people that are going to try and twist it and find a way to make it negative no matter what it is. I wore sunglasses on an 85-degree day in Southern California at Pac-10 Media Day and that meant that I was arrogant and hiding things. If anyone else wears them are they getting that? That’s the daily stuff I get. We hired a coach from another team [Kennedy Pola]. Where was I supposed to find coaches from? I’ve been through three head coaching jobs and I’ve hired over 30 coaches between the three places and they all came from different teams. That’s just the world that I have to live in now. I can’t control that and I don’t worry about it.