Turning potential into production

LOS ANGELES -- There is an old cliche that the word potential is simply another way of saying "hasn't done it yet."

For Lane Kiffin, the word potential has been following him around ever since he was named the youngest head coach in the modern era of the NFL by the Oakland Raiders in 2007.

Kiffin was fired by the Raiders after a brief year-and-a-half stint and then quickly landed on his feet as the head coach at Tennessee, only to leave the Volunteers after a year to come to USC.

His critics couldn't understand it, as Kiffin received three plum head coaching jobs in such a short period of a time despite being a young coach who really hadn't proven anything yet.

On paper, his resume looked great -- he had a good offensive mind, his assistant coaching experience on the staff of Pete Carroll's Trojans was nice, and he certainly had some good coaching genes as the son of legendary NFL assistant coach Monte Kiffin.

However, his career record as a head coach prior to the 2011 season was 20-26, so at some point he needed to improve upon that if he wanted to prove the doubters wrong.

Well, he went out this year and did it. Kiffin coached his USC team to a 10-2 finish despite a litany of obstacles that would have provided credible excuses for a lesser record. Along the way he proved that his reputation for offensive prowess is well deserved, and he showed that he can manage a program through choppy waters.

In perhaps the most interesting twist, however, we also saw a change in Kiffin. We saw a connection to his players that hadn't really been evident before. Call it part of his growth curve as a coach or perhaps an element of maturity, but it was definitely noticeable by the end of the season in the way he interacted with his team.

Kiffin has never been known as a warm and fuzzy coach. He has a very focused approach to the game and his style doesn't work for everybody. It's a sharp contrast to the charismatic personality of Carroll, who was known for his upbeat and effervescent ways.

When Kiffin was first hired at USC, it was a dramatic change for the players, and they didn't adjust right away. There were recruits who had been close to committing to USC under Carroll but -- when faced when the sudden prospect of playing for Kiffin -- chose to head elsewhere.

Part of the NCAA sanctions also offered Trojans upperclassmen the opportunity to transfer without penalty, and several of them decided to leave in part because they didn't know where they stood with the new coach.

Those players who stayed found that Kiffin meant business and he definitely had a plan for how he was going to run his program. Matt Barkley admitted this week that the players didn't completely "buy-in" the first year and it showed as the team stumbled to an 8-5 record.

During the offseason there was a lot of communication between the coaches and players and a bond began to build. It was noticeable when fall camp arrived, as there was a tangible sense of everyone being on the same page that wasn't there the previous year.

The Marc Tyler suspension gave a real look at how far Kiffin had come. Tyler's issues with alcohol went beyond the playing field, as at one point Tyler was ready to quit football because he felt he had let the team down.

It was Kiffin and running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu who led the way to keep Tyler in the fold. When Tyler earned his way back onto the team for the game against Utah, it was Kiffin walking with him down the Coliseum tunnel telling him how proud he was.

The fact that Kiffin stuck with the popular Tyler spoke volumes to the team. They began to understand that his blunt style of communication was also honest. It didn't change the way Kiffin coached -- it just showed his players that he cared.

On the field, the success of the team built steadily and really blossomed in the Notre Dame game. The first two offensive drives against the Fighting Irish were pure magic and it seemed to light a fire under the offense that continued to burn for the remainder of the year.

Within that final stretch, Kiffin also went toe-to-toe as a play-caller with three highly respected offensive coaches -- Brian Kelly, Steve Sarkisian and Chip Kelly -- coming away with a victory each time. Those three wins represented payback for teams that had beaten the Trojans in 2010, so the opportunity for revenge was very important to him.

The season finale against UCLA showed exactly how far Kiffin had come this year, both as a play-caller and in his relationship with his players.

There was nothing the Bruins could do on that night to slow the Trojans offense. After the game, Kiffin talked openly about how special this group of players was. He respected how hard they worked, how they supported each other, and he thanked them in the locker room for how they made him better.

Bringing out a more compassionate, personable side of Kiffin that hadn't been seen before might have been the biggest accomplishment of the 2011 Trojans. It's impossible to argue with the overall results in a season when Kiffin removed the word potential from the way he is viewed as a head coach.

Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at garry@wearesc.com.