Lane Kiffin knows key to season

CULVER CITY, Calif. -- Pat Haden did what he was supposed to do on Thursday.

USC's athletic director came out publicly and supported Lane Kiffin, announcing that the USC Trojans football coach was not on the hot seat and Haden was behind him 100 percent.

With USC set to open training camp next week and Kiffin assured of keeping his job this season, that was the only thing Haden could have and should have done.

Why announce that Kiffin is on the hot seat before the first practice and create a situation where Haden will be forced to give a weekly update on how hot Kiffin's seat is?

Haden did what all good partners in a relationship do -- confess your undying love until, well, you don't love them anymore and you sign the divorce papers.

Make no mistake about it, Haden has Kiffin's back this season but will be the first one pushing his back out the door if the Trojans go 7-6 again. Haden is no doubt more concerned about his job security than Kiffin's and won't tie himself to a sinking coach who is unpopular with alumni and boosters.

Kiffin, however, knows better than most that USC fans can be fickle when it comes to their love-hate relationship with the football coach. Fans were calling for Kiffin's job after he went 8-5 in his first season with the Trojans and were ready to anoint him as the second coming of Pete Carroll after he went 10-2 the next season.

Now Kiffin is right back where he started and knows that winning is the only way to answer questions about his job security.

"We didn't play very well and we didn't coach very well," Kiffin said Friday during Pac-12 media day. "And when you do that, that's what happens."

As Kiffin walked around the Sony Pictures Studio lot, he smiled when asked about Haden's nearly five-minute video posted online by the university Thursday night that essentially said Kiffin's job was safe for now.

"I haven't even seen the video," Kiffin said. "None of that surprises me though because I'm with the guy every day. I see his support of what we're doing. I see his understanding of the circumstances we have been put in and he's a big-picture guy. It didn't surprise me, but it's obviously a positive. It's a positive for your entire building, your entire program, your locker room and assistant coaches."

After USC lost five of its last six games in 2012, there was not only pressure for Kiffin to lose his job but at the very least to take away defensive play-calling duties from Monte Kiffin -- Lane's father and USC's defensive coordinator at the time -- and offensive play-calling duties from Lane.

While Monte resigned after the Sun Bowl last season, Lane said he wouldn't buckle to outside pressure and would continue calling plays on offense for USC this season.

"In the evaluation process that we do at the end of every year, we sit down and look at all the aspects of our program and where we need to improve and what changes we need to make," Kiffin said. "And that was something there where I feel like we have a great offensive staff that has a lot of input. I tinkered with some things and went back and made the decision that it's in the best interest of our football team for me to continue to call plays."

Kiffin said his players and coaching staff have been aware of his decision for some time and that Haden supported it. It's a move that makes sense if you're Kiffin. If this is going to be a do-or-die season for him, he might as well go out swinging with his own plays rather than lose his job because someone else's play calling fell flat.

"I've known that for a while that this is the direction we were going in," Kiffin said. "I'm not going to make our decisions based off what the articles are going to be the next day or what other people want us to do. We're going to make the best decision for the USC football players."

One area where even the most ardent Kiffin critics admit he shines is in recruiting but that took a slight hit this offseason when the Trojans lost three five-star recruits leading up to national signing day. Kiffin said the way USC finished last season and the questions about his long-term stability played a role in the class not being as strong as it was supposed to be.

"We ended the season poorly and whenever you have job security questions come up like they did at the end of the year that's going to affect your recruiting," Kiffin said. "A lot of those kids were national guys and those families are saying he's choosing USC, but he's also choosing that coaching staff."

Kiffin's players still swear by him, despite last year's struggles, and believe he is the right coach for this team now and in the future.

"Kiffin is a great coach," said USC receiver Marqise Lee, who won the Biletnikoff Award last season. "I wouldn't be in the position I am now if I didn't have him as a coach. I'd play for Kiffin until I die. I wouldn't mind if he coached in the next level. I wouldn't mind playing for him. He gives it his all. He gets critiqued a lot, but he doesn't let it bother him."

USC linebacker Hayes Pullard agreed, saying USC players will be motivated to have a big season, partly to make sure their coach is there for the foreseeable future.

"Everybody says he's on the hot seat, but we want to keep coach Kiffin here, we like coach Kiffin," Pullard said. "He's a player's coach. He teaches us things on and off the field. We want to keep him here so the freshmen that got recruited by Kiffin can experience for all four years instead of having him leave next year, so we have to all buy in so he's here for a long time."

USC was tabbed to finish third in the Pac-12 South Division and fifth in the conference in a preseason poll of media members who cover the league. Such an outcome to this season might increase the temperature of Kiffin's seat come December, but he said he learned last season that preseason polls don't mean much.

"Every season is different, every team is different," Kiffin said. "Twelve months ago we're sitting here and no one would have thought what happened would have happened. All the stuff of where people think teams are going to be doesn't mean a whole lot as we've seen. It will be about us playing good football. That's what the story will be."

If USC can do that next season, that other story about Kiffin being on the hot seat will quickly go away.