Lane Kiffin adds to the distractions

LOS ANGELES -- There are plenty of questions a college football coach can be asked that might cause him to exhale loudly and pause for close to 10 seconds before moving on to the next question.

Few know this more than Lane Kiffin. He is in his fourth season as the head coach of the USC Trojans, a football program on probation and dealing with the loss of 30 scholarships over three years.

It would be understandable for Kiffin to get tired of hearing questions about probation and bowl bans and scholarship reductions and NCAA investigations and everything else that has come together to form the dark clouds that have hovered over the program since he took this job in 2010.

Questions about who will start at quarterback against the Washington State Cougars on Saturday seemingly should not elicit the same annoyed reaction. But, of course, with Kiffin, they have.

That's largely because Kiffin can't help himself. He will forever be his own worst enemy in a world that has granted him more opportunities over the past 10 years than most get in a lifetime.

There is no reason for USC's current quarterback controversy to be a controversy at all, but Kiffin has made it into one because of his unwillingness to publicly name a starting quarterback.

As Kiffin sees it, announcing he has picked a starting quarterback but not revealing his decision publicly will make questions about the situation stop. Of course, they won't. Kiffin can dictate a lot of things at USC, but he can't control what questions he will be asked even if he chooses not to answer them.

"We do know who our starting quarterback is, so there's no reason to ask that every day," Kiffin told reporters last Sunday. "You guys will see Saturday who he is."

It was another example of Kiffin needlessly creating a distraction for USC while believing he was actually doing what was in the best interest of the team. It seems more often than not with Kiffin, the distractions he has had to overcome have been largely self-inflicted.

"I don't want people outside of here tearing them apart, up and down about this, that and the other," Kiffin said when asked about announcing his starting quarterback. "We're just moving along as a football team, getting ready to prepare for Washington State this week."

Kiffin claims he isn't refusing to name a starting quarterback to gain a strategic edge on his opponents, and anyone who watched Cody Kessler and Max Wittek struggle against the Hawaii Warriors in the season opener would have to take him at his word on that. Neither looked like a starter last week and they both have a fairly similar skill set. This isn't a Michael Vick versus Matt Barkley comparison. As Kiffin said, the playbook and his play calls don't change much whether Kessler or Wittek is lining up under center.

If Kiffin continues carrying on this charade just to protect the nonstarter from questions he might receive, it doesn't speak too highly of how he thinks that quarterback can handle adversity. Not that he'd have to face much of it. Not only has Kiffin closed practices this season, but offensive players are available to media only on Tuesdays, so the quarterback who didn't get the start would have to answer questions about it for maybe five minutes on one day before moving on.

The truth is Kiffin is actually doing a disservice to the quarterbacks and to the team by handling the quarterback situation the way he has.

It would be great if the Trojans had one quarterback, one voice and one leader they could rally around, but Kiffin, so he says, hasn't even officially told his team who will start at quarterback this week.

"I don't address them in that way," Kiffin said. "Just like I don't address them about who starts at running back or right corner. It's their job to play their position and do their job and they know that. They're not coaching, they're playing."

The problem is Kiffin has put his players in the uncomfortable position of having to answer questions he should have already cleared up. It was painful watching and listening to Kessler, Wittek and Marqise Lee, who have always been honest and up-front with the media, trying to skate around the truth and what they knew Tuesday.

They all said they've been constantly asked on campus, in classrooms and by text who the starting quarterback will be Saturday and have had to find ways to sidestep the questions.

It's a hassle and a distraction that could have easily been avoided if Kiffin had just named a starter and moved on. Then again that would have been too easy, and with Kiffin, nothing is ever easy.