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Lane Kiffin and USC have arrived

LOS ANGELES -- Remember when Lane Kiffin was considered too dour to be an effective college head coach? Seems like more than two months ago, doesn't it?

Kiffin's sideline demeanor was the talk of the town after USC went to Arizona State and unraveled, 43-22, on Sept. 24. ESPN analyst Bob Davie wondered, on the air, whether Kiffin was too focused on his play-calling duties and was failing to infuse the proper energy to his team.

The critique resonated with a lot of USC fans accustomed to Pete Carroll, whose emotions are never far from his sleeve.

Funny how no one is talking about Kiffin's sour sideline expressions or his grouchy halftime interviews much these days. Now that USC is looking more and more like Carroll's teams used to, no one seems too concerned that Kiffin is doing it in an entirely different manner than his mentor. Since the debacle against ASU, the Trojans are 6-1 (the lone loss was a triple-overtime thriller against Stanford) and are averaging 39.6 points per game.

Kiffin is no longer glum.

Now, he's focused.

"You can be rah-rah. Then, if you lose, people are going to say, 'Well, you're not focused enough,' " Kiffin said. "You can be not rah-rah and, when you lose, people will say you don't have enough energy. You've just got to be yourself and you've got to do what's best for your team."

Kiffin's concentration on his play calling is so intense that quarterback Matt Barkley has learned not to approach him with conversation other than X's and O's until the game is well in hand.

"During the game, he's all ball," Barkley said. "You don't want to distract him."

Until this season, Kiffin's national reputation was dubious, perhaps even notorious. He was viewed as having an unfair head start because of his father Monte's connections. He was more famous for his public feud with Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, his secondary recruiting violations as Tennessee head coach and the furor when he left the Volunteers than for anything he had accomplished from the sideline.

Suddenly, the college football world is beginning to give Kiffin a little credit. Analysts praised his game plan against Oregon, which helped the Trojans dominate in all three phases early and jump to a 38-14 lead. USC fans suddenly seem to get what all the fuss is about now; why Kiffin moved so swiftly up the coaching ladder.

People who have known him a long time say there are few college head coaches with a better grasp of the ever-evolving cat-and-mouse game between a defense and an offense. People who like him say he's just reserved until he gets to know you. One thing his players respect him for is his willingness to be blunt.

Tailback Marc Tyler has as much reason to be wary of Kiffin as anybody. The fifth-year senior was benched earlier this season for some ill-advised remarks he made to the gossip web site TMZ.com, then lost the bulk of his playing time to Curtis McNeal. But earlier this week, Tyler tweeted to Kiffin, "the best coach in the world."

"He's just that coach who tells you how it is and what he wants," Tyler said. "He tells you the reasons you're not playing instead of lying to you and telling you what you want to hear. I know in my times when I was getting in trouble, he was just always there to talk to me and help me get through that. He didn't have to do that."

Kiffin, at this stage of his career (and he's still only 36) is one of those love-him-or-hate-him kind of people in sports, a polarizing figure. He's come to accept the criticism without feeling much need to defend himself. He said he wasn't tempted to adopt a more up-tempo style just because everyone said he should. He prefers to approach the game in a clinical manner. His coaching style is influenced by the fact that he has always worked closely with quarterbacks, who tend to excel when they're able to remove emotion from the game.

"I just really feel that when emotions go up, decision-making goes down," Kiffin said. "I just have always felt that way with great quarterbacks. If they're too into it, they're too emotional, decision-making goes down."

Another reason Kiffin may not always look like he's enjoying himself is that, frankly, he's not enjoying himself much of the time. He readily admits that he's motivated largely by a fear of failure, something that's not really an option at a program like USC's. Even after his team's rousing 38-35 win at Oregon last week, Kiffin would only allow himself to enjoy it for 24 hours. He calls it the "24-hour rule."

Carroll used to say that the losses cause more pain than the wins cause joy.

"When you take a job at a place like USC, that's pressure's always going to be there," Kiffin said.

In two seasons at USC, Kiffin is 17-7. This season has been, by far, his finest as a head coach. He was 5-15 in 1 1/2 seasons in Oakland and coached the Tennessee Volunteers to a 7-6 record in his one season in Knoxville.

It would appear that USC is back on the road to national prominence after a dark period that started near the end of Carroll's rein and accelerated with the NCAA's harsh sanctions handed down in June 2010. But the possibility of disaster just around the corner hasn't gone away. Kiffin must deal with strict scholarship limits in each of the next three seasons, plus the Trojans could take a big step back if Barkley decides to go pro after this season.

No matter what people think about his personality -- public or private -- it's what happens on Saturdays that will dictate how he's perceived.

"I think with anything, it goes back to winning," Kiffin said. "When you lose, people are going to be critical of that and you should be different. When you win, they're going to say that's the right way."

Mark Saxon covers USC for ESPNLA.com.